As promised, while I’m no longer in China, I still want to talk about Chinese! Today I’m tackling something that scares many foreigners learning Chinese – the tones.
In a tonal language, part of a syllable’s sound is the intonation with which it is spoken. So a syllable pronounced with a falling tone means something different to the exact same syllable pronounced with a rising tone. In the case of one particular syllable in Mandarin, that difference changes a common surname to an offensive swear word! So as you see, the tone isn’t an optional extra – it is part of the sound itself.
Speaking Chinese without tones is akin to gibberish – it just will not be understood. Plenty of people live in China for years and continue to struggle with tones. My tones are quite good overall but I still mess up more than I’d like to admit!
Believe it or not, of the three tonal languages I’ve studied (Mandarin, Cantonese and Thai) Mandarin had the easiest tones to learn. There are only four basic tones, and each has a different inflection – that means, the pitch changes in a different way for each of the tones. In Thai and Cantonese, several tones have the same intonation but at differing pitches. That being said, it was in studying Thai that I first caught how to learn tones as part of the sound of the word. The first few years I studied Mandarin I was a kid in school, no one really paid that much attention, so I learned a lot of words before ever really applying tones to them. I didn’t start Thai until the last year of my degree and by then I understood the importance of tones. As I learned Thai vocabulary I learned the tone as part of the word – when I would repeat words, I repeated them with the tone. By learning this way, I usually didn’t have to think about what tone to apply as the sound I’d memorised included the tone.
I finally got a good grip on how Mandarin tones work the next year when I started studying in Beijing. My first teacher was working on his PhD in Chinese linguistics and had some great diagrams and other teaching tools to help us improve our pronunciation, including tones. He gave us a chart for tones that compared them to the so-fa of music which really helped me understand where to pitch the different inflections.
I’ve said before that I finally got my tones right by studying with Beijing taxi drivers. But another thing that helped was when I started to think of the 1st and 3rd tones as “long” tones (drawn out) and 2nd and 4th as “short” tones. But the most important thing is realising that nothing matches a nice clean chart once you’re in the real world. (For a great discussion of this, read this great article Toward Better Tones on sinosplice).
What most English speakers don’t realise is that we also use tones every day! For example, we use a rising tone to turn a statement into a question. But one of the best examples I can think of to explain is the word “okay”. In English we frequently use differing intonation to change the meaning of the word “okay”.
If you add “okay” to the end of a sentence to turn it into a question, you probably use a slightly rising inflection similar to the Mandarin 2nd tone.
If you are pretty suspicious of something someone is saying, you might say “okay” with a low dipping tone similar to the Mandarin 3rd tone.
If someone has been pestering you to do something and you snap and just yell “okay!” at them, you’ve probably used an abrupt falling tone similar to the Mandarin 4th tone. You might even have used a rising tone on the “o” (before falling on the “kay”) that is similar to the Mandarin 2nd tone.
In each of these examples the intonation with which the word is spoken alters its meaning. It’s not hard to tell them apart – you don’t need to think about it, you just know what the inflection implies. That’s just a small window into the world of tones.