How to Actually Sound like a Chinese Person (Part 1)

All Chinese language learners have been there. It doesn’t matter whether you’ve been studying for years or you’ve just started, you want to sound more like a native speaker. In these series, I will be tackling this question, with each part talking about one way to sound more like a native speaker. The methods will rise in complexity as we move on, so that the first part is thought for everyone to read, and the last part focuses more on the more advanced stuff. Without further ado, let’s take a look at the first topic: how to get right the tones.

What is a tone?

OK, you probably already know this, but let’s review what a tone is (don’t worry, we’ll get to more exciting stuff).

Mandarin Chinese is a tonal language. In order to differentiate meaning, the same syllable can be pronounced with different tones. Mandarin is said to have four main tones and one neutral tone (or, as some say, five tones). If you think this is too hard to learn, always remember that Cantonese Chinese has up to 9 tones! So consider yourself lucky.

There are many ways to explain tones to non-native speakers (one could be the image introducing the topic, with cute cats and almost equivalent sounds in the mother tongue, in this case, English). Here, I will illustrate tones with the 5-level system, which works assigning a level of “highness” to each tone, just as follows:

The previous chart is meant to show in a simplified way how the pitch changes with each tone. As “The Handbook of East Asian Psycholinguistics: Perception and production of Mandarin Chinese tones” shows, this simplified chart is very close to reality, as we can see in the following figure from the book, which maps the change in pitch (measured in Hz) through time when a native female speaker pronounces the word ma:

This more specific chart provides us with some extra information: the 4th tone is much shorter than the others, and the 3rd tone is not as high in the end as the 5-level chart shows. But let’s return to the basics for a moment and learn exactly how to pronounce each separate tone.

The first tone:

The first tone is high and level, so it is important to keep one’s voice even across the whole syllable. It is represented by a straight horizontal line above a letter in pinyin (mā) or sometimes by a number “1” written after the syllable (ma1). It is also called “The High Level Tone” or 一声 (yī shēng) in Chinese, literally meaning “the first sound”.

Try to mimic these examples:

mā, yī, lē, hōu, bō, kōng, nāo, yū

The second tone:

It starts semi-high and goes up. And because of this, it is also called “The Middle Rising Tone” or simply “The Rising Tone”. In Chinese, it is called 二声(èr shēng), literally meaning “the second sound”. We sometimes associate this rise in pitch with a question. The second tone is represented by a rising diagonal line above a letter in pinyin (má) or sometimes by a number “2” written after the syllable (ma2).

Try to mimic these examples:

má, yí, lé, hóu, bó, kóng, náo, yú

The third tone:

The third tone falls and then rises again. It is represented by a curved “dipping” line above a letter in pinyin (mǎ) or sometimes by a number “3” written after the syllable (ma3). It is called 三声(sān shēng) in Chinese, literally meaning “the third sound”. It sometimes gets modified or changed in real life speaking: there are 3 ways in total to pronounce it, and we will be looking at them later in this post. For now we will focus on the standard way of pronouncing it.

Try to mimic these examples:

mǎ, yǐ, lě, hǒu, bǒ, kǒng, nǎo, yǔ

The fourth tone:

The fourth tone starts out high but drops sharply to the bottom of the tonal range. That is why the Chinese Fourth Tone is also known as “the High Falling Tone”. We often associate this tone with an angry command. It is represented by a dropping diagonal line above a letter in pinyin (mà) or sometimes by a number “4” written after the syllable (ma4). Chinese Fourth Tone is called 四声(sì shēng) in Chinese, literally meaning “the fourth sound”.

Try to mimic these examples:

mà, yì, lè, hòu, bò, kòng, nào, yù

The neutral tone:

The neutral tone is not mapped on the tone chart because it differs from the other four tones in that it is not a real tone. There are two reasons why the neutral tone is not a real tone:

  • Characters in Chinese without tones (that is to say, with the neutral tone) all have an original tone (the first, the second, the third or the fourth). The neutral tone is only a modification.
  • The neutral tone does not have a fixed pitch, the neutral tone is pronounced quickly and lightly without regard to pitch.

Syllables with a neutral tone have no tone mark but are sometimes marked with a “5” or a “0” after the syllable (ma5 or ma0).

Note: aside from grammatical particles, single syllable words cannot have a neutral tone, so the following examples cannot exist alone (except for ma).

Try to mimic these examples:

ma, yi, le, hou, bo, kong, nao, yu

The way tones change:

Although we’ve learnt that each tone has it’s specific and seemingly unic pitch mapped on the 5-level chart, tones do vary depending on the context. The following are some of the key rules regarding this:

Tone Rule #1: 3-3 to 2-3

When there are two third tones in a row, the first one becomes second tone. This rule is always followed, automatically, even though it will not be reflected in the pinyin. So, even though 你好 is pronounced as níhǎo, you will always find it written as nǐhǎo, so be careful with that.

You might be wondering why this happens. The answer is actually very simple. When people talk in real-life, they tend to talk fast and relaxed. It is difficult and not realistic to pronounce each tone in the 100% standard way. The third tone takes the longest to pronounce out of the four tones. So when there are two third tones together, people tend to avoid the difficulty of the “dip” and change the first one into the second tone.

This phenomenon of language “laziness” is not unique of Chinese. Think of when we say “wanna” instead of “want to” or “complicao” instead of “complicado”.

