Chinese is a tonal language. Tone is an important part of proper pronunciation. Many characters in Mandarin Chinese sound the same. Therefore, to distinguish between words when speaking Mandarin, tones are required.
Mandarin has four main tones and one neutral tone (or, as some say, five tones). Have a look at the picture below to get a better idea of the Chinese 5-level system.
妈 (mā) — mom
麻 (má) — hemp or flax
马 (mǎ) — horse
骂 (mà) — to scold or verbally abuse
吗 (ma) — a question particle
I. First tone – flat tone
The first tone is created when your voice becomes higher and flatter. The syllable is pronounced in a tone that is stretched out and neither rises nor drops in pitch. The first tone is displayed in pinyin as a long line above the vowel.
II. Second tone
A rising voice is used to create the second tone. The pitch begins low and gradually rises. It’s represented in pinyin by a rising dash above the vowel.
III. Third tone
The third tone is one of the most difficult for Mandarin learners. It dips before rising once again. The third tone is represented by a dip above the vowel in pinyin.
IV. Fourth Tone
The fourth tone begins high but quickly drops to the bottom of the tonal range. The fourth tone is represented in pinyin by a falling slant or dash above the vowel.