December 05, 2020

Discussions with my Slovak-born Chinese friend about tones in Mandarin Chinese

Recently I've been going to my friend's Chinese restaurant every Saturday to eat and have a good time for a few hours with my local Slovak-Chinese friends.

I've been always fascinated with perfectly bi-lingual and bi-cultural people - the more complex or unexpected the combination the better. My friend's parents are from the ZheJiang province in South-East China. He was in China for 3 years from 6 to 9 years old to learn Mandarin (until then he only spoke his local ZheJiang dialect at home with his parents) and came back to Slovakia right before he would have learned anything about the structure of Mandarin in Chinese schools as Chinese students do.

He speaks Mandarin completely by feel, at a native level, albeit with a limited vocabulary and sometimes limited expressions, but at a native level. He speaks Slovak better than Mandarin. He feels more Slovak/European than Chinese. 

Since I started learning Mandarin, I was always most curious about how native speakers perceived tones, how and whether at all they think about them when they speak and it was quite difficult to talk about this to educated Chinese native speakers, because they all had learned about the structure of Mandarin in school which influenced their perception. 

My friend however knows nothing about Mandarin structure, speaks it intuitively and the following, to me fascinating, discussion took place:

Me: I'm going to tell you a few words at random, you tell me what the words mean and describe the tone the word is pronounced in with your own words (remember, my friend doesn't know Mandarin has 4 tones).

I then proceeded to pronounce about 20 words, deliberately randomizing the words I was saying so that no two same tones followed. Here's how my friend described the tones he heard. I'm deliberately using his exact words so that what he felt is preserved best:

1st tone:

低 "di" means 'low'. The tone I hear is also low. But the 'i' at the end suddenly goes up a bit. 

發 "fa" means 'to give away, distribute'. It goes from a high tone down. 

撥 "bo" means to 'peel'. Goes from top to bottom.

桌 "zhuo" means 'table. Goes from bottom up.

玻 "bo" means 'glass'. Tone goes up. 

音 "yin" means 'sound'. It's a high tone.

2nd tone: 

懷 "huai" means 'to embrace'. The tone goes from top to bottom.

學 "xue" means 'to learn'. The tone is short and flat.

福 "fu" means 'happiness, luck'. The tone is short and flat.

房 "fang" means 'house'. The tone is flat and goes up at the end.

3rd tone: 

筆 "bi" means 'pen'. The tone is down low from the start.

影 "ying" means 'shadow'. The tone is low and the final 'n' goes up.

禮 "li" means 'present' as in 禮物 It goes down and then up. 

4th tone: 

快 "kuai" means 'quick'. The tone is short and flat.

熱 "re" means 'hot'. The tone is low.

避 "bi" means 'to avoid'. The tone goes up (!)

Absolutely fascinating. 

I then went on and told my friend that according to what he just described, Mandarin should have about 15 tones, but in reality, there are only 4 full tones in Mandarin.

My friend: Hold on. And this is scientifically proven?? I didn't know Mandarin had tones like that!:)

I then rearranged the same words so that they were in 4 groups according to their tones and pronounced them again so that he would hear them grouped. Here is what my friend said about the 4 groups:

Yeah, they do sound similar. 

1st tone group: Flat tone.

2nd tone group: High flat tone.

3rd tone group: Fluctuates down up.

4th tone group: Short flat.


What is and always has been most intriguing to me is, that native speakers of Chinese, as my friend, have no idea Mandarin has 4 tones growing up, yet they speak it natively well and me, who was told Mandarin had 4 tones from the start struggles speaking to this day. By struggling I mean, I have to think consciously about Mandarin tones as I speak which is distracting, tiring and is slowing me down. Maybe time to give my Mandarin tones - sound approach only an academic re-visit:

It was also interesting to see what meaning my friend would choose for all these single syllables taken out of context and how he would translate them into Slovak. 

My friend also never heard Taiwanese Mandarin. Or maybe he heard it, but he wasn't aware that it was Taiwanese Mandarin. I was curious about how he would perceive the accent, so I told him I'd play a Taiwanese talk-radio podcast to him and asked him to tell me what his 'organic' impression was, what he felt was different, or whether he could immediately feel the tones or pronunciation were different for instance etc..

I played the podcast, my friend listened to it for a bit, then his eyes opened wide he smiled, pointed at me and said: This is how you talk man! :)

Fascinating day. 


  1. This is so fascinating! Thank you for sharing :)

  2. Great! Please continue sharing such gems!

  3. This is really making me consider going back to a 'listening only' approach. I still feel like part of my brain is actively monitoring my tones and I am unsure how to turn that off without sacrificing accuracy.

    Thanks a lot for sharing this experiment!