Easy Way to Learn Mandarin Chinese Tones!
Tonal Spelling for Mandarin Chinese
Remembering the tones of new vocabularly is one the greatest challenges facing the beginning student of Chinese. Tonally Orthographic Pinyin is a modified version of the HànyÇ PÄ«nyÄ«n system of Chinese romanization developed by Terry Waltz and popularized on the Forumosa on-line discussion boards. It seeks to help students of Chinese remember the tones of words by incorporating the tones into the spelling of those words.
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The Problem with Tone Marks
Chinese has four tones, plus a "neutral" tone. Differences in tone change the meanings of words. For example, the sound "ma" can mean mom, toad, horse, scold, or be a particle indicating a question.
In the Hànyǔ Pīnyīn writing system, the tones are represented with diacritics. The four diacritical marks using in Hànyǔ Pīnyīn are demonstrated below:
1st tone: mā (mom)
2nd tone: má (toad)
3rd tone: mǎ (horse)
4th tone: mà (scold)
Neutral : ma (question particle)
Many learners of Chinese whose native languages do not use tones in this way have difficulty remembering the tones when learning new vocabulary or correctly pronouncing the tones when reading aloud from Pīnyīn. Often student report ignoring or "not seeing" the diacritical marks.
A Previous Attempt at Phonetic Spelling
Gwoyeu Romatzyh romanization system for Mandarin Chinese
The most wide-spread romanization system to incorporate the tones into spelling was the Gwoyeu Romatzyh (GR) romanization system for Mandarin Chinese. It used a complicated set of complicated rules to indicate the various tones:
The following (slightly edited) explanation of the rules is taken from Wikipedia.
The additional letter or modified letter (replacement of another) to signify tone is usually done to the vowel or diphthong. The following list number correspond to tone number.
1. No extra tone-letter is added to tone one, i.e., they are written as if they have no tone, and syllables with other tones are modified from tone one. Except:
1.1 Those beginning with l, r, m, and n have -h after them. And tone-two syllables with l, r, m, and n initials behave like tone-one syllable.
2. For tone-two syllables, all vowels (and last vowel of the diphthongs) are followed by r, except:
2.1 I becomes y, unless it is final, then i has y preceding it: yi.
2.2 U becomes w, unless it is final, then u has w preceding it: wu.
3. Tone-three vowels are doubled, except:
3.1 Diphthongs with a do not double. Instead, the I becomes e or the U becomes o.
3.2 Note that, for diphthongs without a, the letter that comes first in alphabet order is doubled, i.e.,
3.2.1 Double e, not i.
3.2.2 Double o, not u.
3.3 There may also be an additional cosmetic change. See below.
4. For tone-four syllables, all vowels (and last vowel of the diphthongs) are followed by h, except:
4.1 Those syllables end in -n double the consonant: -nn.
4.2 Those end in -l double the consonant: -ll.
4.3 Those end in -ng become -nq.
4.4 In diphthongs with final "I" or "U"...
4.4.1 I becomes y.
4.4.2 U becomes w.
4.5 There may also be an additional cosmetic change. See below.
5. A dot (often written as period) is placed before neutral tone syllables (which otherwise appear in those syllables' exact original tonal spelling). However, this is sometimes ignored by the writer.
[END OF WIKIPEDIA QUOTE]
For example, the four tones of ma:
GR is considered unnecessarily complicated by most educators and students, and while it is still used in some Chinese textbooks, it has for the most part been supplanted by Hànyǔ Pīnyīn.
The TOP System
An easier tonal spelling system for Mandarin Chinese
The TOP system assist learners of Chinese remember the tones by incorporating the tones into the spelling, while avoiding the complexity of GR system.
The TOP system is simply Hànyǔ Pīnyīn with tones represented by letter capitalization rather than diacritics.
The TOP system renders the four tones of "ma" as follows:
1st tone: MA (all letters uppercase)
2nd tone: mA (final letter uppercase)
3rd tone: ma (all letters lowercase)
4th tone: Ma (initial letter uppercase)
Neutral : ma* (all lowercase with an asterisk at the end)
Any student of Chinese that has learned Hànyǔ Pīnyīn can learn TOP in under two minutes. Other benefits of TOP include:
1. Can be easily typed from any keyboard. No special characters required.
2. Tones are no longer an after thought. Instead of diacritical marks or numbers tacked on to the end of words, TOP represents tones by the way the words are written. You can't even begin to write the word without knowing the tone.
3. Like Hànyǔ Pīnyīn, but unlike GR, the tones are graphically represented. The first tone is a sustained higher-pitch, well-represented by all capital characters (e.g., MA, LUO, QING). The second tone is a rising tone, and the word itself rises (e.g., mA, luO, qinG). The third tone is a falling then rising or sustained low tone and is represented using all lowercase (e.g., ma, luo, qing). The fourth tone is a falling tone and is represented with an initial capital letter (e.g., Ma, Luo, Qing).
Although TOP is based off of Hànyǔ Pīnyīn, there are two notable differences:
1. Normal rules of capitalization are not used, as capitalization is used to denote tones.
2. The one-letter syllables "a" and "e" in Hànyǔ Pīnyīn are doubled (e.g. "aa" and "ee") so that the tones can be represented with capitalization (e.g., AA, aA, aa, Aa, aa*)
While TOP is a very helpful spelling technique to help student of Chinese master tones, it is not meant to replace standard Hànyǔ Pīnyīn. TOP is aesthetically unpleasing and difficult to read when there are large amounts of text or from a distance (such as on signs).
