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An unorthodox course in spoken Chinese: Bending the rules in order to make it easier to study Pinyin 
Introduction | Section 1 | Section 2 | Section 3 | Section 4 | Section 5 | Section 6 | Section 7 | Section 8  

 Learn pinyin the unorthodox way
   -  Section 1: The four tones in pinyin

Pinyin = the phonetic transcription of Chinese characters using the Roman alphabet.

Many students of Chinese overlook the importance of the four tones and plunge headwards into vocabulary and sentence-building when this aspect has still not been fully mastered. I would say that this is the main reason why many students are still not able to speak Chinese correctly even after years of study. A mastery of the four tones is indispensable to mastering spoken Chinese as it is the very foundation of the language and even if it should take a month to lay this foundation so be it. You know what happens when the foundation is weak - you just can't build anything on it. The same is true for pinyin which simply means the phonetic transcription of Chinese characters using the Roman alphabet. So by just studying pinyin you will be able to speak Chinese without knowing a single Chinese character. This is good news indeed for those who want to study Mandarin but find the written Chinese characters an obstacle!
Please note that while the four tones are indicated by tone marks or symbols in pinyin, I am only using the numerals 1, 2, 3 and 4 in this course so that you will not be distracted by the symbols. It is quite easy to make the equivalence. Thus     ma1      ma2      ma3      ma4    will correspond to
           in the same order as their symbols. (You might need to have Real Player installed in your computer in order to hear the audio files in this course.)
There is a fifth tone called the neutral tone but I am not going to confuse you further by bringing that in. Just learn how to pronounce each character according to one of the four tones above and you will be on your way to speaking understandable Chinese.

How to pronounce John in Pinyin

Here then are 10 examples of the four tones for you to practise. Just remember that this is the very basis of Chinese pronunciation. Any word in the Chinese language can be neatly classified into one of these 4 tones (as usual please bear in mind that I - or rather with your permission, should I say we - are not concerned with the intricacies or subtleties of the language here but just with its essential aspects). Thus if you were to pronounce your friend John's name with the four tones it will sound something like this John1, John2, John3, John4   
After all you know how to sing Do Re Mi Fa Sol La Ti Do, don't you? Well this musical notation has eight notes so your task in studying Chinese should be half as easy. Believe me, this is going to be the case if you go about it the right way i.e. by not cutting corners in your haste to be able to say a whole sentence in Chinese. Slow and easy is never more true than in the study of Chinese. Or if you prefer, make haste slowly.

Click to see (or rather, hear) how each of the following sounds are pronounced according to the four tones.

fu   (fu1      fu2      fu3      fu4)   and in symbols   
You can see that the tone mark is put above the vowel letter.

hao   (hao1      hao2      hao3      hao4)   and in symbols   
Here the tone mark is written above the a though it really wouldn't make any difference to the pronunciation at all even if you should put it above the o. Another trivial point that can be dismissed if it is going to make things difficult for you. But if you really want to know where to put the tone symbol when there are two vowels together read what the rule says below*.

li   (li1      li2      li3      li4)   and in symbols   
When the vowel is i the dot is hidden by the symbol.

nai   (nai1      nai2      nai3      nai4)   and in symbols   

ma   (ma1      ma2      ma3      ma4)   and in symbols   

wei   (wei1      wei2      wei3      wei4)   and in symbols   

ren   (ren1      ren2      ren3      ren4)   and in symbols   
There's no need to split hairs over the pronunciation of r in Chinese. Just pronounce it as you would the r in English.

shao   (shao1      shao2      shao3      shao4)   and in symbols   
Again we are not going to dispute with linguists the actual pronunciation of sh here. Just pronounce it as you would in English (like sh in the word shut).

wang   (wang1      wang2      wang3      wang4)   and in symbols   

an   (an1      an2      an3      an4)   and in symbols   

(Note:  From now on I will only be showing the four tones in numbers but from the above examples you should be able to tell which symbol corresponds to each of the four numbers. The Chinese characters that follow the pinyin below are given just for the record in case you might need them. You are not expected to learn them here.)

