Laughing horse

Basics 101

Mandarin Chinese is the official language of Mainland China and is one of the official languages of the United Nations. It is the most widely-spoken language in the world.  Mandarin Chinese is sometimes referred to as a “dialect”. There are many versions of Mandarin spoken throughout China, and these are usually classified as dialects.

Mandarin uses four tones (Other Chinese languages have up to 10 distinct tones) to clarify the meanings of words. Since many characters have the same sound, tones are used to differentiate words from each other. This is why many foreigners tend not to try but to play dumb.


When learning new language vocabulary you must practice both the pronunciation of the word and its tone. The wrong tones can change the meaning of your sentences. The four tones in Mandarin are:

  • high level – first tone
  • rising – second tone
  • falling rising – third tone
  • falling – fourth tone

Here’s where it gets tricky!

  • First tone: ma1 or
  • Second tone: ma2 or
  • Third tone: ma3 or
  • Fourth tone: ma4 or


Pinyin uses either numbers or tone marks to indicate the tones. Here is the word ‘ma’ with tone marks:

Screenshot 2017-06-13 15.04.57

The tones are used to determine the meaning of a Mandarin word.

So (horse) is very different from (mother).  Just sayin!

Pinyin Chinese Character Meaning Sound Clip
mother audio
hemp adio
horse audio
scold audio