#2 Learning Tip: How many tones does Cantonese have? (English/粵語)

Raymond and Cameron tackle the subject of tones--does Cantonese have 6 or 9? Then Raymond shares his own tip for helping students practice tones. As for slang, there are two expressions this week: 雞同鴨講 (gai1 tung4 aap3 gong2)and 唔啱channel (m4 ngaam1 channel). 

Extra resources for tone practice:
Cantolounge - How many tones are there in Cantonese? https://youtu.be/NM7tXfXnCzM
Cantonese with Brittany - Beginner Cantonese | The Six Tones https://youtu.be/b38H_ySiTd4
Cantonese Learning Centre http://www.clc.com.hk/

1. 聲調 sing1 diu6 (N)sounds and tones; tones
2. 倒轉 dou2/6 zyun3 (V)backward/reverse
3. 自然 zi6 jin4 (ADJ/N)natural/nature
4. 反應 fan2 jing3 (N/V)response / to respond
5. 數字 sou3 zi6 (N)number
6. 高低 gou1 dai1 (N)height / high and low; pitch; level
7. 發音 faat3 jam1 (N/VO)pronunciation / to pronounce
8. 韻腳 wan5 goek3 (N)coda / ending sound
9. 入聲 jap6 sing1 (N)entering tone
10. 影響 jing2 hoeng2 (N/V)impact/influence
11. 意思 ji3 si1 (N)meaning
12. 亂 lyun6 (ADJ/N)messy
13. 方法 fong1 faat3 (N)approach/method
14. 記得 gei3 dak1 (V)to remember
15. 容易 jung4 ji6 (ADJ)easy
16. 密碼 mat6 maa5 (N)secret code; password
17. 句子 geoi3 zi2 (N)sentence
18. 翻譯 faan1 jik6 (V/N)to translate / translation
19. 叫聲 giu3 sing1/seng1 (N)animal sound
20. 溝通 kau1 tung1 (N/V)communication / to communicate

ADJ - adjective
ADV - adverb
EXP - expression
N - noun
V - verb
VO - verb object

Transcript and Translation:

Cameron: I'm curious Raymond, in your experience, what do most students think about the tones in Cantonese?


(I think that many students think that tones are the hardest part of Cantonese. I also want to turn it back to you Cameron, why do you think tones are hard, or do you think that they are hard?)

Cameron: Oh, what do I think of the tones? Well, I guess I really kind of think about tones in Cantonese as sort of all about muscle memory.


(A natural response/reaction.)

Cameron: Yeah, in a sense that the more you practice producing them while at the beginning, it's definitely something you’re constantly forcing yourself for. Eventually, you start to feel what your mouth feels like, what it produces those sounds, and becomes more natural. But at the beginning, I definitely thought they were challenging, especially in comparison to Mandarin, perhaps because there's just more tones in Cantonese.


(Yes, many people, including people who speak Cantonese, aren’t totally clear on how many tones there are. Cameron, do you know how many tones there are?)

Cameron: Oh, really this is a little bit of a trick question because I know there’s sometimes debates about how we translate the word “tones”. I think it is 6, but I also know there's a way that it’s 9. 


(Yup, different people will say different numbers. Most people will say nine or six. It’s because there is a saying that there are “nine sounds, six tones,” which means there are nine sorts of sounds and six tones, or six pitch levels. So in terms of tones, Cantonese essentially has six, which is only two more than Mandarin. But why talk about nine? It’s because there are still these three others, and people used to talk about [Chinese] pronunciation in terms of the ending sound, also known as the “tail,” and those ending with p, t, or k were called “entering tones” in Cantonese or Chinese. Now they will have some influence on your overall pronunciation, so then when you add the three [entering tones], you have six plus three which becomes nine, and that’s how you get [the saying] “nine sounds, six tones.” But if you are just talking about “tones,” then people don’t need to worry, just focus on learning six and you’ll be okay.)

