Patience in Tones Brings Music to Mandarin

Have you ever wondered why some languages sound more musical than others? Or why Chinese people learning to speak English seem to all make the same "mistakes"? Learning about tones will help this start to make sense. Sometimes the rise and fall in pitch occurs naturally as one pronounces each word; sometimes the changes in pitch are due to changes in the speaker's emotions; and sometimes pitch changes are built into the languages themselves. Tones represent the rise and fall of pitch in a sentence. Tones are not very common in English sentences, except when we ask a question, in which case the sentence ends with a rise in pitch. But in Chinese, different tones are woven throughout a sentence and add a layer of lyrical beauty to Chinese languages. In my previous post on Chinese puns, I explored the overlap in pronunciation among Chinese characters, which leads to Chinese people's penchant for puns. For example, the pronunciation "ma" could mean mother, numb, horse, and scold. How can we distinguish which is which? Context plays a very important role in Chinese sentences, but another way to distinguish characters of the same pronunciation is by tones.

Chinese characters are generally formed by combining a consonant and vowel. Therefore, all Chinese characters consist of only one syllable, but each syllable can take on one of four tones. (Mandarin has four tones; Cantonese has as many as nine.)

  • The first tone contains no change in pitch. It is flat and is the tone we use to say妈mā (the word for mother).
  • The second tone contains a rise in pitch (imagine saying the word "huh?"), and it is the tone used to say麻má (the word for numb).
  • The third tone contains a drop in pitch and then reverts to a rising pitch in the middle of the syllable, and it is used to say马mǎ (the word horse).
  • The fourth tone contains a decline in pitch (imagine saying the word "down"), which is used to say骂mà (the word scold). This tends to be the default for English speakers because it is most common in English words.

Mother, numb, horse, and scold are all pronounced with the syllable "ma," but the difference in tones distinguishes these characters from one another. Because many Chinese characters share the same pronunciations, catching the right tones of the characters is vital in helping listeners identify the meaning behind the words. For example, depending on the tones you use to pronounce "gong tong," it could mean common (共同gòng tóng) or a euphemism for toilets (恭桶gōng tǒng). The phrase "tong ji" could mean statistic (统计tǒng jì), painful blow (痛击tòng jī), and fugitive (通缉tōng jì).

The tone changes within each character force a Mandarin speaker to dwell on each syllable longer to convey the rise and fall in pitch. As a result, Chinese syllables do not flow as quickly as English syllables because each syllable demands a certain amount of space in order to be understood. Mandarin requires a person to adjust not only their tongues and lips to form each word, but also to capture the right changes in pitch by managing the flow of air through their throat. Both the front of the mouth and the back of the mouth play important roles in speaking Mandarin. Drawing out each syllable and capturing the right tone are perhaps the most challenging elements of learning to speak Mandarin. These characteristics of Mandarin pronunciation don't only affect English speakers as they speak Chinese, they also explain some of the struggles Chinese people face as they learn to speak English.

English speaking relies on the tip of the tongue, the teeth, and the lips to pronounce each syllable and also simultaneously manage the flow of air through the mouth. Since there is no need to capture the rise and fall of tones in each syllable, and since many English words contain multiple syllables, English words also flow more rapidly than Mandarin. The variety of syllables and the speed of change are daunting to native Chinese speakers who may not have the same nimbleness and coordination in their tongues, teeth, and lips. Transitioning from relying less on the throat to relying more on the front of the mouth has been a difficult adjustment for my English.

These vast differences in our languages reflect the large gulf that separates our cultures, but they are also opportunities for us to show respect to one another. As a native Chinese speaker, I deeply appreciate my friends' efforts to help me use my tongue to enunciate English syllables. For my American friends, I encourage you to slow down and "sing" through the rise and fall of pitches behind each Chinese character. When you meet a new Chinese friend, do not stop at pronouncing his or her name as staccato notes. Ask him or her to teach you the tones behind each character, and seek to capture the melody behind them. It may take you a few attempts to get it right, but this small gesture may be important to understanding the meaning behind their names. Otherwise, instead of finding common ground, you may end up staring at a toilet. Worse yet, you may end up calling a numb horse your mother!


Ryan Zhang currently lives in the Boston metro area and is a student at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. He immigrated to the United States from China in 1999.