One reason you might find pronouncing Mandarin Chinese tones difficult is that in most languages, the tones used by Chinese to distinguish one word from another are used to express the meaning of a sentence or clause. For example, when you ask a yes/no question in English, you use a rising tone (try saying “Have you been to China?”). When English speakers learn Mandarin, they often find they react instinctively, adjusting the tone just as they would in English – of course this means that their pronunciation will be difficult to understand.
If you find this a problem – don’t worry! Nearly everyone does when they begin learning Chinese. The good news is it gets easier when you get used to it.
One technique you can use to accelerate your learning is to use your body to override your brain….I will explain…
First Tone: 妈
First, try raising your eyebrows as high as you can – before you open your mouth. Now say “ma”. You should hear a level, high-pitched word – this is first tone “ma1 妈” – which means mother.
Second Tone: 麻
Next, try lowering your head, now open your mouth and say “ma” while raising your head and especially your eyebrows. You should have produced the rising, or second tone: “ma2 麻”, which means hemp.
Third Tone: 马
OK – now, try starting with your head in a level position, then when you start pronouncing “ma”, drop your head, then raise it again – and don’t forget your eyebrows! This is the falling-rising, or third tone. You said “ma3 马”, which means horse.
Fourth Tone: 骂
Finally, say “ma” at the same time as stamping your foot: ma! You should have pronounced the fourth tone, or falling tone: “ma4 骂”, which means to tell someone off or swear at them.
If you follow these instructions you should be able to produce Mandarin Chinese tones accurately and reliably. Try reading a passage in pinyin. It may look funny to begin with, but you’ll soon find producing the tones at will becomes more natural and you will be able to do it without dancing soon enough!
Please let me know if you find this article helpful or if you have any other comments – thanks!