Try to mimic these examples:

你好 (nǐhǎo)/Hello, 很好 (hěnhǎo)/Very good, 手表 (shǒubiǎo)/Wrist watch, 老鼠 (lǎoshǔ)/Mouse, 洗手 (xǐshǒu)/Wash hands, 勇敢 (yǒnggǎn)/Brave

Tone Rule #2: 3-3-3 to 2-2-3 or 3-2-3

There are two different ways of pronouncing three third tones in a row:

There are three different ways for three Third-Tone syllables to be put together, as shown in the chart below. We need some vocabulary and grammar skills to analyze the structure and decide the Chinese Tone change rules here. But nothing too advanced.

IIIIII
A+B+C(A B) + CA + (B C)
jiǔ jiǔ jiǔyǎn jiǎng gǎoxiǎo lǎo hǔ
九九九演讲稿小老虎
nine nine ninespeech paperlittle tiger
jiú jiú jiǔyán jiáng gǎoxiǎo láo hǔ

In Situation I, three number “nine” are equally put together, the first two syllables both change into the second Tone.
In Situation II, (syllable A + B) is a word, and it modifies syllable C. Both (syllable A + B) change into the second tone.
In Situation III, syllable A is a word, and it modifies (syllable B + C). Only syllable B changes into the Second Tone. Also, syllable A in this situation is actually pronounced in the Half Third Tone, which we’ll discuss later.

Try to mimic the following examples for Situation I:

A + B + C
PINYINCHINESEENGLISHCHINESE TONE CHANGE
shuǐ huǒ tǔ水火土water, fire, earthshuí huó tǔ
jiǎ yǐ bǐng 甲乙丙A,B,C; 1,2,3; I, II, IIIjiá yí bǐng
mǎ gǒu hǔ马狗虎horse, dog, tigermá góu hǔ
wěn zhǔn hěn 稳准狠steady, accurate, firmwén zhún hěn

Try to mimic the following examples for Situation II:

(A B) + C
PINYINCHINESEENGLISHCHINESE TONE CHANGE
guǎn lǐ zǔ管理组management teamguán lí zǔ
zhǎn lǎn guǎn展览馆exhibition hallzhán lán guǎn
yǒng yuǎn hǎo永远好always goodyóng yuán hǎo
shǒu xiě tǐ手写体handwriting formshóu xié tǐ

Try to mimic the following examples for Situation III:

A + (B C)
PINYINCHINESEENGLISHCHINESE TONE CHANGE
hěn yǒng gǎn很勇敢very bravehěn yóng gǎn
mǐ lǎo shǔ 米老鼠Mickey Mousemǐ láo shǔ
mǎi shǒu biǎo买手表to buy a watchmǎi shóu biǎo
hǎo yǐng xiǎng好影响good influencehǎo yíng xiǎng

Tone Rule #3: The Half Third Tone

This is all that can happen to a third tone. Pay special attention to the Half Third Tone:

In the Half Third Tone the second half of the Full Third Tone is not pronounced. It’s short and low, but you can still hear a little dipping down. When you hear it, the Half Third Tone is very low and short, but not as light or vague as the neutral tone. That is why the Half Third Tone is also called the “Mandarin Low Tone”.

When is this tone used, appart from what we already saw in the previous rule? Well, in a whole lot of different situations, too much for this post. If you want me to write another post on this topic let me know on the comment section below.

Tone Rule #4: 不

When the word 不 (bù), which is the negative particle, precedes a fourth tone, 不 changes to second tone (bú). This rule is always followed, automatically, even though it will not be reflected in the pinyin.

Try to mimic the following examples:

不对(bùduì),不去(bùqù),不错(bùcuò),不要(bu4yao4),不会(bu4hui4)

Finally, if we have the structure A+不+A or A+不+B, here bù changes to the neutral tone bu. The structure A+不+A means “you do A or you don’t do A” or “it is A or not A”.

Try to mimic the following examples:

好不好 (hao3bu0hao3),会不会 (hui4bu0hui4),去不去 (qu4bu0qu4),想不想 (xiang3buxiang3),要不要 (yao4buyao4), 对不起 (dui4bu0qi3),打不开 (da3bu0kai1)

All the tone changes of 不 are in the following image:

Tone Rule #5: 一

The character 一 (yī), meaning “one,” is first tone when alone, second tone when followed by a fourth tone, and fourth tone when followed by any other tone. This rule is always followed, automatically, even though it will not be reflected in the pinyin.

So, to sum it all up:

Try to mimic the following examples:

一生 (yi1sheng1),一瓶 (yi1ping2),一起 (yi1qi3),一样 (yi1yang4)

The final touches:

If all of this was not enough, there is a more advanced consideration to have in mind when speaking: emphasis. Although most Chinese characters come with a built-in tone when you learn them individually, in real-life dialogue, many of the tones are selectively dropped as part of a natural, fluent dialogue.
For example: If you say “我回来了! (wǒ huí lái le) = “I’m back!”, even though 来 (lái) has the second tone, in everyday speech you would drop the accent and deemphasize 来 (lái). You also would emphasize the 回 (huí), so it will altogether sound like:

“我回来了! (wǒ huí lái le)”

This is subtle, so don’t worry if you don’t catch the difference yet.

Another example would be:

“给我一张纸  (gěi wǒ yī zhāng zhǐ)”“Give me a piece of paper.“ The words to emphasize are 给 (gěi),一 (yī),and 纸 (zhǐ), and the words to deemphasize are 我 (wǒ) and 张 (zhāng). So it sound like this:

So, that was intense! But there you have it, that’s all you need to know about tones to sound like a native speaker. Feel free to check this article as many times as you wish, I hope it will be helpful along your chinese language learning journy.

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下次再见!

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