Learning Mandarin is indeed a difficult task for us adults. I tried joining a Mandarin class sponsored by my previous company, but I thought learning the language for just an hour weekly wasn’t enough. And I must say this general observation that many Chinese teachers think speakers of English and other languages can easily grasp one of the most vital components of Chinese: the five tones (the fifth being the neutral tone). It still depends on the learner on how quickly he or she remembers the tones, though. However, most expats I’ve talked to about this say their teachers tend to conduct that important lesson very quickly.
Practice makes perfect, and talking to a native speaker can greatly help improve your Chinese language learning. I remember asking my Chinese colleagues before how to say the five tones correctly. Many of them did some hand movements to visualize the intonation patterns. But before I go on, I should say that learning Chinese tones can be done by practicing (a lot of times!) or understanding phonetics. In my quest to find the easiest way to learn tones, I stumbled upon some Youtube videos which I find helpful for learners.
This Youtube video by Daily Noodles (VPN needed) simplifies the tones by using a common English question word, “what.” As we know in English, intonation changes the meaning of a word (like in questions, interjections, or sarcasm).
- The first tone (high pitch, flat) is akin to saying “Whāt!” when you’re surprised.
- The second tone (mid to high pitch, rising) is like “Whát?” or when you’re unsure of something or if you’re confused.
- The third tone (mid going to low, then rising to high pitch) sounds “Whǎt…?!” in expressions like “What the…?!” or “WTH.” You should feel your vocal cords vibrating when you do the third tone.
- The fourth tone (mid to low, falling) “Whàt?” or saying it when you’re angry or frustrated.
- The fifth tone (mid) has neutral pitch like “The 5Ws are ‘what,’ ‘when,’ ‘where,’ ‘who,’ and ‘why.’”
Another helpful Youtube video is by eChineseLearning. It details the technical description of Chinese phonetic system as a “foundation” of learning the language. Being familiar with English phonetics can be a big help to understand the video.
The teacher explains that Chinese syllables, like “nǐ hǎo” (or hello), have three parts:
- The initials, or simply the consonants that begin the syllable;
- The finals, or the vowels; and
- The tones.
According to the teacher, Chinese has 21 initials, 39 finals, and 5 tones.
So, this is a good starter for everyone who has just begun studying Chinese or having a hard time doing the tones. Next week, I’ll talk about other learning resources, like podcasts and other websites. Alternatively, you can also check out the roundup of learning resources I wrote during Chinese New Year.