Chinese Tones – 声调

2015-02-02 22.13.56

欢迎来. 今天我的目标是讲解中文的声调.

In my post ‘Chinese basics kept basics’ I outlined the basic premises of Mandarin Chinese as a language. Today my plan is to develop on a crucial element of my previous explanations, which are Chinese tones. Mandarin has four tones whilst Cantonese has six, and as Chinese is a tonal language the meaning of words is heavily dependant on the speaker’s ability to speak with the correct intonation. In practice this means that saying a character with the incorrect tone could convey a completely different meaning to whatever it is that you had wanted to say. Since Chinese has no alphabet, tones really are crucial in identifying what a person is trying to convey.

I created this post roughly two weeks ago but I guess you could say that I was experiencing some ‘technical difficulties’, which prevented me from sharing. A while ago someone suggested that I embed audio into one of my older posts so that you can hear what characters sound like. For learning tones it would be particularly beneficial for you to listen to the changes in tone and recognise the differences for yourself. However, (here comes the sad part) after doing some research I realised that I cannot embed audio clips into my posts because of my account type (将来我可能给大家听). 对不起. It’s unfortunate because I had prepared recordings of my teacher saying the different tones for the characters of ‘ma’ for you to listen to. So I do apologise for not being able to share. Instead I can elaborate on the tones without the direct audio clips (but you can listen to the tones with the links provided at the end).

The most widely used example of listening to tones is with the pinyin ‘ma’. Below I have listed five of the ‘ma’ characters that all have different meanings. You may notice that most of the characters have the  radical in common; meaning ‘horse’. Indeed this provides the characters with the central pinyin sound of ‘ma’, but in spoken Mandarin the tones are what signify the meaning, as you cannot examine the radicals when speaking Mandarin. The tones are the symbols you can see above the first vowel in a pinyin word.

1. 吗 ma – Question particle, which is added to the end of a sentence to indicate a simple question. (你好 meaning ‘hello’ becomes ‘how are you?’ when you add 吗 to the end. 你好吗?). This is known as the ‘neutral tone’ because tone above the letter and so you can read it without special intonation.

2.  mā – Mother

3. 麻 má – Hemp

4.  mǎ – Horse

5. 骂 mà – Scold

Now that I think about it, it’s interesting to see that the word for (妈) ‘mother’ is comprised of the radicals ‘female’ and ‘horse’ and I wonder why that is. A number of Chinese characters include animal radicals as they reflect early agriculture, so of course each character has it’s own back story. Chinese radicals have always inspired me, so I shall take this opportunity to develop my sudden rumination…If you look at the first character you can see that the radical accompanying ‘horse’ is a square, which means ‘mouth’. So I am assuming that the idea of a horse using its mouth to speak is what came to indicate a ‘question’. This is developed in the fifth character where we can observe two mouth radicals on top of the horse radical. So when a horse asks too many questions it is taken as a curse? (here cursing refers to using foul language and not the practice of Witchcraft). And then of course we return to mother. You don’t have to take my ideas in this matter as the truth, but there are many Chinese forums where Chinese speakers offer their reasoning behind the stories of characters, and that is merely what I have done. Have you got your own ideas behind the characters’ stories? In order to learn the more accurate reasoning behind the composition of characters we must turn to researching etymology (which is quite fun, especially in Chinese) but I have already digressed so we shall leave that for some other time.

Simply put: the first tone is flat, the second tone causes your voice to raise slightly, the third tone rises and drops and the last tone drops. I have shown you this before but this graph demonstrates the fluctuation quite precisely.

tones The first tone sounds like when you have to open your mouth when you visit the Doctor and say ‘aaah’. The second tone sounds similar to how your voice raises when you say something in surprise. The third tone sounds a bit strange and can be funny to practice. Your voice seems to bend as it raises and drops, for example when you see something really cute ‘awww’. Lastly we are left with the fourth tone that causes your intonation to drop. The fourth tone can be heard in practice when you are angry, for example if you replied to someone ‘’they did what!?”.

