Chinese, like many Asian languages, is a tonal language, meaning that the same sound with a different tone has a different meaning. Mastering those Chinese tones is really difficult for many Westerners. So you may ask: Are tones really that important for learning Chinese?
Does context trump tones?
Some foreigners say tones don’t really matter that much when learning Mandarin because in the right context the Chinese person will figure out what you want to say. Well, my experience is that tones do matter. Especially in the beginning when your grammar and vocabulary is rather limited and your sentences or questions are very short and thus don’t provide much context, such as telling a taxi driver your destination.
Why do tones matter?
To a Chinese ear words with the same syllables in pinyin but different tones do not sound similar. A Chinese local will hear completely different words. Of course, those words also have different characters.
Let me give you an example. I was chatting with a Chinese friend about food and came to the topic of cheese. I was trying to remember if the word for cheese was zhīshì or zhīshi, with the first tone followed either by a fourth tone or a neutral tone). I know one means cheese, the other one means knowledge. When I pointed out to my friend that the Chinese words for cheese and knowledge are similar, she looked at me in surprise and said “How are they similar?” To a Chinese ear, these are two totally different words. (zhīshì 芝士- cheese; zhīshi 知识 – knowledge)
How to master Chinese tones when learning Mandarin?
Tones are best learned right at the beginning because it is really hard to correct it later, after you got used to saying a word the wrong way. When selecting a Chinese language class, program or private teacher, make sure that your teacher corrects your tones and teaches you correct intonations, not just for single words but for entire phrases.
There are some tools available to practice recognizing Chinese tones. For example, TrainChinese has a Pinyin Trainer app that includes a tone recognition game. The BBC languages section also has a Chinese tone guide and game that explains the different tones and lets you practice.