My tricks for hearing and speaking Madarin Tones

I had a hard time when I first started Chinese like most people in speaking and understanding tones. It’s such a different way than how we speak.
Or so I thought.

But then I realized… in English, we do speak in “tones”. We just use them in a different way.

Think about saying these two phrases. (Saying them out loud would probably make it clearer.)

I am going to the store.

I am going to the store?

Likely, when you asked the question, your voice raised a little at the end of the sentence. Anyone (native English speaker, that is) who heard you speak it knew you were asking a question, even though you said the exact same words as before. I’m sure you’ve never thought about it because it’s just built in to the way we speak. We do it without thinking. Just like a native Chinese can hear the nuances in tone without even thinking. But when they speak English, they sound very flat. With no “feeling” in their speech. That’s because Chinese doesn’t use intonation for “feeling”.

In Chinese, the tones are used to differentiate between words instead of punctuation. They have words that speak pronunciation. {ma} for example added to the end of the sentence says I just asked a question. Just like speaking the question mark. {ba} added to the end makes a suggestion. And the tones are used to make different words

Take shì (是) & shí(十).

Make the statement “Shi.” And be very clear you are making a statement… You just said the word “is”.

Now ask “Shi?” Be sure it sounds like a question. You just said the word “ten”.

Same syllables. Different intonation. You just learned how to say the 2nd and 4th tones of Mandarin.

The first and third don’t translate quite as easily but most people find them the easiest to hear. They both sound a little like singing to me. The first tone sounds like you are singing a high flat note at the top of your range. Hard to explain but pretty to easy to hear.

Third tone is a low dip with your voice. Very low and deep.

And now you’ve learned my little trick for speaking tones in Chinese. Anytime, I need to say a word with 4th tone, I just make it a question. Second tone is a statement. The other tones you just have to hear someone say and learn to be a mockingbird.

Here is another site with more detail and some audio clips on Mandarin tones if you want to get more technical about it.

You might also like my post on the Top 12 words you should learn in Mandarin.

What is your best trick for learning and speaking Chinese?


Top 12 Chinese Phrases you should learn to speak when you move to China

The Mandarin purist police are going to get on to me for not giving the tones with the pinyin here. Technically this is not the way you would write out these phrases. (Although if you want to get really technical, to be written in Chinese they would actually be in characters. But then, that would be completely pointless for teaching pronunciation.) Every syllable has a tone with a special intonation that makes it understandable in Chinese. The truth is, if you’ve studied enough Chinese to know the tones… you already know these phrases so you could just skip this post anyway. AND if not, having me type them here won’t teach them anyway. (Ok, I admit it. The truth is, they’re just hard to type.)

Think of this as merely a crash course. For those phrases you’ll use all the time. To aid your charades when you really need the help of a word. The most basic of communication. And really, to let the Chinese know you aren’t just some stuck up foreigner who thinks the whole world should speak your language. That you really want to TRY. And no matter how bad you butcher it, you’ll get a smile. And usually an over-the-top appreciation for your efforts. Because even the Chinese know its hard. And they are, thankfully, so much more gracious than we (especially in America) are to those who don’t speak our language.

The Basics: Hello, Good-bye, and Thank you

1. Ni Hao: {nee how} Hello. The most basic greeting. Chances are, you already know this one. But if not, at least now you’ll know what’s being said when you hear this a hundred times a day.

2. Zai jian:{zI (rhymes with eye) jee-uhn} Good-bye. Another basic. Use it often.

3. Xie Xie: {“she she” or “shay shay”} Thank you. Now this one is really just for us, the foreigners. Actually, the Chinese don’t say thank you very often. And you might even get a few odd looks, but I think it still makes you sound polite, or at least friendly. I say it all the time, no matter if they don’t understand why you thanked the taxi driver for taking you home even though it’s his job.

Saying “Yes”:

First, let me say, there is no direct translation for the word “yes” in Chinese. Normally, if you want to agree you just repeat the verb. But there are a couple of phrases that get that point across. Learning when to use which can be a little tricky, but even if you guess wrong your point is made.
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The late night taxi driver

I made it back to Shenyang in one piece. I really enjoyed my visit back to the States. Hanging out with my family. Enjoying all the amazing fattening deep fried Southern food. So much that I really didn’t want to come back.

