Māmā qímǎ. Mǎ màn. Māmā mà mǎ.
Despite looking near-incomprehensible at first glance, these are indeed grammatically correct, while tongue-twisting, Mandarin sentences.
Chinese is often hailed as one of the most difficult languages to learn, with all of its tones and homophones. But what if I told you that these unique characteristics actually make Chinese easier to master if you know how to use them to your advantage?
In this article, you will learn essential Chinese language skills with a single phonetic sound—ma.
With this sound, you will build a strong foundation for pronouncing the four tones of Mandarin. Plus, you will be able to use your newly acquired knowledge of ma to practice asking simple questions.
Are you ready?
Let’s get right into it!
Chinese Ma: A Petite Word with the Power to Pump Up Your Proficiency
Learning the Four Tones with Ma
If you are learning Mandarin as a speaker of a non-tonal language, such as English, you will want first to get familiar with the four tones.
Let’s get acquainted with these four tones using our base word, ma. You will notice that different tones yield different meanings of this word.
- 妈 (mā) — mother
This tone is pronounced with a high and flat pitch. Keep your voice steady; your pitch does not need to be unnaturally high, though it helps to exaggerate all of these tones when you are first learning.
- 麻 (má) — hemp
This is a rising tone. Start at a neutral pitch; your voice should rise until it matches the pitch of your first tone.
- 马 (mǎ) — horse
This tone dips low before rising again.
- 骂 (mà) — to scold
This tone starts at the neutral tone or slightly higher, then falls sharply.
Fifth or neutral tone
- 吗 (ma) — particle indicating a question
Some words in Mandarin do not have a tone; they are toneless, or neutral.
Reading and Writing Tones
It is important to learn how to recognize the tone marks in pinyin (romanized Chinese) so that you can read and process your learning materials appropriately. Throughout FluentU and beyond, you will see tones written in the following formats:
- mā, ma1
- má, ma2
- mǎ, ma3
- mà, ma4
- ma, ma
The neutral tone is frequently left unnumbered when it appears in pinyin. However, you may occasionally see it written as ma5.
Having a strong command of these tone mark denotations will help your reading fluency and speaking accuracy. On some computer input methods, you will even be able to sort characters by tone to more quickly locate the word you want.
Mastering these tones will feel tricky at first, but hang in there!
The video resources on FluentU are also an excellent way to reinforce your listening skills and review the written tone mark denotations.
FluentU takes real-world videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language learning lessons. Tools like interactive captions, personalized vocabulary lists and clickable audio samples will help you become a tone master in no time.
Using the Particle Ma to Create Questions
Now that you know your tones, let’s hone in on one of the most common ma words you will hear—the neutral question particle 吗 (ma).
This particle appears at the end of sentences to turn them into yes-or-no inquiries. You can think of it like a verbalized question mark—it signals to your listener that you are asking them something, rather than making a declarative statement.
Let’s take a closer look at how the particle 吗 (ma) turns basic statements into questions.
他是你的老师。(Tā shì nǐ de lǎoshī.) — He is your teacher.
他是你的老师吗？(Tā shì nǐ de lǎoshī ma?) — Is he your teacher?
你喜欢游泳。(Nǐ xǐhuān yóuyǒng.) — You like swimming.
你喜欢游泳吗？(Nǐ xǐhuān yóuyǒng ma?) — Do you like swimming?
你会说中文。(Nǐ huì shuō zhōngwén.) — You speak Chinese.
你会说中文吗？(Nǐ huì shuō zhōngwén ma?) — Do you speak Chinese?
她是德国人。(Tā shì déguó rén.) — She is German.
她是德国人吗？(Tā shì déguó rén ma?) — Is she German?
图书馆在那里。(Túshū guǎn zài nàlǐ.) — The library is over there.
图书馆在那里吗？(Túshū guǎn zài nàlǐ ma?) — Is the library over there?
Note that in all of these examples, the word order did not change when we made our sentences into questions. You only needed to add 吗 (ma) to turn your statements into questions!
Even the most basic affirmative words, like 是 (shì — yes) and 对 (duì — correct), can be turned into simple questions by following this rule.
是。(Shì.) — Yes./Right.
是吗？(Shì ma?) — Is that right?
对。(Duì.) — Correct.
对吗？(Duì ma?) — Is that correct?
The tone of these two words is also neutral. However, you do not need to force yourself to keep a monotonous pitch. If your vocal pitch naturally wants to rise a little as you ask a question (like it does in American English), feel free to allow the same to happen in Chinese. You will become more comfortable with this as you practice your Chinese listening and speaking!
Ma Tongue Twisters for Practicing Tones and Questions
The tongue twister that we saw at the start of this article, in particular, is popular amongst Chinese learners all around the world.
Here’s how it goes:
妈妈骑马。马慢。妈妈骂马。(Māmā qímǎ. Mǎ màn. Māmā mà mǎ.) — Mother rides a horse. The horse is slow. Mother scolds the horse.
This tongue twister manages to fit three of the four ma words we learned earlier into two grammatically correct sentences. The second tone also makes an appearance through the word 骑 (qí — to ride).
If needed, you can begin practicing this tongue twister alongside a video tutorial.
With a little practice, you will be well on your way to navigating smoothly between the four tones.
In addition to this popular riddle, we can also make our own tongue twister by turning those sentences into questions!
Each clause in the previous tongue twister can stand alone as its own sentence. As you now know, stand-alone sentences can transform into questions with the addition of the particle 吗 (ma).
Let’s try it!
妈妈骑马。(Māmā qímǎ.) — Mother rides a horse.
妈妈骑马吗？(Māmā qímǎ ma?) — Is mother riding a horse?
马慢。(Mǎ màn.) — The horse is slow.
马慢吗？(Mǎ màn ma?) — Is the horse slow?
妈妈骂马。(Māmā mà mǎ.) — Mother scolds the horse.
妈妈骂马吗？(Māmā mà mǎ ma?) — Is mother scolding the horse?
After putting these pieces together, we have our new tongue twister:
妈妈起马吗？马慢吗？妈妈骂马吗？(Māmā qímǎ ma? Mǎ màn ma? Māmā mà mǎ ma?) — Is mother riding a horse? Is the horse slow? Is mother scolding the horse?
Like most tongue twisters, this one is a bit nonsensical. However, it is the silliness that will help it stick in your memory forever!
Using different tonal pronunciations of a single word, ma, you have learned about the four basic tones of Mandarin.
You have also explored the fifth neutral tone, commonly found in the question particle 吗 (ma), and tried your hand at using this particle to turn sentences into questions.
With our two silly tongue twisters and loads of online resources at your fingertips, you are ready to pump up your Mandarin pronunciation proficiency.
Kelsey Owyang is an educator from California.
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