Pinyin ChartBlog
Banner Image

How to Express Emotions in a Tonal Language Like Mandarin


When you're speaking your native language, so much of your emotions are expressed in your intonation: how your voice rises and falls and emphasizes certain words.

But how can you do this in a tonal language like Mandarin, where your voice must follow the correct tones?

Yangyang and Jason Schuurman (Yoyo Chinese Product Manager and longtime Mandarin learning enthusiast) go LIVE on YouTube to teach you how to express emotions in a tonal language like Mandarin.   Watch the hangout now, and we'll post the notes from the lesson below:

Showing Emotion Even With Chinese Tones

Because ‘tones’ are called ‘tones’, people often ask the question: ‘How can you express yourself if you have to use the same ‘tone’ every time?’

The truth is, the word ‘tone’ when we talk about Chinese tones, does NOT mean intonation or emotion like when we say ‘watch your tone!’ to a child, but rather ‘pitch’ and in Chinese specifically, tones are determined by a combination of their pitch and their ‘contour’ of pitch (changing from one pitch to another). 

In other words, you can still express emotions using the ‘tone’ of your voice in Mandarin and in a Mandarin way. Let’s give some examples of Chinese phrases using different emotions:

Two concrete tips for doing this:

- elongate the word you want to emphasize

- make the pitch contour (tone) more emphasized 
*** Check out the hangout video above for examples! ***

As you can see, you can definitely express emotions using Chinese. However: you’ll notice though that the actual ‘tone’ (the Chinese tone) of the word doesn’t change, even when you’re using emotion like this. 

So, unlike English where you can also change the pitch and the pitch contour to express emotion, in Chinese, you have less flexibility when expressing emotions. 

So, in order to get around this problem, in Chinese you have rely even more on extra words to add emotion.

Using Extra Words to Add Emotions in Spite of Tones

1. Using 可 (kě) to emphasize negative/”no”

可 (kě) when used before 不 (bù) can add extra emphasis to the 不 (bù), and add a feeling of ‘really not’ or ‘definitely not’. 
  - 我不知道 (wǒ bù zhī dào) vs. 我可不知道 (wǒ kě bù zhī dào)

  - 明天会下雨,我不去 (míng tiān huì xià yǔ, wǒ bú qù) vs. 明天会下雨,我可不去 (míng tiān huì xià yǔ, wǒ kě bú qù)

  - 尝一个,尝一个,甜就买。我可不吃 (cháng yí ge, cháng yí ge, tián jiù mǎi. wǒ kě bù chī)

2. Doubling adjectives to make something ‘cute’ or inoffensive

In Chinese if you want to make some adjective description of something sound ‘cute’ or therefore less offensive or direct, you can do that by just doubling the adjective. 

  - 他很胖 (tā hěn pàng) vs 他胖胖的 (tā pàng pàng de)

  - 他的眼睛很小 (tā de yǎn jīng hěn xiǎo) vs 他的眼睛小小的 (tā de yǎn jīng xiǎo xiǎo de)

3. Doubling verbs to de-emphasize the importance of the things in a list

Doubling the verbs when giving a list of activities adds emphasis to the length of the list and the feeling of ‘did this… and did that…’, etc. Implying there was quite a few activities and maybe more that weren’t listed. 

 - 我周末喜欢看看书,上上网,睡睡觉 (wǒ zhōu mò xǐ huān kàn kàn shū, shàng shàng wǎng, shuì shuì jiào)

4. Using 呢 (ne) to show reluctance or hesitation

If you aren’t sure how to answer something, or you’d rather not answer it directly, you can use 呢 (ne) to create a natural pause that will indicate you’re not sure or reluctant/hesitant, without having to say much more. 

  - 这个不太方便 (zhè ge bú tài fāng biàn) vs. 这个呢… 不太方便 (zhè ge ne… bú tài fāng biàn)