Chinese tones are not easy to master so if you want to learn them properly, it would be helpful for you to practice saying them and also listening to them. I will keep the audios I recorded of my teacher and one day you will be able to hear them! But till then I have found a few useful links that will allow you to listen to the tones. This first video is fairly short and the speaker uses the example of ‘ma’, so you can reference the characters I have listed above Here’s another useful video that I included in my previous post, The video is comparatively longer in duration to the previous link, but the speaker presented the tones effectively by relating them to intonations we speak with everyday. For example saying ‘what??’ in surprise is similar to speaking in the second tone. This final link is not a video, but I found it by chance and I’m sure you would find it useful; It is a chart of pinyin words and letters that you can scroll over to listen to the different tones (also ties in with pronunciation).

Last week I decided to do a past paper for my exam and when marking it with my teacher my marks fell short in the Listening section of the exam. A few marks were lost due to being unable to differentiate between the tones (also I think the speaker’s accent was not in my favour 嘿嘿) therefore mastering tones is a collective battle.

If you want to learn Mandarin tones, good luck 世界。

从欣妍 – From Xinyan.

☆Edit: I was going through some Chinese revision/playing cards I own and coincidentally, the second card I picked up was explaining the tones and even gave the example of ‘ma’. I have taken a photo of the card and inserted it at the start of the post, enjoy 🙂

Chinese Pronunciation

It’s a strange coincidence that I was explaining how to pronounce my Chinese name to a friend of mine earlier today. I guess I have started this post in a somewhat reversed order. The coincidence that I am referring to is something that came up on my recent site statistics; Screen Shot 2015-01-21 at 00.24.35 I’m not entirely sure if I have covered the title topic in an earlier post, but your response to actively search the pronunciation of my name is the most opportune moment for me to elaborate how to pronounce Chinese characters. To keep it simple we shall focus mainly on Pinyin, which as you know is the transliteration of Chinese characters (characters are types of non-romanised words). Also, I am speaking of pronunciation in terms of how things sound and nothing else.

To begin let me clarify that my Chinese name 欣妍 is spelt with the pinyin of Xinyan, and is more precisely pronounced as ‘Shin yen’. The noticeable confusion between the official pinyin and the revised transliteration that I have provided is that they are both written differently. The problem that arises from this is that whilst a student of Chinese may be able to read characters, their pronunciation may be slightly lacking because the way that the pinyin is written is not necessarily how the character is to be read. At times acknowledging this as a problem is good and ensures that we can improve (加油).

I think the most useful way for me to show you how characters are pronounced is through the format in my post on numbers. Here are some of the most common consonants that are found in pinyin, when reading characters:

  1. The letter ‘x’ is used a lot (also in my name) and is read with the ‘sh’ sound. E.g. 学习 ‘xue xi’ (‘to study’) is read as ‘shu-eh shee’.
  2. Generally when the letter ‘c’ is used in pinyin the sound is actually ‘ts’. E.g. 参加 ‘can jia’ (‘to participate’) is ‘tsan jia’.
  3. ‘Zhu’ e.g. 祝(‘to wish’) sounds like ‘joo’
  4. 饿 (‘hungry’) An ‘e’ on its own usually makes a sort of ‘uh’ sound.
  5. 吃 ‘chi’ (‘to eat’) is ‘chuh’ (it’s less difficult than it looks, simply takes recognizing).
  6. If you combine the last three points you will arrive at ‘zhe’ e.g. 这 (‘this’). This is pronounced as ‘juh’.
  7. Sometimes you may see pinyin that includes the letter ‘u’ with two dots above the letter. To pronounce this properly you need to sort of round your mouth. For example 绿 ‘lǜ’ (green) sounds like ‘lyew’, but it’s quite subtle.
  8. 奥 ‘Ao’ e.g. from奥运会 (the Olympics) is pronounced with an ‘au’ sound.

