The Use of Tones in Chinese

To speak Mandarin, it’s necessary to understand and use tones. These are generally used to differentiate between syllable sounds and therefore meanings.  Here is a brief explanation and some examples.

Many people trying to learn Chinese (here considered to be Beijing area Mandarin) find great difficulties with the language’s use of tones.

Let’s consider what these are why they’re important.

What is a tone?


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Although many students of Chinese can sometimes panic when confronted with tones, at the outset it’s important to recognize that these are not unique to this language.

All languages use tones to differentiate meanings and some use far more complex and exotic mechanisms such as clicks – for example, the Khoisan languages of Southern Africa.

Even many widespread languages use such devices.  In British English, the “Tut-Tut” used to signify mild or jokey disapproval is pronounced as a click made by the tongue against the front roof of the mouth rather than as a word (usually).

In English and other languages, tones are also used.  For example, the simple English expression “Oh really?” can be used as:

  • I am genuinely surprised and this is believable
  • I don’t believe this and I’m letting you know gently that I don’t
  • A heavily sarcastic “I don’t believe you
  • You’re insulting my intelligence by telling me something I already know very well.

These various meanings are communicated by tonal qualities and subtle emphasis on vowels etc.  Yet tones are not really a formal grammatical part of many languages in the way that they are in Chinese.

The Use of Tones in Chinese

Unlike in many languages, Chinese has a formal tonal structure.  There are four tones in Chinese used (with many variations) and they’re called:

  • Yin Ping
  • Yang Ping
  • Shang
  • Qu

There is also a neutral fifth tone.

The way they’re used is important because Chinese contains numerous words that effectively share a spelling but are differentiated by the tonal quality, where it is used in the word and how it is delivered.

Once again, this as a principle shouldn’t be too alien. In French the word “Moule” can mean either the marine mussel or a casting mould.   In English adraft can be a minor wind current, a preliminary drawing or the displacement of water beneath a vessel (with some variations between US and UK English spellings draft/draught).

The way languages differentiate between such words is usually context or as in Chinese, the tones used.At this stage, it has to be acknowledged that it isn’t possible in a brief article to go into detail on the exact usage. This is an important area of study and it can take some time to understand and master the basics of tonal uses in Chinese.  However, some of the following example may help.

The Chinese word “da” (which sounds like ‘Ah’ in English) can mean:

  • to hang over something
  • to answer
  • to hit
  • big

The difference between the four meanings is given by the tone which rises or falls in different ways depending upon the meaning.

The reason tones are used is because Chinese doesn’t have as many syllables as many other languages. In fact, it has around 400 compared to the 12,000 of English. So, the comparative lack of syllables is compensated for by the wide and very varied usage of tones.

Don’t be Afraid

Yes, this is a complex concept to grasp and as a result, it can intimidate language learners planning to study Chinese.There is no need though. By using modern techniques and materials as well as technology support, many people quickly grasp the basics of the four main tonal groups of Mandarin Chinese.


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