Chinese is a tonal language, which means that the tone of syllable influences the meaning of the word. This is a very strange concept for those not familiar with a tonal language. Chinese has four tones: flat, rising, falling-rising and falling. These differences are very important in understanding words. 妈 and 马 are pronounced: Mā and mǎ respectively. The first one has a flat tone, the second one has a falling-rising tone. Mā means "mother" and mǎ means "horse". These tones are also given numbers: 1, 2, 3, 4 respectively. So Mā is the first tone and mǎ is the third tone. The number notation is easier to convey when speaking.
- First tone: This is when you almost sing a syllable.
- Second tone: You raise your tone, almost as if you are asking a question.
- Third tone: This is a tough one. You start by going down then going up again Think of saying a really inquisitive "Whaaaaat?"
- Fourth tone: Your tone is going down. Think of it as saying a word angrily or short.
There's also a fifth tone, but this is called the neutral tone, which means no tone is given. Describing Mandarin tones are difficult. The best way to understand and learn them is to listen to it. Here's a video below, taken from Youtube, that demonstrates these differences and gives a clear indication of the importance of tones
Don't underestimate the importance of Mandarin tones. The tone forms part of the meaning of the word. This is vital! Don't learn a word, without making sure you are learning it with the tone. Why not try some Mandarin tone exercises right now?