Mandarin Chinese is also a tonal language.Typically, a Chinese syllable is composed of one initial, one final (either simple or compound final), plus one tone. There are also syllables that have no initials, in other words, they are only composed of finals and tones. Examples are syllables like “an” (安) as in the city’s name of Xi’an and “er”(二) as in the number two. Most foreigners find it difficult for them to master tones since they are inexistent in their own languages. However, tones play a critical part in Mandarin Chinese’ pronunciation system. Correct tonal pronunciation is essential for intelligibility since a large amount of Mandarin Chinese characters share the same initial and final combination and they can only be distinguished by tones.Funny, or sometimes embarrassing, situations always happen when a foreigner mispronounces the tone of one word and is misunderstood by the locals. One interesting example that comes to my mind is about the two words: shuǐ (third tone; 水；water) and shuì (forth tone; 睡；to sleep). So, if you are thirsty and want a cup of water but accidentally pronounce it forth tone, the sentence will then “magically” turn into “I want to go to sleep.” Too bad, hah?
There are five tones in Mandarin Chinese, one through four, plus a neutral tone.
First tone: high and steady (e.g. mā)
Second tone: rises from the mid-level to high (e.g. má)
Third tone: mid-low to low descent first and then rises (e.g. mǎ)
Forth tone: a sharp fall from high to low (e.g. mà)
Neutral: light and short (e.g. ma)
Listen to the recording for Tones