Cameron: All right, I think this is a great piece to recap. Just the idea that in Cantonese it‘s seen as having nine sounds but six tones or tone contours, because three of the set of these nine sounds are the entering tones or words with sounds of p, t, or k tails. So they are treated as sort of distinct tones in classical Chinese linguistics. But those entering tones happen at the same pitch levels as the high level, mid level, and low level tones, so you don't have to think of those as different tones altogether. And that means that those are already encompassed in what's tone 1, tone 3, and tone 6. It's also probably helpful if we quickly clarify what these six tones are, and again, we're speaking specifically about Hong Kong Cantonese at this point, and contemporary Hong Kong Cantonese at that, because in different places, and also at different times in the case of Hong Kong, there have been other tones. Some people might know about a 7th high falling tone, and we're not going to really deal with that as much right now, but the tones we are talking about are a high flat tone, “laa1”, a mid rising tone, “laa2”, a mid flat tone “laa3”, a low falling tone, “laa4”, a low rising tone “laa5” and a low flat tone “laa6”. If you are specifically looking to practice these tones more, there is a lot of great YouTube videos out there that help visualize this and also provide examples using a lot more different vowel sounds and also the sounds of the p, t and k tails, and we will link to some of those in the show notes. But I'm curious, Raymond, if you have any tricks for just sort of quickly helping students acclimate to the different tones.

Raymond:我哋好傳統呢,學聲調1,可能大家如果學過普通話,大家都會聽過,譬如普通話嘅四聲呢,最多人講嘅例子,“媽、麻、馬、罵”噉講四個字,四個聲調,四個意思11,係唔係?噉廣東話都有類似噉樣嘅例子啦,噉聽得最多可能會用個“詩”呢個字啦,“詩、史、試、時、市、事”。噉六個聲調1,亦都係六個字,六個意思11啦。噉講的快啲 “詩、史、試、時、市、事”。噉但係你講得快呢,你跟住就會12喇,因爲你六個字呢,一齊講嘅時候其實係冇意思11嘅係唔係?噉所以呢,而家都有好多人會諗一啲唔同嘅方法13幫佢哋記得14,係有意思11嘅,有呢六個聲調1嘅字嘅。噉一個方法13呢,就用數字5啦。噉我考吓你喇,Cameron,有咩數字5係第一聲​​㗎?好似“詩”噉樣係咩數字5呀。

(Traditionally when we study tones--perhaps people who have studied Mandarin will have heard this before--such as when studying the four tones of Mandarin, most people will use the example: “Mā, má, mǎ, mà.” Four characters, four tones, four different meanings, right? Well Cantonese has similar examples,  perhaps the one heard most is “si”: si1, si2, si3, si4, si5, si6. Well, that’s six tones, six characters, and six meanings. Then saying it faster: si1, si2, si3, si4, si5, si6. However, if you say it fast, you’ll get confused, as these six words don’t mean anything when said together, right?  So, now a lot of people think up different methods to help them remember, which do have meaning, and have all six tones. One method is to use numbers. I’ll test you Cameron, what numbers use the first tone? What number is the same tone as “si1?”)

Cameron: Oh okay so we're thinking about what numbers in Cantoneses fit within each of the six tones, so first tone that would be “一”同“三”. (One and three.)


(“One,” yes, “three” is, too. We’ll use “three,” as “one” is an entering tone. So we’ll use three. So remember, “three” is the first tone. Good, so we can go faster now. What number is the second tone?)



(Good, good, “three, nine”, the first and the second tone. Now the third tone, “si1, si2, si3,” like this, which number is it?)



(“Four,” four is the third tone. So following “si1, si2, si3, si4,” now which one is the fourth tone?)



(Yes, zero, some people forget that zero is a number. It’s the only fourth tone, “three, nine, four, zero.” Now the fifth tone, “si1, si2, si3, si4, si5,” which number has this sort of tone?)



(It’s five, it fits just right, it’s quite easy to remember. “Three, nine, four, zero, five.” The sixth tone then, “si1, si2, si3, si4, si5, si6.” Which number has the sixth tone?)

Cameron:“六”同“十”。(Six and ten.)


(Six and ten, though both of these are entering tones. There is still another.)

Cameron:“二”。 (Two.)


