How Chinese Tones Work

One of the areas of oral Mandarin Chinese that truly beautifies and diversifies the language is Chinese tones. Due to the existence of Chinese tones, learning Chinese is significantly different from learning other languages because they add a unique new dimensions to the pronunciation of words. Unlike many other languages, in Chinese you cannot simply launch into a word-learning frenzy, in Chinese the pronunciation of words is unique and uniquely challenging, and as such it requires a bit of work before you can even learn your first words.

Chinese is a tonal language, what that means is that each syllable is pronounced not only with particular movement of your mouth to make the “shape” of the sound, but also with a very specific tone, by tone we mean the pitch of your voice as you pronounce a syllable. The video above explains it all but here is a thorough recap:

Well, since you are clearly English speaking, we can start from there. English has tones too, in English tones have a very different use than in Chinese however they still exist. Since we are all learning Chinese from English it is beneficial to draw an analogy. In English tones are used primary for inflection and they serve a grammatical function, but in Chinese tones have a much greater impact of the meaning of each individual word.

For example, think of different tones you could use to pronounce the word “so”, I am going to give several examples and in your mind you can imagine how you would pronounce them. “So, you thought you could rival me!” — in this case perhaps the “so” is sharp and quick. Now — your mother moans to you that the dishes are unwashed, your response “So?” — in this case your tone is rising, in an indication of cheek or rebellion. Now imagine you are simply curious but not challenging about a question “So, why did you break up with him then?” — in this case perhaps the “so” is a level tone or constant pitch. In each of these cases the tone is similar to a specific Chinese tone. But in Chinese, these three “so”s with different tones would actually be three separate and distinct words, as radically different in meaning as the words “cheap”, “speed”, and “cosmology”. (I.E in most cases, absolutely no connection in meaning)

To your Mandarin Chinese learning success!

P.S, if you want to follow my Youtube channel where I teach Chinese, please go here:

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2 Responses

  1. Jennifer says:


    I am an absolute beginner at learning Mandarin. In fact, I just had my first lesson (of sorts) last night, and I left with more questions than I’d arrived with. I plugged one of my queries into Google, and your blog was the first result to come up (lol, hmmm, could that have something to do with the SEO related topics I see hanging out on the categories menu?). I found your video on “yes” and “no” to be extremely helpful! Thank you so much for sharing the information in such a clear way.

    But to get to my point . . . I am struggling with tones, and would love to see your video on the subject, but the link is broken 🙁

    Is there some other way I can access it? Or do you know of any other accurate resources on this topic? Thanks so much!

    • shawn says:

      Hi Jennifer, thanks so much for stopping by and commenting! So sorry it’s taken me so long to reply.

      Haha, yes, my professional work is in SEO, so I use my personal blog often as a playground of sorts to learn new things. If people are searching for specific information that I cover in the articles generally it tends to rank quite well. So happy that you found my blog and found it helpful 🙂

      But alas, ah, egregious me, I should not have let any links go broken 🙂

      Now I will fix the link. Actually I have expanded my Chinese teaching into my Youtube channel and I have several videos on tones, you’d be welcome to watch them.

      You can find them here:

      They include a brief video explaining tones in general, each tone individually, tricky tone pairs, and several videos with tests for practice.

      Good luck on your Chinese learning journey! Thanks for helping me make my website a better place!


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