The four tones in action

Let's see how the four tones are used in some of the common names:
Beijing is pronounced bei3 jing1   
Shanghai is pronounced shang4 hai3   
Hong Kong is pronounced xiang1 gang3   
while Taiwan is pronounced tai2 wan1   
You will notice that the four tones are well differentiated in each case. In the sentences below you don't have to worry about the vocabulary or the sentence structure. Just see if you can find the correlation between the tone mark of each word (1, 2, 3 or 4) and the tone that you actually hear. If you don't hear the distinction then I'm afraid you have still not grasped the idea of the four tones. If that is the case maybe it's because while tones (or pitch of the voice if you like) are used to indicate one's state of emotion, feeling or mood in English they have nothing at all to do with sentiments in spoken Chinese. Whether you are happy or angry you give each word exactly the same tone each time.
Here then are a number of sentences containing the four tones to show how they can be intermingled to form a coherent Chinese sentence:
Ni3 he2 ta1 yao4 gen1 wo3 qu4 kan4 dian4 ying3 ma1 (click to listen.)  
(literally you-and-he/she-want-with-me-go-see-movie-?)
You will have no difficulty in seeing that it simply means "Do both of you want to go to the movies with me?"
If you want to listen to it spoken at a normal speed it sounds like this  .
Hey, take it easy! Already using your Chinese to ask someone for a date?
Ok, I admit it's my fault. Anyway if you really want to make use of your first Chinese sentence to ask someone special for a date just leave out the other person in the sentence, right? After all he would only be a "lamp-post", don't you agree? Sorry, that is Malaysian English - you would be more likely to say: "He would only play the gooseberry" or perhaps "He would only be the third wheel."
So if you are inviting just one person to go to the movies with you, the above sentence now becomes:
Ni3 yao4 gen1 wo3 qu4 kan4 dian4 ying3 ma1 (click to listen.)  
Spoken at a normal speed it sounds like this  .
(Do you want to go to the movies with me?)
(literally you-want-with-me-go-see-movie-?)

Here is another sentence that contains words in all the four tones:
ta1 shi4 fa3 guo2 ren2 (click to listen.)  
= He is French (literally he-is-France-person)
Spoken at a normal speed it sounds like this  .
A final example before we put an end to this very important lesson. See how the tones change from one word to another in this sentence:
zhe4 ben3 shu1 hen3 pian2 yi2     
Literally this-(classifier)-book-very-cheap (= This book is very cheap.)
The classifier (also called "measure word" is omnipresent in Chinese. You do not say "one man" but "one (something) man". Same for books and many other objects. You don't say "two books" as in English but "two (something) books". More of this later.
You will have noticed that the word "cheap" is represented by not one but two words in Chinese (pian2 yi2). This is an interesting aspect as you will eventually learn that quite often you will have to learn two words as "a pair" for a single English word.
Here is a little phrase of four words containing all the four tones in the same order:
fei1 chang2 man3 yi4       It simply means to be "very satisfied". Here again both "very" (fei1 chang2) and "satisfied" (man3 yi4) have not just one Chinese word but two (a pair) of Chinese words that always go together (so don't try to break up the two words - they just go together). I repeat that all the sentences above are just to give you an idea of the role of the four tones in spoken Chinese. Of course you are not expected to learn them (sorry, you cannot learn to speak Chinese in a day!)
To end this section on a light note let's listen to one of the all-time popular Chinese traditional songs. It's called (Song of the four seasons) and was made famous by Zhou Xuan in a 1937 film. This interpretation of her song was given at a concert in 2007 on the 50th anniversary of her death. Click here to listen to the YouTube clip.
I hope that by now you (or rather your ears) have a good idea of how each tone is different from the other three. I promise you, once you master this, it will be really child's play to speak Chinese and you will be wondering what all the fuss is about. Try to say out each sound with its four tones and compare what you said with the audio files.
You should not go to Section 2 unless and until you have a good idea of what the four tones are all about. If you are ready then go to Section Two here. Good luck.

For those who want to know more:
*When there are two vowels together the tone mark is always placed above the first of the two vowels UNLESS the first of the two vowels happens to be i or u, in which case the tone mark is on the SECOND vowel eg. hui, liu, huo   
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