Myth One: English speakers can’t hear the difference between tones.
Unfortunately this myth is often used by Chinese language learners as a convenient excuse for not putting time and effort into speaking correctly. Of course many people at first struggle to hear the difference between some words with different tones, but this is perhaps as much a result of not being familiar with the words and the sounds making up those words. If you’re in doubt about your ability to hear any tones in any language then try asking a Chinese friend to say the months in English but replace the fifth month “May” with the Chinese word for beautiful, měi, which is pronounced pretty much the same as “May” but with a falling and rising third tone. I promise you will be able to hear the difference.
Myth Two: Tone and pitch are the same
The four tones of Mandarin are almost completely dependent on direction, so even if you’re “tone deaf” there is no reason to not hear the difference or be able to speak correctly. The pitch of tones is relative to each speaker. That is, if you have a deep voice your tones will be lower pitch. Similarly, pitch can be changed to give stress to a word without changing the tones. In fact, pitch varies even within a sentence, and drops towards the end of long sentences. A first tone at the beginning of a sentence will therefore usually be slightly higher pitch than a first tone at the end of the same sentence. (Norman, 1997, 148)
Myth Three: Intonation is not possible
Many native English speakers think that Chinese must lack intonation because it is a tonal language. It is true that if you try to put English intonation and syllable stress onto words and sentences when speaking Chinese you will probably say the wrong tones. This does not mean that Chinese lacks intonation or stress, it simply means that the way of stressing words and putting emotion into sentences is different. For example, questions in English beginning with the verb be usually end with a rising tone, whilst questions ending with the particle ma in Chinese usually have a higher pitch overall without tonal changes (Chao, 1968, 40-44). Volume, pitch and length of a syllable can all contribute to intonation without effecting the four tones.
Myth Four: Mandarin actually has five tones
Everyone knows Mandarin has four tones. Except when you speak to someone who has learnt a bit of Chinese and they tell you there are actually five. So exactly how many tones does Mandarin have?
The answer is four. When speaking Mandarin any syllable, in isolation, must be pronounced with a tone, and there are only four tones that a syllable can take. The idea of extra fifth tones arises because of a phenomenon called tone sandhi and atonic or “weak” syllables. The unstressed atonic syllables are often held up as examples of a fith tone but this is misleasing because they actually have miltiple tonal values that do not exist on their own but are determined by the preceding syllables.
What is tone Sandi?
Tone sandhi is when a tone changes as a result of the tone of the preceding or following syllable. It is like the tonal equivalent of euphony related changes and connected speech found in non-tonal languages. Phonemic sandhi is when one tone is replaced with another. For example, the Mandarin third tone becomes second tone if the following syllable is also third tone. Phonetic sandhi is when a tone is altered but does not resemble another tone from that language, but these do not exist as extra options alongside the tones they replace and so are not “fifth” or “sixth” tones.
The most common tone sandhi is on the third tone. In fact, third tone is very rarely pronounced fully. As already mentioned, when there are two third tones in a row the first changes to second tone. If third tone is followed by any other tone it becomes a semi third tone. The only time a third tone is pronounced fully is when it is at the end of an utterance or a word is being pronounced in isolation.
Myth Five: tones can’t be that important
In many instances tones are actually more important than phonemes when speaking Mandarin. The number four sì and ten shí are often pronounced si (sì and sí ) by southern speakers but could realistically both be pronounced shi and still be distinguishable as long as the correct tones are maintained. However, if you pronounce four or ten with correct phonemes but incorrect tones native speakers will be unsure as to which number you’re saying.
That said, Taiwanese Mandarin occasionally has different tones to mainland Mandarin. For example the word for Asia yà zhōu is pronounced yǎ zhōu in Taiwan yet such tonal differences rarely, if ever, result in communication difficulties. Similarly, southern speakers often fail to grasp the complexities of the atonic or “weak” syllables, which have a wide range of different pitches and contours and are usually the most difficult aspect of standard Mandarin pronunciation for even Chinese speakers to get to grips with (Norman, 1997, 149).
Foreign speakers therefore don’t need to, and won’t be expected to, speak with perfect tones. However, the importance of correct tones should not be dismissed. Neglecting the tones and assuming they are unimportant will result in your Mandarin being incomprehensible to many people.
Chao, Yuen Ren Mandarin Primer (Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 1947)
Chao, Yuen Ren A Grammar of Spoken Chinese (Berkeley, University of California Press, 1968)
Norman, Jerry Cambridge Language Surveys: Chinese (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1997)