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If you want to learn how to speak Chinese, the starting point is to understand that Chinese is a tonal language. This means that each syllable in Chinese can have a different meaning depending on the tone used by the speaker. Mandarin is comprised of five tones, including the neutral tone. These five tones require a bit of training and practice for non-native speakers. The first step is to train your ear to differentiate them and then train your tongue to replicate them.
Below is a brief summary of the first four (non-neutral) tones of Chinese. Learning these tones and the concepts they represent is a critical component if you want to learn how to speak Chinese.
The First Tone
The first tone of Chinese is high pitched and even. When making this tone, try your best to keep your voice somewhat monotone and flat. In Pinyin, this tone is indicated by a horizontal line.
The Second Tone
In contrast with the first tone, the second tone is not monotone. To the contrary, it begins with your voice starting at a low pitch and rising to a middle pitch. This is similar to the inflection that English speakers exhibit when posting a question. In Pinyin, it is indicated by an accent mark on top of the letter.
The Third Tone
The third tone in Chinese is produced by modulating pitch from a mid-range to a low range, then rising to a high range pitch. Given this “dipping” characteristic, it is indicated in Pinyin by a “dipping” or covey line above the letter it affects.
The Fourth Tone
The fourth tone starts at a high pitch and drops quickly to a low pitch. For English speakers, it is roughly similar to the intonation used when barking an angry command. In Pinyin, it is indicated by adding a reverse accent mark on top of the letter it effects.
The Fifth tone – neutral
Of course, then there is the neutral tone of Chinese. Some argue that Chinese has only “four tones plus neutral”, but in my book, that amounts to five. The neutral tone is unstressed, which is where it derives its name. Since it lacks any stress, it has no indication in Pinyin, which is why there is no example below.
That’s it for today. I hope that you enjoyed this brief overview of Pinyin and that it’s helped you with how to learn Chinese.
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