Míngtiān nǐ qù ma? (Are you going tomorrow?)
The TOP system renders this sentence as:
minGTIAN ni Qu ma*?
Once students reach intermediate level in their Chinese, they should be sufficiently comfort
Why Not Just Use Numbers?
It is common for many to simply suffix a number, 1-4, at the end of the Pinyin word to represent the tone and some question why not just follow this convention instead of using the TOP system. On commenter to this lens writes:
"I agree tone mark problems but why not just use the basic numbers?? ma1 ma2 ma3 ma4 ma5, many people consider this a little childish but if you make a swift mental switch to view the numbers as extra letters it is easy to remember the tones as ma1 and ma3 are different spellings."
The idea is that the tones are further reinforced by visually representing the tones using capitalization. The argument against tone numbers at the end is that they become an afterthought, and add-on, much like the diacritical marks.
There are two advantages to using numbers to represent tones. First, you can type the words using a regular typewriter or computer without resorting to special characters. They will display well on all computers. Second, you don't have learn the rules for where to place the tone marks, which serve only an aesthetic purpose.
The first point holds true for TOP as well. The second also holds true, except for you need to spend a bit more time learning the capitalization rules as opposed to just sticking a number at the end of the word. By a "bit more time", however, I mean, oh, thirty seconds.
TOP offers the additional advantage of representing the tone as rising or falling in the same way that the diacritical marks, without resorting to special characters and integral to the spelling, rather than an "after-mark". Numbers appended to the end of a work provide no visual cues. For many, that is not an obstacle. Others, however, find such visual cues very helpful.
Top Recommendations for the Beginning Chinese Language Student
I'm one of those people that wastes a lot of money buying more materials than I could ever reasonably use. The good thing for you, however, is that I've compared many different materials. Below are my recommendations for beginning student of Mandarin Chinese. The materials I chose are especially helpful for self-study.
Even better, you can add your suggestions and, if you used any of the below-listed materials, you can vote them up or down the list.
This workbook provides an affordable way for the beginning student or Chinese to learn Pinyin. It is also useful for native speakers who want to learn Pinyin.
I'm using this software to brush up on my Chinese now that I've moved back to Taiwan after being away for MANY years. It is an awesome product. I highly recommend this software for beginning Chinese language learners. As a matter of fact, I created a lens about it: http:
This is the textbook I used when I studied Chinese as an undergrad. It is a very good textbook. Please note that it comes in both a Pinyin and GR version. I recommend that you get the Pinyin version as you will need to learn Pinyin eventually. Although the authors recommend the tonal spelling GR version to help you learn tones as a beginning Chinese language learning, if you know the TOP system, you can use the more practical and widespread Pinyin system and not have to waste your time with the convoluted GR system that is becoming increasingly rare. You can rewrite the Pinyin vocabulary, phrases, and sentences in the book to help with memorizing and reading the tones.
The rolls royce of Chinese electronic dictionaries. Touch screen, handwriting recognition, multiple input methods, basically everything you need to look up Chinese characters.
The interactive multimedia BESTA S701 is a Chinese <-> English <-> Chinese bidirectional dictionary, personal organizer and language teacher including Chinese Mandarin, Japanese and English voice synthesis. Designed to assist people whose learning, speaking Chinese/English. It is one of the most sophisticated reference, language and business tools currently available. It's making the most sense of the complex information necessary when learning any foreign language.
FEATURES: (Best for both of Chinese and English Learning)
Built-in "Sentence Translation" and "Smart Comparisons", a good reference tools for English and Chinese translation or learning.
Built-in reputable Oxford Advanced Learner's English-Chinese Dictionary 6th Edition
Built-in English Chinese Dictionary with approx. 300,000 searchable words or phrases
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Pre-download The Contemporary Chinese Dictionary making easier for Chinese learning
Built-in Chinese-English Dictionary, American Slang Dictionary with Chinese, Japanese and Korean definitions and Internet Dictionary
Multilingual Travel Dialogues with human voice pronunciation
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Databank in Words studio, such as TOEFL, GRE, etc. to improve your vocabulary power
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If you want a more basic and affordable model, check out this one.
This Chinese <-> English <-> Chinese Electronic dictionary BESTA CD-616 includes 36 dictionaries with over 670,000 entries. Includes speech synthesis for 9 languages including Chinese, English, Japanese, Korean and more. Dictionaries: English - Chinese - English: over 270,000 entries and 64,000 expressions. Chinese Mandarin: over 13,000 words and expressions, with Zhuyin and Pinyin reference. Oxford Advanced Learner's English-Chinese Dictionary: 60,000 words and 84,000 sentence examples. Cambridge Encyclopedia: 4,000,000 entries and 24,000 grouped phrases. English-
Is TOP Useful to You?
If you a student of Mandarin Chinese, please answer the following question.
Do you think that TOP can help improve memorization of Chinese word tones over standard Hanyu Pinyin?
Kudos, criticism, and correction all welcome.