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

First Tone

妈 mā mother

Example: 妈不在家。

Mom is not at home.

Example: 妈和我

Mom and I.

Second Tone = má

Second Tone

麻 má numb

Example: 麻辣

Spicy and numbing (as in Sichuan food)

Example: 麻雀


Third Tone = mǎ

Third Tone

马 mǎ horse

Example: 骑马

Ride a horse

Example: 斑马

Striped horse (i.e. a zebra)

Fourth Tone = mà

Fourth Tone

骂 mà scold

Example: 骂人

To scold someone

Example: 他被老师骂。

He was scolded by the teacher.

Quiz Time!

Quiz Time

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:

Question B:

Question C:

Question D:

Quiz Answers

Quiz Time

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!)