Patience in Tones Brings Music to Mandarin

Have you ever wondered why some languages sound more musical than others? Or why Chinese people learning to speak English seem to all make the same “mistakes”? Learning about tones will help this start to make sense. Sometimes the rise and fall in pitch occurs naturally as one pronounces each word; sometimes the changes in pitch are due to changes in the speaker’s emotions; and sometimes pitch changes are built into the languages themselves. Tones represent the rise and fall of pitch in a sentence. Tones are not very common in English sentences, except when we ask a question, in which case the sentence ends with a rise in pitch. But in Chinese, different tones are woven throughout a sentence and add a layer of lyrical beauty to Chinese languages. In my previous post on Chinese puns, I explored the overlap in pronunciation among Chinese characters, which leads to Chinese people’s penchant for puns. For example, the pronunciation “ma” could mean mother, numb, horse, and scold. How can we distinguish which is which? Context plays a very important role in Chinese sentences, but another way to distinguish characters of the same pronunciation is by tones.

Chinese characters are generally formed by combining a consonant and vowel. Therefore, all Chinese characters consist of only one syllable, but each syllable can take on one of four tones. (Mandarin has four tones; Cantonese has as many as nine.)

  • The first tone contains no change in pitch. It is flat and is the tone we use to say妈mā (the word for mother).

  • The second tone contains a rise in pitch (imagine saying the word “huh?”), and it is the tone used to say麻má (the word for numb).

  • The third tone contains a drop in pitch and then reverts to a rising pitch in the middle of the syllable, and it is used to say马mǎ (the word horse).

  • The fourth tone contains a decline in pitch (imagine saying the word “down”), which is used to say骂mà (the word scold). This tends to be the default for English speakers because it is most common in English words.

Mother, numb, horse, and scold are all pronounced with the syllable “ma,” but the difference in tones distinguishes these characters from one another. Because many Chinese characters share the same pronunciations, catching the right tones of the characters is vital in helping listeners identify the meaning behind the words. For example, depending on the tones you use to pronounce “gong tong,” it could mean common (共同gòng tóng) or a euphemism for toilets (恭桶gōng tǒng). The phrase “tong ji” could mean statistic (统计tǒng jì), painful blow (痛击tòng jī), and fugitive (通缉tōng jì).

The tone changes within each character force a Mandarin speaker to dwell on each syllable longer to convey the rise and fall in pitch. As a result, Chinese syllables do not flow as quickly as English syllables because each syllable demands a certain amount of space in order to be understood. Mandarin requires a person to adjust not only their tongues and lips to form each word, but also to capture the right changes in pitch by managing the flow of air through their throat. Both the front of the mouth and the back of the mouth play important roles in speaking Mandarin. Drawing out each syllable and capturing the right tone are perhaps the most challenging elements of learning to speak Mandarin. These characteristics of Mandarin pronunciation don’t only affect English speakers as they speak Chinese, they also explain some of the struggles Chinese people face as they learn to speak English.

English speaking relies on the tip of the tongue, the teeth, and the lips to pronounce each syllable and also simultaneously manage the flow of air through the mouth. Since there is no need to capture the rise and fall of tones in each syllable, and since many English words contain multiple syllables, English words also flow more rapidly than Mandarin. The variety of syllables and the speed of change are daunting to native Chinese speakers who may not have the same nimbleness and coordination in their tongues, teeth, and lips. Transitioning from relying less on the throat to relying more on the front of the mouth has been a difficult adjustment for my English.

These vast differences in our languages reflect the large gulf that separates our cultures, but they are also opportunities for us to show respect to one another. As a native Chinese speaker, I deeply appreciate my friends’ efforts to help me use my tongue to enunciate English syllables. For my American friends, I encourage you to slow down and “sing” through the rise and fall of pitches behind each Chinese character. When you meet a new Chinese friend, do not stop at pronouncing his or her name as staccato notes. Ask him or her to teach you the tones behind each character, and seek to capture the melody behind them. It may take you a few attempts to get it right, but this small gesture may be important to understanding the meaning behind their names. Otherwise, instead of finding common ground, you may end up staring at a toilet. Worse yet, you may end up calling a numb horse your mother!


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Ryan currently lives in the Boston metro area and is a student at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. He immigrated to the United States from China in 1999.

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LEADERSHIP DEVELOPMENT IN CHINA

With rising pressure and persecution in China, there are two challenges imperative for church leaders. The first challenge is for current leaders to love Christ above all else, and not to stray into legalism or love of the world. The second challenge is to raise up the next generation of leaders, who will humbly model Jesus even if current leaders are arrested.

WILL YOU JOIN US IN PRAYING FOR LEADERSHIP DEVELOPMENT IN CHINA? PRAY FOR:

  1. Current leaders to grow in their daily walks with Christ
  2. Current leaders to shepherd and raise up new leaders
  3. New leaders who love Christ and will model him to the world
  4. New leaders to love and care for the church

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ABOUT LEADERSHIP DEVELOPMENT

About Shenyang

Shenyang is a city located in northeastern China and is the capital of Liaoning Province. It is known for its rich history and cultural heritage, including the Shenyang Imperial Palace, which is a UNESCO World Heritage site. Shenyang is also a hub for China’s heavy industry, with companies such as the China First Automobile Group and the Shenyang Aircraft Corporation having their headquarters in the city.

