My first goal in China is to improve my Chinese. When I left China six years ago, I could get around pretty well, meaning I could go shopping, order food in a restaurant, and explain to taxi drivers how to get back to my school. I have a lot to learn to be really communicative, though! Since Chinese is quite different from English, I thought I’d explain some of the differences. Today’s topic is the aspect of Chinese that I find most difficult: tones.
Chinese is a tonal language, which means that saying the same sound at different tones makes different words. In English, we use sentence level tone and inflection to share overall meaning. In Chinese, each word has a tone (and if you change it, you can say something quite different).
Mandarin Chinese has 4 tones (thankfully, because there are languages that have 7 or 9 or 14). As an example of how this works, lets look at one sound: ma. If you click on the links below, you can hear someone saying each word.
First Tone: mā means Mom. It is a high, flat tone.
Second Tone: má means hemp. It is a rising tone.
Third Tone: mǎ means horse. It dips low and then comes back up.
Fourth Tone: mà means to scold. It starts high and drops sharply.
Needless to say, you can unintentionally say things you don’t intend to say by using the incorrect tones. In a few months, I may well have some embarrassing stories to add!