The Layman’s Guide to Mandarin Tones

Introducing the Tones

你好, I am currently studying Chinese Mandarin as the language I will study for the next 90 days. In my first week of the challenge, I have decided to go back to the beginning (I have studied Mandarin in the past) and start with the tones.

In Chinese Mandarin, it is really important to get the tones correct. A word such as ‘ma‘ can have many meanings depending on the tone.

First Tone – mā (ma1)

Meaning mother. This first tone is high and flat. To help memorize it think of a doctor telling you to say “Aaah” When he looks down your throat!

Second Tone – má (ma2) 

Meaning hemp. The second tone is rising. It is similar to when we ask a question.

Third Tone – mǎ (ma3)

Meaning horse. The third tone is low. It is referred to as the “falling-rising” tone or the “dipping” tone. The tone needs to start very low then rise. One way that helps me is to imagine a bouncy ball. Throw it down and catch it on the way up.

Fourth Tone – mà (ma4)

Meaning scold. The fourth tone is falling. Think of it as an angry-sounding tone or a tone of statement for example “No!”. The 4th tone also tends to be shorter in duration than the other three tones.

Neutral Tone – ma

Just keep it short and light. Don’t emphasize it.

For help with tones, I recommend checking out Udemy. There are free language courses on there as well as paid. I recommend “Chinese Made Easy“, which was a free course and also Mandarin “Say it Right” course by Chinese Pod. The courses by Chinese Pod cover tones in a lot of detail and are very easy to understand.

Do you have any tips or tricks for learning the Mandarin tones? Comment below or on social media.


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