(Two, very good. So we earlier said “poem, history, try, time, market, thing” [the literal meaning of the “si” tone sequence]. This is easier to remember, if we turn them into numbers. “Three, nine, four, zero, five, two.” With students I’ll say, it’s like a password, it helps you remember the six tones. But some people don’t like remembering numbers, what do they remember? Well, we really just think of a sentence that has meaning, a sentence with six characters with the six tones. Now if I say some examples, that will be better. What about “Hoeng1 gong2 ge3 ngau4 naam5 min6.” You can help translate, what is it in English?”)

Cameron: Hong Kong beef brisket noodles.

Raymond:係啦,呢樣嘢已經係六個聲調1啦,“香港嘅牛腩麵”。同埋呢,我都叫啲同學試下自己寫,你都可以作一個出嚟嘅。噉又可能啲意思係好奇怪,或者好好笑噉樣。噉我都作咗一個嘅,我作咗個“黐咗線成兩日”。“You went crazy for two whole days.” “癡咗線成兩日”。噉所以就係用呢啲方法13呢,你講得多呢,你就會好記得呢六個聲調1應該係點様喇。

(Yes, this already has six tones, “Hong Kong beef brisket noodles.” Furthermore, I also ask students to try writing themselves, you can also produce one. Now, the meaning might be a bit strange, or very funny. I did one, it’s “ci1 zo2 sin3 seng4 leung5 jat6.” “You went crazy for two whole days.” “ci1 zo2 sin3 seng4 leung5 jat6.” So by using this method, if you say it a lot, you will better remember what the six tones are like.)

Cameron: I think that's a great strategy. Just creating your own sequence of six words that encompasses all 6 tones in Cantonese and using it as a way to tune yourself, or sort of find those tones. Because I think it's always important to remember that the tones, they're not absolute pitches, they are relative pitches, and they feel and sound different for everyone. One thing I'll also add is something I often do when I practice is I will use my hands to sort of direct myself like a baton, and trace the tone contours in the air as I say them, and that really helps internalize the feeling of the tones as something that you're actually creating, and it's part of your body and part of your vocal expression, and not just some abstract auditory ideal like you're aiming at. You really want it to be something that comes from you. Now one caveat is that this sort of hand tracing motion is best for practicing alone, and not necessarily when you're speaking in daily conversation with strangers as they might find it a little confusing.


Raymond:噉,Cameron 你可唔可以試下解釋下咩係「雞同鴨講」呀?

(Cameron, can you try translating “gai1 tung4 aap3 gong2”?)

Cameron:So this is kind of a funny slang for us to share today. It literally means for a chicken and a duck to speak, and one of its really common usages is when two different people try to speak to each other, but they don't speak the same language. So there's obviously a huge communication barrier right there, though that doesn't really apply to this situation since Raymond I both understand the language the other one is speaking, but you can probably imagine situations where two people are speaking two languages and not getting through to each other.


(Yup, you put it right, if you look at this saying, you see a chicken and a duck, the sounds they make aren’t the same, so the language they speak isn’t the same, so they can’t communicate. But does it only apply to situations when two people don’t speak the same language?)

Cameron: Yea, you could also use it in situations where people just can't get through to each other even if they are speaking the same language, if they're speaking at cross-purposes, or even just not listening to each other. But I'm curious Raymond if there's maybe some other ways of saying this, even more current ones because I know this is a fairly well established saying.


(There are, as this saying has been used for many years, it’s basically become an idiom. However, one new expression is “you and I aren’t on the ‘same channel,’” or “What we’re saying are on different channels.”)

Cameron: So we're not on the same channel. I think that's similar to the English “we are not on the same wavelength”, so just the idea that maybe because they differ from characteristics or preferences, we have trouble coming to an agreement.


(Yup, for example, if you like watching horror movies, I might say that we “m4 ngaam1 Channel,” since I am afraid of ghosts, so I am afraid of watching horror movies.)

Cameron: Yes, so in that case. We might have trouble finding a movie that we both wanted to watch.「我哋唔啱Channel」。