The word for “mom” in Mandarin is mā, in the first tone (high pitch). And the word for “horse” is mǎ, in the 3rd tone (falling-rising pitch). An American friend of mine once tried to insult someone in Mandarin by suggesting inappropriate behaviors to another guy’s mom. But he inadvertently proclaimed himself to be a horse lover instead. It was quite embarrassing.
Learning the tones in Mandarin is crucial. The number of sounds in the Chinese vocabulary is absurdly tiny compare to other languages. As such, tones are also used to differentiate meanings. For example, the word shi, using different tones can have over 60 different meanings! The famous poet Zhào Yuánrè (趙元任) once wrote a poem called Shi Shì shí shi shi (The Lion Eating Poet in the Stone Den), which is a 92 words poem made up entirely of “shi” in different tones:
But this shouldn’t be such a strange and alien concept as some Western students studying Chinese make it out to be. Tones are just the correct pitches we use when saying a word. Languages like Mandarin, Vietnamese, Swahili and a dozen others formalized them and make them an essential part of the pronunciation of each word. But there are less strict tonal features in all languages. In English, imagine saying a sentence like, “Hello, how are you?” in a different set of tones, such as using a low pitch on the “Hel” part and high pitch on the “lo” part of “Hello”. Sounds ridiculous right? When you use the wrong tones in Mandarin you sound ridiculous too, and some times it could even have a completely different meaning than the one you intended. For example, instead of asking “Where can I buy some pants?” (zài nǎlǐ kěyǐ mǎi kùzi?), just by changing the tone of one word (mai), you could be asking for the complete opposite question. “Zài nǎlǐ kěyǐ mài kùzi?” (Where do I sell my pants?” ).
There’s really only one set of correct pitches when saying a word in any language, tonal or otherwise. Granted, in English it is rare to have alternate meanings to words with the same phonemes (parts of sounds a word makes), but with different tones. It is much much easier to guess the meaning of an English phrase even if the pitches aren’t said correctly. So, next time you hear someone say, I can’t learn the tones! It is so hard and weird, my language doesn’t have this! Just smack him or her upside the head and point out this fact. Learning the tones is just like learning the correct pitch of each word, and it is important in any language, not just Mandarin.
Here are the 4 tones in Mandarin (not including the Neutral tone). Learn them well. Like everything else, practice makes perfect!
It can be frustrating at first, but keep at it. Your ears will eventually grow accustomed to picking up the different tones if you keep on practicing. I’ve mentioned before, the human brain is wired to learn languages naturally. It’s just a matter of time and continual usage until those neuro pathways are formed and fortified. Until then, 努力加油! (Nǔlì jiāyóu!)