Introduction to Chinese tones

Now I’d like to introduce you to how tones work in the Chinese language. (The characters above, 四声 (sìshēng), mean “four tones.” This is the Chinese way to refer to the tones of their language.)

Tones are like melody. English speakers are accustomed to melody in music. Take for example the happy birthday song. The world over, just about everybody knows this little song. (See the happy birthday song’s Wikipedia page for its startling history and current status.) If I represent the melody by tracing a simple path that represents the changes in the tones, it looks like this:

We’ve all learned this song simply by hearing it over and over. If someone sings it slightly wrong, we can all hear the differences. (It may take someone with musical training to *describe* the differences, but we can all hear them.) If someone sings happy birthday with some different notes, we may recognize that they’re intending to sing happy birthday, but it just sounds a bit wrong.

Chinese tones work the same way. Speakers of Chinese learn them by hearing the language spoken over and over. If someone speaks the tones incorrectly, as may happen if the speaker is tone deaf, or if a second-language learner is trying to speak, the listener may still understand the message, but will notice that the sounds aren’t quite right.

The tones in the Chinese language differ in one way from those in the happy birthday song. In the happy birthday song, each syllable has its own note. In Chinese tones, the variation in tone happens within a single syllable. You can understand what this means if you imagine just taking the first syllable of the happy birthday song (“ha”) and sing the whole song with it. We often vary tone this way in music – we vary tone within a single syllable. English speakers are less accustomed to doing this in spoken language, except when a storyteller is very excited. (Imagine the storyteller dramatically varying his or her voice, drawing out single syllables into wide tone variations: “We went WAAAAAAAY out there!… Oh my God it was SOOOOOO exciting!… I couldn’t BELIEEEVE what happened!”)

The Chinese language has four basic tones: High and level, rising, low and dipping, and falling. (I’m not using a standard set of names for the tones – I’m just describing them off the top of my head.) There is also a neutral tone. If we draw the shape of the tones in the same way that we drew the shape of the melody of the happy birthday song above, the tones look like this:

Chinese characters do not indicate tone. People familiar with the language hear the tones in their mind as they read. On the other hand, when the sounds of the Chinese language are represented in Roman letters, diacritical marks are added to help us know which tone a word has.

These diacritical marks look just like our drawings of the tones above. The marks are placed above one of the vowels of each syllable. I’ll show you some examples in this list of how the numbers one through ten are pronounced.

一 yī
二 èr
三 sān
四 sì
五 wǔ
六 liù
七 qī
八 bā
九 jiǔ
十 shí

Surely I can find you a YouTube video in which you can listen to someone pronouncing these numbers. Then you’ll really get an idea of what these basic tones sound like. … Okay, here’s two videos from among many:

~ I’m not sure whether I have told you—My masters degree is in teaching Chinese as a second language. My unique teaching perspective is influenced by my musical training and my passion for using technology to assist learning.

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