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When an individual acquires a second language, it is natural for the first language to influence the second one. New words, new grammar, and new pronunciation are challenges to everyone who attempts to learn a new language. For someone learning Chinese, the most important difference is pronunciation.

Chinese uses tones rather than intonation or syllable stress, which means that the way a particular syllable is pronounced can dramatically affect meaning. For example, Mandarin Chinese has a high tone, a high-rising tone, a low-falling tone, and a high-falling tone. There is also a neutral tone. The word Yi, for example, might mean something like doctor, to shift, already, or strange, depending on which tone is used. Another example is Gong Li, which can be the name of the star of the movie "Raise the Red Lantern" using one tone pattern, but with another tone pattern could means kilometer. Learning to produce different tones could be difficult for someone whose first language is not Chinese and could lead to unintended meanings if, for example, words pronounced with intonational patterns similar to a speaker's first language rather than using the tones required in Chinese to get the correct meaning.