But come back I must. My husband missed me. A little. Actually I think he just got sick of eating pizza every night. And I was really missing my massages. And dumplings.

And if I didn’t come back, I would miss out on all these amazing stories. I mean, I didn’t even make it back to the apartment before I was already laughing at this crazy life we live in China. You just can’t make this stuff up. The truth is, this blog doesn’t get updated often enough because I just don’t make myself sit down and write it out. It’s definitely NOT because I don’t have the material.

Night in Shenyang

In this case, LB was coming to pick me up at the airport because my plane didn’t land until after 11:30 at night. Which really wasn’t a big deal except the Shenyang airport is pretty small, and I wasn’t sure how many taxis would be around that late. It was not really a safety issue. It’s one really nice thing about living in this country. I can walk down the street at 11 at night and not be the least bit nervous for my safety. I actually feel much safer here than in the States, honestly.

But anyway.

LB flagged a taxi outside the gate at Riverside and told him to head to the airport. He was a little confused at first because… why would you want to go to the airport that late? There are no flights that leave that late. But LB managed to explain he was meeting me, and the driver agreed to wait and then take us back home again.

As they are riding, the driver starts asking all the usual questions. “How long have you been in China?” “Where are you from?” “Why are you here?” That sort of thing. As they are chatting, a couple of times he asked things that LB didn’t quite understand. (This whole conversation being in Chinese, of course.) Then, the driver starts clarifying. With English.

Now this is very surprising. In Shenyang, very few people can speak any English. Usually only a college age person or someone working in a hotel would know any English. Much less, a taxi driver who’s working the night shift.

But he did, which was really cool. Now, he wasn’t really spitting out whole sentences or anything, but just being able to point a conversation in the right direction helps a lot when you are trying to understand Chinese.

So anyway, they finally get to the airport which is about a half hour ride from our place. He had agreed to wait on us and to keep from having to pay a parking fee, he pulls into the far lot, away from the doors and drops LB off. They decided to swap cell numbers so they’d be able to find each other after he parked.

I’m a walking zombie after 24 hours of traveling so I’m much pretty out of it as LB meets me at the gate, grabs my bags and starts showing me to the car. He’s telling me all about this taxi driver who could speak English as we’re walking to the far lot. He was kind of excited because we’ve been hoping since we moved here to find a taxi driver we could swap numbers with and call when we needed. We don’t have a car, and sometimes it would be nice to be able to schedule someone to come pick you up if you have to go early to the airport or something. It was an extra nice perk to have one who could speak a little English too.

Then as we round the corner, I hear this man shouting, “I’m here! Here I am! Here I am!” waving his arms in air while standing in the middle of parking lot.

LB starts cracking up and I’m completely stunned.

“Yeah, that would be him.”

He looks like a kid on Christmas morning, rushing over to help with the bags. “Hello! Hello!”

I just kind of smiled and stumbled into the back seat. It’s hard to be excited about anything after 24 hours on a plane.

LB hops up front and we’re on our way.

They continue on with the chatter. He’s getting more comfortable with putting in more and more English into the conversation. I’m not really sure where he learned it though, and I just had to laugh when, as we pulled up to the toll booths, he pointed at the lane where this other car sped past us. “V – I – P lane. hmmmf. F* youuu.”

It was pretty funny.

And a little later, after a couple of tries, he also managed to put together the sentence. “You welcome to telephone me. Anytime.”

So by the time we got back to our place, we were all pretty happy with the meeting. We get out, say good-bye, and happily head on up to our apartment.

Then. As we’re on the elevator up to our floor, LB’s phone rings. It was pretty odd considering it’s about 12:30 at night at this point. He realizes it’s the taxi driver. So we start counting bags thinking we left something in the car. I don’t think so, and LB just shrugs and says, “uhh, hello?”

And even I can hear it when the phone blares…


There is truly never a dull moment in this amazing country.


Pop quiz… What is this?

Found this taped to my door.

What is it? What am I supposed to do with it?

Just a little taste of what it’s like living in a foreign country where you can’t read or speak the language. Every day is an adventure. And the littlest simplest tasks become difficult.

So what would you do?

Hint: You get something similar in the US and if I don’t deal with it soon I’m in trouble.

(p.s. I’ll tell you the answer tomorrow.)