For some of the examples like those in number 5 and 6 it is quite difficult to accurately relay the pronunciation without auditory supplements, so I have simply provided you with the foundations in pronunciation. For number 7, Luhan formerly of Exo has a tendency to speak as if most of his words have the two dots above the letters, so you can bear that in mind if you are having trouble with the letter (if you are familiar with his speaking then let me know if you agree). As you may have already noticed, with certain consonants that I have not introduced you may have to combine some of the principles that I have already shown, but generally it is not difficult to come to grips with. I also just noticed that the way your tongue moves behind your teeth for letters like ‘ts’ is similar to how you read some of the Arabic letters!

I wanted to provide you with an audio clip so that you can hear the pronunciations when being used. This video sounds cute at the start but the monotone may bother you after a minute or two. Still, it’s good because it covers the pronunciation of the entire alphabet If you can watch this video without laughing or a small grin then 祝贺你. Another video is something my teacher showed us during lesson that we couldn’t finish in class due to the length, but the presenter does effectively explain how to pronounce the tones . Lastly the final video link is something that I only just came across . The video length is fairly short, and the presenter expands on explaining the pronunciation of some of the difficult consonants in Chinese.

If you look at the screen capture picture I started the post with, another topic that you have been searching for are idioms to help you when you are busy. I may have mentioned this in the past, but I try to prioritise educational commitments over secondary activities such as my blog for quite obvious reasons. As when I had started this blog last year, I still have a list of posts I plan to write about which tend to be side swept because I tend to go with things that are spontaneously relevant (…if that makes sense). I wanted to highlight that I have noticed the interest in my posts related to being busy and therefore I will try to write something that may help you alleviate your stress, or deal with being busy in the near future. As requested by one of my previous Chinese teachers, I also want to write about some effective ways to revise for Mandarin to expand on my previous post, which I think would be beneficial, and indirectly help with the problem of being busy. 将来我会帮助你应付你的忙,压力和问题等。I do still welcome requests or suggestions 🙂

If you stayed till the end, thank you for reading the update.

If you try to pronounce Chinese characters, goodluck 世界。

从欣妍 – From Xinyan.

How to make vocab cards

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Last week my teacher emailed me a document with Chinese homework for the holiday. I thanked her and told her: 作业是我的圣诞礼物, to which she simply laughed back. Anyway, one of the tasks I thought I could start straight away was making vocabulary cards.

We were told to make a minimum of 100 cards using the core vocabulary from our course booklet. I know it’s a simple task, but I will show you how I made my cards so that you can follow the steps yourself if you are learning a language (I’ll give you extra points for choosing Mandarin). I have written this in fairly simple steps which take me back to tedious GCSE coursework, but the method’s very effective so do take a look.


These are some of the things I had in front of me. New flashcards, a few cards with idioms I had written on them, and some popcorn…because this was well after I had eaten and I got hungry (making 100 takes time so grab a snack).

The first step I took was to choose the cards that I was to be writing on. I had a variation of colours, sizes and line shapes. Whilst this may sound a bit inconsequential, if you are a visual learner it could make all the difference.

card types

On the photo on the left I have shown you an array of coloured cards. I chose to use yellow and pink because they are not too dark and would allow my writing to be clearly visible. The photo on the right shows two different types of yellow card (two different types of lines). Initially I thought the card on the left would be a bit bright, but I decided that I could later tone it down with my Chinese ink.

This is may not work for revision in other subjects, but a little while ago I suggested to my classmate who was making flashcards to cut her cards in half. I realized that the vocabulary only takes up the center of a normal sized card, therefore cutting it in half makes effective use of space and also doubles the amount of cards you have to use (great if you also make 100). To go about cutting the cards I chose a method of perfectionism, but you could quite simply just cut your cards in half if that would be faster.

cutting cards

As shown in the photo above, I folded a yellow card in half, cut it through the crease line, put one half against a pink full sized card, and then cut the pink card. *Repeat, repeat, repeat as necessary* After a while I finally had my cards cut to size.


