Chinese is a tonal language in which pitch variation distinguishes between words. We have created a Q & A guide meant to serve as an introduction to pronunciation and transcription. For more on language learning, please visit Phrase of the Week.
What are tones, and how many tones are there in Mandarin Chinese?
One of the major elements in English pronunciation is intonation, which is variation of pitch while speaking and is not used to distinguish words. Chinese is a tonal language in which pitch variation does distinguish words. There are four tones in Mandarin Chinese: 1st tone, a flat and high-pitched tone, 2nd tone, a rising tone similar to intonation used in questions in English, 3rd tone, a dipping tone that dips low first, then rises half way up, and 4th tone, a falling tone resembling a firm ‘No!’ in English. In most Romanization systems, these four tones are indicated by ˉ, ́, ˇ, and ̀, respectively, and are marked over the vowel or vowels in a syllable, e.g. mā, má, mǎ, mà. Depending on which characters they represent, the four syllables above may mean ‘mother’, ‘linen’, ‘horse’, ‘scold’.
What do these four tones sound like?
1st tone examples: mā, tīng, hūn
2nd tone examples: má, tíng, hún
3rd tone examples: mă, tĭng, hŭn
4th tone examples: mà, tìng, hùn
People you may have heard of:
Sūn Zhōngshān (Dr. Sun Yat-sen)
Máo Zédōng (Mao Tse-tung)
Jiăng Jièshí (Chiang Kai-shek)
Aòbāmă (President Barak Obama)
Hú Jĭntāo (China’s president Hu Jintao)
Dèng Xiăopíng (China’s former leader)
Places you may have heard of:
Běijīng (Beijing; Peking)
Xiānggăng (Hong Kong)
Why do I sometimes see different transcriptions used for the same person or place, e.g. Peking vs. Beijing, Mao Tse-tung vs. Mao Zedong? What is the name of the official Romanization system
The official system is called pinyin. It was developed in the 1950s and adopted by the International Organization Standardization (ISO) as the international standard in the early 1980s. Many well-known Chinese figures who have emerged in the last three decades are known to the world by their names transcribed in pinyin. Hu Jintao, Yao Ming, and Ai Weiwei are a few examples.
Before pinyin, there were other systems that were either widely adopted at one point in history then died down or simply never took off. Wade-Giles and Chinese Postal Map Romanization (CPMR) were used for most parts of 20th century, and are still being used in history books. Mao Tse-tung’s name is an example of Wade-Giles system, and Peking is a product of the CPMR.
Gwoyeu Romatzyh (GR) is a system that incorporates tones into the spelling, i.e. no diacritic marks are needed. Taiwanese president, Ma Ying-jeou, has his given name spelled in GR; Shaanxi Province, where terracotta warriors were excavated (in Xi’an city), is also spelled in GR, and is a perfect example of how valuable tonal spelling such as GR can be as it distinguishes the first word Shaan, which carries a 3rd tone, from the first word of another province, Shanxi, with the first word being a 1st tone. Despite of this and claims made by many scholars that students who learned Chinese pronunciation through GR have noticeably better pronunciation, there was strong resistance to adopt GR due to its complicated rules.
The Yale system, designed by a Yale scholar in the 1940s to help train US troops overseas, provides alphabetic spellings that are closest to the Chinese sounds. Pinyin, in comparison, is much less intuitive, even misleading at times. The Yale system began to lose its appeal to the public, who had formerly favored it over pinyin due to political ideology, when the world began to accept the communist PRC as the legitimate government of China.
How can I improve my Chinese pronunciation?
First and foremost, you will need to forego the use of intonation that dictates every sound you make when you are speaking English. This is the most difficult part as intonation is very deeply rooted in your speech. Stick with the correct tone for each syllable no matter what you are saying; this includes not raising at the end of a question, unless the last syllable happens to be a 2nd tone, or falling at the end of a sentence, unless the last syllable is a 4th tone.
In learning the consonants and vowels in Chinese, beware of some of the misleading spellings in pinyin such as ‘ui’, which really sounds like ‘wei’, or ‘iu’, which sounds more like ‘iou’ in reality; for consonants, think ‘chr’ when you see ‘chi’, or ‘jr’ for ‘zhi’. ‘chr’ and ‘jr’, incidentally, are spellings of Yale system. You can find many tools online to help you learn the correct ways to say these sounds.
For more information on grammer, please consult our Grammer Guide