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Greetings and Tonality


Let’s pause for a brief note regarding Nǐ hǎo! 你好 and Nǐ hǎo ma? 你好吗? The exchange of Nǐ hǎo! 你好 is very brief, just like saying Hi! Nǐ hǎo ma? 你好吗? is a question and most likely will prompt the answer wǒ hěn hǎo 我很好 (I’m fine) or bù cuò 不错 (Not bad), followed by Nǐ ne? 你呢? (And you?).


Before we move on, you may have noticed that these phrases have a bit of a sing-song quality to them. This is because Mandarin Chinese is a tonal language, causing the ups and downs you hear on the vowels. There are five tones in Mandarin Chinese, and each word has its designated tone.

First Tone mā (mother) This is a high pitched tone that remains on the same pitch.
Second Tone (hemp) This is a rising tone, from medium pitched to high.
Third Tone (horse) This is a scooping tone, from low pitch to medium.
Fourth Tone (scold) This is a falling tone, very much like the stress that people put on their yes and no when they really mean it.
Neutral Tone ma (question particle) This is very much a resigned tone. Medium pitched and laid back, it usually appears at the end of a phrase.

Let’s listen to all five tones together: mā , , , , ma .

You’ll put all the tones in the right places after you learn some words. Just remember to listen for them; they’re a very essential part of speaking and understanding Chinese!