When I was given the vocabulary booklet last year I had already marked the words that I am familiar with. This time I reviewed all of the pages and highlighted the words that I have not learnt or memorized. After that I used a felt-tip to mark ticks next to the highlighted words that would be most useful in exams. I counted the number of words that I had marked and scrutinized the pages until the list was narrowed down to 100 (you can always make more later).


I kept the format of my cards consistent by making the words face the same direction on each card. I used a special calligraphy brush pen to write the words because it made the words stand out, however one of the photos below shows a different type of pen I used when I was experimenting with width. The first two photos shown are the front and back of one of the vocab cards.


You could also hole punch the top and put a string around them if you have trouble storing your cards.

The final photo I will show is a selection of cards that I made. I will point out that the card beside each individual card is not the translation of the word and they are just a random selection of vocabulary.


I think they came out well 🙂

I have now completed my illustrative post. I hope you found it helpful and do let me know if you choose to follow my steps. This post took me a while to complete, (which is why I had delayed it for a day or two) but I hope you enjoyed my first post of 2015.

If you ever need to make vocabulary cards, good luck 世界。

从欣妍 – From Xinyan.

Chinese numbers 中文数字

20141205_215159我真的太不喜欢数学但是现在我给大家介绍一下中文数字 = I seriously dislike maths, but today I will give you all a small introduction to Chinese numbers.

I think it was on Monday that a student in the year below me was asking me about Chinese. He had practiced a Mandarin greeting with me, and then I offered to teach him something. I was quite rushed for time so I got out my trusty sticky pad and began to write the Chinese numbers (I only managed to get to number six because we needed to leave our classroom). I scribbled down the characters, pinyin, and then an extension of the pinyin I had created to simplify the pronunciation (since it isn’t always that straightforward to read pinyin).

Unless you already know the Chinese numbers, I’m assuming that this is your first time seeing the first six. I will introduce you to the rest of the numbers in the same inventive format 哈哈 [Roman number, Chinese character for the number, pinyin, my simplification of pronunciation for certain characters]:


1一 yi (yee)

2二 er (urh) (*the sound Pirates make*)

3三 san

4四 si (suh)

5五 wu (woo)

6六 liu (leoh)

7七 qi (chee)

8八 ba

9九 jiu (jeoh/jyo)

10十 shi (shuh)

11十一 shi yi

I usually ignore ‘zero’ when I learn numbers, but in Chinese it is read as ‘ling’ and the character is零.

To count up in the tens you must put the number in front of ‘ten’. For example ‘twenty’ is ‘two’ followed by ‘ten’ 二十. Which number is七十? Also, numbers below 100 but over their domain of ten (不知道怎么说啊!) would make use of the previous rule, and then add another number to the end of the structure (懂不懂?). So the number ‘64’ would be written as六十四.

To further add to my disdain about numbers (with Chinese, English or any language), I recently learnt that the number ‘one’ in Chinese has two different readings. This is typically seen when talking about dates. For example, in an article the date ‘12th May’ may be presented in Roman numbers as ‘5.12’. My instinct would be to read this as 五十二 (wu shi er) which literally means 5,10,2.

