Basic Mandarin Course - Pronounciation
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A good pronounciation is extremely important when it comes to learning Mandarin. Many Chinese words do not just sound very similar, the concept of "tones" allows one word as we know it from English to have several meanings. Learning those tones properly is therefore not just important so people will understand what you say, but mistakes in the beginning are also very hard to erase at a later stage of learning, so putting some extra effort into this in the beginning will definitley pay off.

4 Tones

Mandarin has 4 tones. Tones allow words as we know it in Western languages to have different meanings depending on whether you say it with a rising voice, high voice, low voice, etc. For people who have never heard of tones before, a good example might be that in English a rising tone at the end of a sentence makes the sentence a question, a lower tone makes it a normal sentence. Tones in Mandarin somehow work like this - and somehow don't, just have a look at this graphic first:

4 Tones in Mandarin

This picture shows the four tones you need to get familiar with if you want to learn this language. The first one is a high flat tone and probably the easiest of the four. The second one is a rising tone, 3 to 5 thereby means that the tone starts in mid-high and ends high range. Tone three first goes down a little bit followed by a rise to 4. Finally, the fourth tone seems easy but is often the most difficult one for foreigners. It goes from high all the way down to 1, and this is the difficulty as most foreigners don't make it all the way down but stop at 3 or so, so if you want to get perfect pronounciation pay attention to this tone in particular.

To see what this exactly means, let's take a look at the most popular example, the word "ma":


Saying "word" is actually not that sutiable as those four words have nothing in common apart from the same romanization. This way of writing Chinese words using letters is called Pinyin and will be covered in more detail in the next section.

So why are there actually 5 words? This is because the last one represents what you might call the "silent" tone. This simply means that there isn't really a tone you need to deal with, so nothing really to pay too great attention to for now.

As "ma" won't be the enough, the Pronounciation Tool covers all syllables. This will be very helpful in the beginning.

3rd Tone Changes

With the fourth tone maybe being the most difficult one to pronounce, the third one is probably the one most difficult to use. This is because it isn't always pronounced the same way. When there are two third tones behind each other the first one is pronounced like a second tone. Let's have a look at an example:

The word 你好, meaning "hello", is romanized into Pinyin as nǐ hǎo but is actually pronounced as ní hǎo.


And now as it should be if it is read in a sentence:

nǐ (ní)

The reason is that two third tones behind each other are very difficult to say, so changing the first syllable does actually make it easier. Good news here is that this gets easier the longer one learns Mandarin. It is probably most difficult when starting out with reading Pinyin directly, when switching to reading characters the brain somehow automatically gets it right - most of the times at least.

不 & 一

不 (bu) and 一 (yi) are very basic words and mean "not" and "1" respectively. The difficult thing is, their tones are not fixed but vary depending on the tone of the following word. This again has to do with readability and explaining it in too much detail would be too much at such an early stage, just don't be confused if you see them having different tones, that's supposed to be that way.


The already mentioned Pinyin is the romanization of Chinese characters and helps a lot when learning how to pronounce certain characters. And because it is so important, the next section covers everything you need to know.

Final Tips

Finally, if you are a beginner with no experience at all, I encourage you to either find Chinese friends or take classes. As mentioned above, mistakes made in the early stage of learning Chinese, especially concerning pronouncition, are very hard to erase later on, so make sure somebody checks your pronounciation and gives you feedback on how to improve - 1 or 2 hours a month 1 on 1 are often enough, just learning it by yourself is possible of course but very difficult.

Furthermore have a look at the Pronounciation Tool, that might help you a lot as well, particularly in the beginning.