The syllable “ma” is commonly used to explain the four Chinese tones to beginners, because ma can either mean mother, numb, horse or scold, depending on which of the four tones is used.
Here’s a guide to each variation of “ma”, complete with audio examples. See if you can recognize and hear the difference! Practice saying the words after you listen to the audio.
First Tone = mā
妈 mā mother
Mom is not at home.
Mom and I.
Second Tone = má
麻 má numb
Spicy and numbing (as in Sichuan food)
Third Tone = mǎ
马 mǎ horse
Ride a horse
Striped horse (i.e. a zebra)
Fourth Tone = mà
骂 mà scold
To scold someone
He was scolded by the teacher.
See if you can identify which ma each of the following 4 sentences contains: mā 妈, má 麻, mǎ 马 or mà 骂.
(answers at bottom of page)
Question A: má 麻 (full sentence: 我喜欢吃麻辣)
Question B: mǎ 马 (full sentence: 木马)
Question C: mā 妈 (full sentence: 爸妈)
Question D: mà 骂 (full sentence: 被骂)
Did you get it right?
Finally, a shameless plug:
If you haven’t tried out our app yet, you might want to give it a spin. It offers a fun & easy way to learn and practice Chinese tones (and the first lesson teaches you how to recognize ma!)