However there are several reasons for why this is wrong…

  1. Although as I explained before about digits above 10, like ‘12’ we must construct the number with a 10 and a 2. But in this case we do not follow this structure and we simply read the numbers as they are seen; ‘one’ and ‘two’. This is likely to happen so that numbers can be read with ease. For example, the event of the 11th September Twin Tower collapse is referred to as 911 (nine eleven) in English, and in the same way the Chinese would shorten their numbers for brevity.
  1. Following on from the previous point, we would then expect the date ‘12th May’ to be read as 五一二 ‘wu yi er’ (I’m inserting the Chinese numbers as an illustrative example, but in actual fact Roman numbers are commonly found in formal Chinese writing). This is correct in the sense that the appropriate characters are being used, however the pinyin would be wrong because in this case the number one would not be read as ‘yi’. Instead of reading the character for the number ‘one’ as ‘yi’(which is 一), we would read it as ‘yao’. This is a special version of the number ‘one’ that is used in texts like newspaper articles for the same reason previously mentioned of maintaining brevity.
  1. Another example of where this alternate reading of ‘one’ is used is in Chinese emergency numbers; such as 110 for Police, and 119 for the Fire Brigade (do you know the pinyin for the numbers?). I came to confront ‘yao’ the other day whilst reading an article in my Mandarin lesson, now you have too.

I hope that this has not disheartened you, but I thought it was best to introduce you to the fact that the Chinese numbers are not as simple as they appear and that you should be prepared to experience deviations in the rules you had originally been taught since Chinese is such a vast language. Following on from what I have introduced you to today I could teach you about how to write higher figure numbers like 100 or 1000, but I don’t think I can muster the courage (refer to the first sentence of this post if you need clarification as to why that is).

Allow me to also briefly explain the picture I drew at the start of the post. It’s a Chinese children’s poem. If you scroll back up you should be able to recognize the numbers, but there are some other words included as well. The poem can be translated as ‘One two three for five six seven, where are my friends? In Beijing, in Shanghai, my friends are here’. Not worthy of the canon, but it sounds cute when sang in tune.

I will leave you with a supplementary link I found earlier where you can listen to the pronunciation of the numbers. It seems as though it is part of an initiative by the BBC to encourage learning languages with primary school students, the pages are actually quite cute (I’m somewhat surprised).

If you teach someone how to count in another language一二三 good luck 世界。

从欣妍 – From Xinyan.

Chinese basics kept basic

Since I have been saying that the main focus of this blog is the study of Chinese I feel that I ought to explain the basics of Chinese so that you can grasp the foundation of the language. I have been studying Mandarin for over six years (‘’time flies when you’re having fun’’) so I shall try my best to pass on some of the knowledge that I have gained from experience, research and of course the knowledge that I have been taught.

Chinese is the language spoken in China and is called 汉语 ‘Han yu’ or中文 ‘Zhong wen’. The two words can be used interchangeably but the first option usually refers to spoken Chinese, whilst the second refers to the written language. There are two forms of written Chinese, simplified and traditional. You can usually distinguish between the two by analysing the level of detail within the composition of the character. As you would expect, simplified Chinese offers a more simple ‘design’ whereas traditional characters may be fashioned with additional strokes. A good example that I can provide you with is the word for China. In both simplified and traditional Chinese the word is read as zhōng guó, which translates to ‘middle kingdom’, most probably to convey their vision of being the epicenter of the world. I have created a table to highlight the differences in strokes:

Screen Shot 2014-09-05 at 02.09.56

I went with a simple example as you can see that the first character is the same in both versions, but the second character is slightly more complex for traditional Chinese.I tried thinking of other words that have a different composition based on its form and this is the best that I could come up with on the spot:Screen Shot 2014-09-05 at 02.08.07

It would have made better sense for me to start with the most basic explanation that is required for you to grasp everything else. If you have read my other posts you would have heard me use the word ‘character’, and in fact I have used it a lot in here as well. A character is almost like the equivalent of an English word. It is the finished product of different radicals joined together. Yes, I am aware that the ‘radicals’ may seem like a strange concept, but bear with me and allow me to explain further. Radicals are the separate components that complete a character and are normally several lines or strokes. For example the character想 ‘xiǎng’ meaning to think/want is composed of three radical parts.The Chinese that I have been learning is simplified Mandarin, which is more widely used in modern China.

