Tones: checking it’s right

Sounding like a native speaker can be one of the toughest but most rewarding hurdles to overcome. Here are some tips on using tonal inflections to get your point across!


Tones are a frustrating thing the first time round, and for most foreign language learners these days that frustration seems to come from learning Mandarin Chinese (until such a day as we see a huge boom in Yoruba, Thai, Vietnamese and Panjabi study).

Mandarin has, comparatively, a simple and regular tone system in which each syllable pronounced carries one of four tones or, in rare cases, carries no tone and is unstressed. The tones are well known to educated Chinese speakers too, who before entering university take an exam in which tone marks must be added to a text.

When imagining these tone contours, we say that our highest tone in speech is 5 and our lowest is 1. The first tone, flat and high, sees the tone stay at 5. The second tone, ascending, goes from 3 to 5. The third tone descends slightly then rises; we can seeā€¦

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