Chinese Tones

One of the more difficult aspects of learning Chinese is becoming familiar with the tones. Total, there are four tones in Mandarin (using the syllable “ma” to demonstrate the tones):

• high level – first tone (mā)
• rising – second tone (má)
• falling rising – third tone (mǎ)
• falling – fourth tone (mà)
• There is also a neutral tone (ma)

The tones are used to determine the meaning of a Mandarin word. So mǎ (horse) is very different from mā (mother). Various sentences using the syllables mā, má, mǎ, mà, and ma are often used to illustrate the importance of tones to foreign learners. Look at this sentence for example: Chinese: 妈妈骑马马慢妈妈骂马; pinyin: māma qí mǎ, mǎ màn, māma mà mǎ. This literally translates to: “Mother is riding a horse, the horse is slow, mother scolds the horse”.

Another example can be found in this ancient Chinese poem:
Chinese: 施氏食狮史; pinyin: Shī Shì shí shī shǐ. The poem translates to: “The Lion-Eating Poet in the Stone Den”. The original poem consists of 92 characters, all with the sound “shi” (in 4 different tones).

At first many foreigners find it hard to distinguish between the tones, leading to many well-known Chinese jokes that poke fun at the mispronunciation of Chinese words. A well known one includes the mix-up between “nǎlǐ” meaning “where” and the out-dated word “nàli ” (the word “nali” consisting of different tones). However, a while back, the word “nàli” was used as a common and modest response to flattery. So, the joke goes, a foreigner is talking to a Chinese person. The Chinese person tells the foreigner that they speak Chinese very well. The foreigner responds to the Chinese person with “nǎlǐ nǎlǐ”. In this joke, they are poking fun at the foreigner who meaning to say “nàli nàli ”, a respectful response to flattery, utters the words meaning “where, where”. Chinese humor is an interesting thing to say the least. If you say this phrase in China, you will either get laughs or puzzled looks. If you’re a risk taker, try using the phrase “nàli nàli” sometime! See what reaction you get and hopefully you pronounce it better than the foreigner central to this joke.

It goes without saying that tones are essential when learning Chinese. The Chinese language is made up of tones, that is what makes the language so interesting and unique to learn and speak. Push yourself to pursue your personal goals and expectations for your Chinese learning.
Ask yourself “what is important to me?” Decide what your goals are and figure out what are the next steps to take to make that a reality. If that means taking up a Chinese course or enrolling yourself in Chinese cooking classes or Taiqi, then DO it. Make your China experience what you want it to be.

Take that leap with the Hutong School! We offer a variety of programs to help you get exactly what you deserve from your China experience, from flexible Chinese courses to fit your hectic schedule, an Internship Program that entails Chinese courses to an Intensive Chinese language program. Take control of your Chinese learning with Hutong School NOW!

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