Screen Shot 2014-09-05 at 02.04.17 The radical on the top right means eye, and the one at the bottom is one of the radicals meaning heart (there are certain words that have more than one radical equivalent). In this character and in many others, the heart radical suggests the meaning of the word and the top half of the character provides the sound. There is no definitive way to determine how a character sounds or is to be read, as the radicals will be arranged in different places depending on the character. Therefore you cannot rely on the placement of radicals from a character that you are familiar with to determine where the sounds and meaning are derived. This is one of the reasons why reading Chinese can be difficult at times. On the other hand the benefit of the radical system is that you can grasp the ideas in a text without necessarily understanding what is written because you can engage with the meaning of radicals. E.g. if you saw the claw radical in a leaflet you could assume that the text is being written about animals. The statement that Chinese is a pictographic language sums up this idea.

Chinese is an unconventional language because of the way that it is structured. The major difference between Chinese and European languages is that it does not have an alphabet. Instead Chinese natives memorise and learn individual characters from a young age by re-writing them in ink. Missionaries eventually invented an alternative in order to aid people who were unfamiliar with the official Chinese (as well as foreign speakers), which is ‘pin yin’ 拼音. This is the transliteration of Chinese words that helps people to pronounce characters correctly. Pinyin usually has symbols marked on top of the vowels of the word, which are known as ‘tones’. A word I’m sure you would have seen this in is the French/now English word; Café (pronounced caf-ay). Mandarin Chinese uses four tones, which indicate how you are to pronounce a word by either raising or dropping the tone of your voice (makes sense why it’s called a tone now). I have listed the different tones below and demonstrated them using the letter ‘a’.

  1. ā Flat
  2. á Rising
  3. ǎ Fluctuating (not sure how best to phrase this one)
  4. à Falling
  5. a Neutral -the fifth doesn’t really count as a tone but it exists.

The tones are important because there are many Chinese words that are spelt with the same pinyin, but the tone differentiates between the meaning and obviously the written character. For example 马mǎ means Horse, whilst 吗 ‘ma’ with a neutral tone is used to indicate a question. It takes practice to get right, but you wouldn’t want to face saying the wrong thing one day due to a mistake in the tone you use. Below is a graph I found a while back and also drew in my class book. I find it quite amusing but it serves as a good reminder:


To my understanding Chinese is a sort of umbrella term under which falls the various dialects that are spoken in the cities and provinces of China. Debates have sparked as to whether or not Mandarin and Cantonese are to be classed as dialects or languages and The Economist presents the view that they are both languages. This conclusion was met due to the insult felt by citizens of Hong Kong when it was declared that Cantonese is a dialect and not a language; thus implying that it is unofficial and holds no prestigious value. Although there are many dialects and languages spoken in China (given the large size of the country) such as Hakka, Ping, Yue and Min, I shall only briefly talk about Mandarin and Cantonese, which we have established are in fact languages…unless you are willing to resume the debate.

Mandarin is the official language of the People’s Republic of China and Taiwan. The Beijing (China’s capital city) dialect of Mandarin formed the basis of standard Chinese known as 普通话 Pǔ tong huà. Mandarin is also the language typically spoken within the professional sector of China. Cantonese on the other hand is characterized as being slightly more informal in comparison to Mandarin and is widely spoken in Hong Kong where there are also many English speakers. The main difference between Mandarin and Cantonese is the pronunciation of characters which is heavily due to the fact that Cantonese speakers use six tones and Mandarin speakers use four (which is quite enough for me). In addition to this, when reading texts that are in Chinese you may not be able to differentiate between Mandarin and Cantonese at an instant; however Cantonese writing occasionally includes traditional characters, whereas Mandarin sticks to simplified Chinese.

This took me longer to write than I had anticipated because new points kept coming to mind. I tried my best to explain the ‘basics’ of Chinese in order to help you better understand the language so that it isn’t too confusing. It’s a relief that I was finally able to articulate the thoughts that I had been pondering over, and responses to what I get asked to verbally explain.

If you ever need to summarise a language GOODLUCK 世界.

从欣妍 – From Xinyan.