In all Chinese languages the tone of voice you use to say a syllable alters its meaning. In Putonghua (mandarin) there are four tones, differing in pitch, duration and loudness:
1st tone (high, level, long), indicated by a horizontal bar e.g. ō
2nd tone (high, rising, medium), indicated by a rising accent e.g. ó
3rd tone (low, dipping, long), indicated by a dipping accent e.g. ǒ
4th tone (loud, falling sharply, short), indicated by a falling accent e.g. ò
In theory, this means that each syllable has four different meanings depending on the tone in which it is pronounced. The syllable ma for instance could mean horse mǎ (third tone), or mother mā (first tone) or scold mà (fourth tone) and even as a question ma (neutral tone).
In practice, getting tones wrong is not quite as dangerous as it appears to be. Many foreigners manage to make themselves understood somehow with little regard to tones, but incorrect tones will certainly hinder your attempts to communicate with Chinese people.
The only way to learn the tones well is to listen to and imitate native speakers, just as the best way to learn the language in general is to find a course in China itself.
For more visit our Chinese language page.
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