There are four tones in Mandarin that you must learn to pronounce correctly if you ever want to communicate effectively in Chinese.

While intonation is commonly used in most western languages, there are two vital differences with Chinese, both can have a detrimental effect on your spoken skills.

  1. In Chinese, a difference in tone for the same basic sound makes for new word.
  2. Western languages use rich intonation to express feelings, whereas Chinese achieves this using particle words, which gives the language a more monotonous and colder feel.

The quintessential examples for differing tones are these, in order of level, rising, falling and rising, then falling;

妈 mother,麻hemp,马horse,骂scold – These are all ‘ma’ in pinyin.

Mispronouncing tones will lead to misunderstanding, or even some unfortunate other meanings.

The other very common mistake is for foreigners to speak Chinese with a bubbly and bouncy voice. Remember, Chinese expresses these through added words and particles, so make a conscious effort to speak monotonously, in a good way!

The non-tone

This is another key mistake where foreign learners don’t pay attention!

The non tone is simple a quick sound, and nothing else.

Unfortunately, many toned characters can also act as imposters, so it’s important to learn all the possible meanings and functions of a new character in the beginning. You can reduce errors by making this early effort.


  1. 了解Liao jie – Liao is a falling and rising tone, meaning ‘undestand.’ 我吃饭了Wo chi fan le. Here, 了 is a toneless particle expressing past tense.
  2. 现实Xianshi – shi is a rising tone that means ‘Real, actual’, whereas in 壮实Zhuang shi (Strong), shi is a meaningless and toneless particle just used for its sound.

These are just tasters of what I will develop in the tones section of this blog. While tones may be easy to pronounce correctly when you consciously practise them one by one, they are devilishly easy to mispronounce when in a flowing conversation, or when using polyphonic characters often.

What’s worse, you won’t realise you’re making mistakes half the time, and the person you’re speaking probably won’t correct you, unless they are your tutor.

So allow me to help you resolve this knitty problem by following my ‘Tones’ section!