Travel, Teach, Live in China
For speakers studying Mandarin, learning the tones can be quite the challenge. Mandarin has 4 tones, and one neutral tone; This means that one word can have a variety of meanings based on the way you say it. The Mandarin word "ma" for example can mean mom, hemp, horse, scold or indicate a question depending on what tone is used! Being such a foreign concept, how can you learn tones without hours of meaningless repetition?
The first answer is simple, you need to understand that even in English we use tones all the time! We may not realize it, but by putting a different intonation on the exact same word we can have a variety of meanings!
Take the word "yeah" for example. Our tones on it are very similar to the Chinese tones!
1. A Mandarin first tone is a high level and neutral pitch. Try saying "yeah" just a little higher than your normal voice, and also keep it the same pitch. What did that sound like? If you were to say that in a conversation what would you be expressing? In English a high level neutral pitched "yeah" indicates doubt. Its like saying "I see what you are saying, but I'm not sure." And we get all of that out of just saying "yeah!"
2. A Mandarin second tone is rising tone - you start your voice low and it comes higher. Say "yeah" with a voice lower than your normal voice level, then immediately rise it just a bit above your normal voice level. When you do this with "yeah" you usually are saying either "really? That's interesting."
3. A Mandarin third tone is a falling first, then rising tone. Say "yeah" starting high, then bring it down, then bring it back up. What does this mean in English? In a conversation most of the time it would mean "you are right, but what's your point?"
4. The Mandarin fourth tone is a falling tone. Imagine you are upset at someone and they just asked you a question you thought was a dumb question so you answer "yeah." Start a bit high then drop fast. In this case Yeah simply means yes, but with it you are also indicating that the person should have known better then to ask that question.
The reality is that Chinese is not that much different from our own language. Tones are a little foreign, but understanding we use them in some cases as well can further your understanding. The major difference is that their tones are assigned to EVERY word, whereas we use them selectively.
One more thing to point out, you can't simply not worry about tones and assume people with understand you. As your language ability increases so do the importance of tones. One of the best things you can do to hear and understand tones is get practice with a native speaker or advanced level student of Chinese.
I would recommend checking out my website http://www.cafespeak.com where you can use Skype to meet with a native speaker of a language. In the meantime, keep working on those tones!