For native English speakers, one of the hardest things about learning to speak Chinese is mastering the tones. Unlike English, where tone and intonation may affect the emotional aspect of a word, it does not change the actual meaning of the word.
For example, I can say “sit” with a falling tone, and it will be understood as an imperative. If said loudly, it can be downright bossy! If I say “sit” with a rising tone, then it can be understood as a question. “Sit?”—should I sit down? But in either case, “sit” still means “sit.”
Not so with Chinese. Since there are only 404 (or so) ways to say (speak) tens of thousands of Chinese characters, tones are added to distinguish meaning.
I like to use the example of the phonetic word “ma” because it is so easy for English speakers to say. In fact, there are more than 20 characters that carry the pronunciation of “ma,” but I will highlight four to illustrate the tones.
The word mā, said with a high tone (first tone), is the word for mother. The character is: 妈.
The word má, said with a rising tone (second tone), means numb, like when your foot goes to sleep. The character is: 嘛.
The word mǎ, said with a dipping tone (third tone), means horse. The character is: 马.
The word mà, said with a falling tone (fourth tone), means to swear at. The character is: 骂.
In other words, if you don’t say the tone correctly, you may inadvertently call your horse a mother, or worse, your mother a horse! I don’t know about you, but that’s something I don’t want to do!
You can also practice your tones by making some fun sentences:
Mā mà mǎ. (Mother swears at the horse.)
Mǎ mà mā. (The horse swears at the mother.)
Mā mà má mǎ. (Mother swears at the numb horse.)
And just for fun, there is another character pronounced ma (吗), but with a neutral tone, which when added to a sentence turns it into a question:
Mā mà mǎ ma? (Is mother swearing at the horse?)
So, the moral of the story is this: tones matter. A lot! In the beginning stages of learning Chinese, it’s important to work on mastering the tones (listen and repeat, listen and repeat, listen and repeat). My very first Chinese teacher did his best to drum this simple rule into our heads when working on vocabulary: “if you don’t know the tone, you don’t know the word.”
Finally, if you are working with a language helper who has told you “never mind, tones don’t matter,” find another one.
Joann Pittman is senior vice president of ChinaSource and editor of ZGBriefs. Prior to joining ChinaSource, Joann spent 28 years working in China, as an English teacher, language student, program director, and cross-cultural trainer for organizations and businesses engaged in China. She has also taught Chinese at the University... View Full Bio