One of the more intimidating things about starting to learn one of the Chinese languages is getting a grasp on tones. As a native English speaker, or pretty much any other Indo-European language, tones are a rather foreign concept, but are definitely not impossible!

What are tones?

Mandarin and Cantonese, as well as most other Chinese languages, have what are called “contour tones”. In brief, this means that the pitch of each syllable has a specific “contour” while it’s being pronounced. The pitch might go from high to low, low to high, start low and stay low, or some other variation. Mandarin has 4 tones (and a neutral tone which varies based off it’s surrounding) while Cantonese has 61.

This tone on the syllable is just as important to distinctive meaning of the syllable as the vowel sound (“a” vs “e”) or the consonant (“t” vs “d”). For example, in Cantonese si when spoken with a very high level tone means ‘poem’ (詩), but si when spoken with a very low, slightly falling tone, means ‘time’ (時).

Learning to hear tones

Many courses and language learning programs encourage you to practice through rote repetition of individual words, and while this definitely will eventually work, it doesn’t do anything to make the tones feel less alien. Personally, the thing that has been most successful for me is to practice differentiating tones through example sentences. Glossika gives you a large number of example sentences with audio, as does the Spoonfed Chinese shared Anki deck (which has the benefit of being free).

What you begin to realize after examining tones in context is there’s something familiar about them: it sounds a lot like intonation. Intonation is the system of pitch manipulation that we use in English that helps differentiates “yes/no questions” from statements: “The dog ate the homework.” vs “The dog ate the homework?”. In the question form in English, we raise the pitch as we approach the end of the sentence. We also use intonation, in combination with volume, to color our sentences with things like surprise and other emotions: “The dog ate the homework?”, where we raise the pitch on “dog” to emphasis that particular word.

Technically speaking, intonation and lexical tones are not the same thing2, but they use the same vocal feature of pitch. Listening to tones in Chinese as a form of sentence intonation while beginning your studies has two major benefits, despite being technically wrong: 1.) it helps you actually hear the tones in a way that doesn’t seem completely foreign and 2.) it helps remind you not to use English intonation while speaking Chinese.

Because you’re already in tune with pitch variation for English intonation, listening to the change in pitches in a sentence doesn’t feel completely novel. You do have to keep in mind that pronouncing the words with a different tone will actually change the meaning of the word, but as you repeat sentences accurately more and more often you’ll eventually begin to associate the tones with the meaning.

The second benefit is that once you begin to get more comfortable in speaking Chinese, i.e. it goes from being a mechanical process of piecing words together in a correct grammar, to something you do semi-naturally, you’re going to run into a different problem: you’re going to try to add emotion into your sentences. In English, many emotional overtones of a sentence are added via intonation, but like we’ve already said, the pitch patterns in Chinese are lexical, which means you’re actually changing what words you’re using if you attempt this. By having listened an interned the tones through intonation to begin with, it may just help to act as a reminder not to add your English intonation on top of it.

Of course, despite however you may learn to hear how to pronounce the tones in sentences, you still need to make sure to learn the correct tone with each associated word when you study it. This means that if you’re studying vocabulary directly through flashcards, you can’t count it as correct if you got the syllable’s consonants and vowels correct but got the tone wrong. This seems frustrating at first, but will definitely pay off in the long run (and become easier as you get more practice).

  1. This number is sometimes counted as 9, but the 3 additional tones are all variations of existing tones caused by the syllable ending in k, t, or p.

  2. Mandarin Chinese actually has intonation in addition to lexical tones: Mandarin Intonation