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About Qingdao

Qingdao is a city located in eastern China and is famous for its beaches, beer, and seafood. The city is home to several landmarks, including the Zhanqiao Pier and the Badaguan Scenic Area. Qingdao is also a major port and has a thriving economy, with industries such as electronics, petrochemicals, and machinery.

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About Xiamen

Xiamen is a city located in southeastern China and is a popular tourist destination known for its beautiful coastal scenery, including Gulangyu Island, which is a UNESCO World Heritage site. The city is also a hub for China’s high-tech industry, with companies such as Huawei and ZTE having research and development centers in Xiamen.

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About Chongqing

Chongqing is a city located in southwestern China and is a major economic center in the region. The city is known for its spicy cuisine, especially its hot pot dishes, and is also famous for the Three Gorges Dam, the world’s largest hydroelectric dam. Chongqing is also home to several historic sites, including the Dazu Rock Carvings, which are UNESCO World Heritage sites.

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About Nanjing

Nanjing is a city located in eastern China and is the capital of Jiangsu Province. It is one of China’s ancient capitals and has a rich cultural history, including the Ming Xiaoling Mausoleum, the Nanjing City Wall, and the Confucius Temple. Nanjing is also a modern city with a thriving economy and is home to several universities, including Nanjing University and Southeast University.

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About Changchun

Changchun is a city located in northeastern China and is the capital of Jilin Province. It is known for its rich cultural heritage and is home to several historical landmarks such as the Puppet Emperor’s Palace and the Jingyuetan National Forest Park. Changchun is also a hub for China’s automotive industry, with several major automobile manufacturers having their headquarters in the city.

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About Guangzhou

Guangzhou, also known as Canton, is a city located in southern China and is the capital of Guangdong Province. It is one of the country’s largest and most prosperous cities, serving as a major transportation and trading hub for the region. Guangzhou is renowned for its modern architecture, including the Canton Tower and the Guangzhou Opera House, as well as its Cantonese cuisine, which is famous for its variety and bold flavors. The city also has a rich history, with landmarks such as the Chen Clan Ancestral Hall, the Sun Yat-sen Memorial Hall, and the Temple of the Six Banyan Trees. Additionally, Guangzhou hosts the annual Canton Fair, the largest trade fair in China.

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About Kunming

Kunming is a city located in southwest China and is the capital of Yunnan Province. Known as the “City of Eternal Spring” for its mild climate, Kunming is a popular tourist destination due to its natural beauty and cultural diversity. The city is home to several scenic spots, including the UNESCO World Heritage Site of the Stone Forest, Dian Lake, and the Western Hills. Kunming is also famous for its unique cuisine, which features a mix of Han, Yi, and Bai ethnic flavors. The city has a rich cultural history, with ancient temples and shrines like the Yuantong Temple and the Golden Temple, and it’s also a hub for Yunnan’s ethnic minority cultures, such as the Yi and Bai peoples.

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About Shenzhen

Shenzhen is a city located in southeastern China and is one of the country’s fastest-growing metropolises. The city is renowned for its thriving tech industry, with companies such as Huawei, Tencent, and DJI having their headquarters in Shenzhen. The city also has a vibrant cultural scene, with numerous museums, art galleries, and parks. Shenzhen is also known for its modern architecture, such as the Ping An Finance Center and the Shenzhen Bay Sports Center. Despite its modernization, Shenzhen also has a rich history and cultural heritage, with landmarks such as the Dapeng Fortress and the Chiwan Tin Hau Temple.

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About Chengdu

Chengdu is a city located in the southwestern region of China, and the capital of Sichuan province. It has a population of over 18 million people, and it is famous for its spicy Sichuan cuisine, laid-back lifestyle, and its cute and cuddly residents – the giant pandas. Chengdu is home to the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding, where visitors can observe these adorable creatures in their natural habitat. The city also boasts a rich cultural heritage, with numerous temples, museums, and historical sites scattered throughout its boundaries. Chengdu is a city of contrasts, with ancient traditions coexisting alongside modern developments, making it an intriguing and fascinating destination for visitors to China. 

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About Beijing

Beijing is the capital city of China and one of the most populous cities in the world, with a population of over 21 million people. The city has a rich history that spans over 3,000 years, and it has served as the capital of various dynasties throughout China’s history. Beijing is home to some of the most iconic landmarks in China, including the Great Wall, the Forbidden City, and the Temple of Heaven. The city is also a hub for political, cultural, and educational activities, with numerous universities and research institutions located within its boundaries. Beijing is renowned for its traditional architecture, rich cuisine, and vibrant cultural scene, making it a must-visit destination for travelers to China.

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About Shanghai

Shanghai is a vibrant and dynamic city located on the eastern coast of China. It is the largest city in China and one of the most populous cities in the world, with a population of over 24 million people. Shanghai is a global financial hub and a major center for international trade, with a rich history and culture that spans over 1,000 years. The city is famous for its iconic skyline, which features towering skyscrapers such as the Oriental Pearl Tower and the Shanghai Tower. Shanghai is also home to a diverse culinary scene, world-class museums and art galleries, and numerous shopping districts. It is a city that is constantly evolving and reinventing itself, making it a fascinating destination for visitors from around the world.

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