Mandarin Chinese is what’s known as a tonal language, meaning that all words are supposed to be pronounced with a certain intonation in them in order to get the correct meaning. This can be a bit confusing for native speakers of nontonal languages, but it’s actually not too hard, but rather just takes a bit of time to get used to.
Mandarin distinguishes between 4 main tones and 1 neutral tone (some don’t count the neutral tone as a separate tone, and some do). And don’t forget: being aware of the tones in your speech does not mean you have to sing or be good at singing. The tones are often referred to by numbers, and are often shown in a graph with low, mid, and high registers. These are relative to your own voice, so try to relax and find a high pitch that’s comfortable for you to use, then that’s your high tone. Do the same with the low tone, and then the mid section is what’s in between your high and low register.
The tones in Mandarin can be categorized into two groups: Moving Tones (2, 4), and Flat Tones (1, 3). Tone 2 and tone 4 go from one position to another, while tone 1 and tone 3 mostly stay flat in one part of the register.
Tone 1 is a high flat pitch, similar to when someone says “nah” or “yeah” in a sarcastic manner.
Tone 2 a rising tone, similar to when you’re asking questions in English, for instance “what?” or “really?”
Tone 3 is a low flat pitch (or sometimes low, but with a tiny rise at the end), and is similar to saying “uhm” when one’s trying to think about what to say
Tone 4 is a falling tone that starts high and ends low, most commonly used in English when swearing.
There are a few exceptions (or rules technically) that change the tones of certain syllables in certain conditions. The most common is the “Third Tone Sandhi”.
Third Tone Sandhi
Third Tone Sandhi means that two third tones together become second and third instead. This is most noticeable in the phrase “Hello” 你好 (ni3 hao3), which is always pronounced ni2hao3.
1. When 不 is preceded by another fourth tone, it becomes a rising second tone instead.
Example: 不是 (bu4 shi4, “to not be”) becomes bu2 shi4
2. When 不 is used in an A-not-A question, bu4 becomes neutral, or toneless.
Example: 你是不是 (ni3 shi4 bu shi4, “Are you or are you not”)
1. yi1 is pronounced with a rising second tone before a fourth tone syllable.
Example: 一 个 ( yi1ge4 “one (of something)”) is pronounced as yi2ge4
2. yi1 followed by any other tone than a fourth tone makes it a fourth tone.
Example: 一 天 (yi1tian1 becomes yi4tian1 “one day”), 一 年 (yi1nian2 becomes yi4nian2 “one year”), 一点 (yi1dian3 becomes yi4dian3 “a little bit”)
3. When yi1 is used as an ordinal number or in a compound with other number, it keeps its first tone yi1.
Example: 一 二 三 四 五 (yi1 er4 san1 si4 wu3 “one two three four five”) or 一月 (yi1yue4 “January (literally first month)”)
4. When yi1 is used between two reduplicated words, it becomes neutral or toneless.
Example: 看一看 (kan4 yi1 kan4) becomes kan4 yi kan4.
Perceiving tones in speech is not easy for native speakers of languages that are accent stressed, but with enough time and immersion, it’ll become easier and easier in no time. The more aware you are of it, the easier the skill is to acquire.