March 23, 2022
Most people likely know that Chinese is a tonal language. Have you ever thought about how many tones are there in Mandarin Chinese and their purpose? Pronouncing words with different pitches can completely change the meaning of the word.
For many of those looking to start learning Chinese, tones can seem like a massive barrier to entry. While tones might not come easily to those who are completely unfamiliar with the concept, the tools of language learning like basic theoretical understanding and plenty of repetition can make hearing and pronouncing tones second nature.
In any discussion of the Chinese language it’s worth noting the differences in the many modern varieties of Chinese spoken today but they maintain some mutual intelligibility. Despite their many differences, one thing that almost all of them have in common is that they are tonal, making Chinese by far the most widely spoken tonal language in the world, but how many tones does Mandarin have, and what do they sound like?
Some variants like the Wenzhou dialect have upwards of eight tones! Luckily, for those looking to speak Mandarin, spoken by about 70% of people in China and over a billion people worldwide, the dialect only consists of 4 basic tones and one “neutral tone.”
Let’s use the classic example given to every new Mandarin learner of accidentally calling your mother a horse (both are pronounced as “ma”) as a way to scare them into learning correct pronunciation to show off each tone as well as their ability to change the meaning of a single syllable.
With the power of tones, Mandarin is able to make the most out of only 413 different syllables, a relatively low number when compared to languages like English or German, which both have over 10,000.
The question of how many tones are there in Mandarin leaves room for ample confusion, but it also creates endless opportunities for word play, something which is deeply rooted in Chinese culture and is a great sense of pride for many people. Having a solid understanding of tones, and above that, making a real effort to memorize them along with new vocabulary and pronounce them while speaking can go a long way.