How much do I have to stress mandarin tones?
I've been learning mandarin for over a month now and I just noticed that I didn't pay atention to my tones. So some chinese friends helped me a bit and I've made an effort to make my tones more noticeable. But it's still weird because when I listen to natives, despite the fact that I understand perfectly the words I've already studied, I don't notice a too strong tone stressing. Is it just for educational purposes? Or is there really some chinese speaker who actually stresses tones like that?
I'm not sure whether this is answering your question, but in tonal languages such as Chinese the meaning is partly in the tone itself. Furthermore, since there are so many words that have both the same sound and tone, Chinese is a highly contextual language -- so it's super important you get your tones correct or you simply won't be understood unless the context is abundantly clear.
That said, you don't "stress" tones. In fact, unlike English, Chinese doesn't use stress for meaning. (What I mean by that is, in English stressing a word can change the meaning entirely: "I didn't say you did it" and "I didn't say you did it" have two very different meanings, right? Chinese doesn't have that at all.) So, don't try to add stress to your tones -- just get them right.
I'd encourage you to over-stress the tones as your first learn. Depending on your native language, the tones may only seem stressed because you're not accustomed to a tonal language. It's important to learn the tones but much more important to become proficient at tonal combinations. The combinations and the general flow of your speech is extremely important as you move from beginner into elementary and intermediate levels. I've watched many learners stall or not be taken seriously later on by natives because their speech isn't 通顺 or 地道. On the contrary, I've been mistaken for having a skin condition (lol) or a minority person because I emphasized authentic pronunciation from the very beginning. Good luck!
Although tones are very important in mandarin, I wouldn't put too much stress on it. I would understand the concepts so that when someone tries to help me, I know what they are talking about. And just mimic what you've heard.
Some people are sensitive to sounds, tones, intonations, rhythms, cadences, etc. And every language has its unique phonetic characters. As an adult language learner, I find that one of the most challenges for me is to acquire those characters. I know many Chinese locals cannot even figure out the correct mandarin tones due to their dialects' influence. But that doesn't prevent them from communicating with one another in mandarin.
One observation I have on me and on other people, sometimes what I think I've heard is not actually what it sounds. The good thing is that we can find native speakers to correct us. You've got some Chinese friends and you can check with them on your tones. That being said, you need to practice your tones with Duolingo but don't emphasize it too much. Good luck!
You should pay attention to tones and vowels and strive to make them sound correct. Tones aren't merely an extra thing for emphasis, as in English; they are a core part of the lexical meaning of the word. A small difference in pronunciation can produce a big difference in meaning. "Ask mother" is one tone different from "kiss mother." "Eat rice" is vowel different from "eat dung." It's probably not a good idea to teach yourself bad habits in the area of pronunciation.
In fast speech the tones are not that easy to tell apart for a learner but start by looking up the tones of your words and really pronouncing them slowly and accurately.
I suggest pronouncing every word you learn and the sentences you translate here with the tones. (Keep in mind that the audio here is not always correct.) If you do this correctly, you will remember the tones and Chinese people will later tell you that your tones don't confuse them unlike most westerners' tones.
There are also so called sandhis to watch out for: Pronounce third tones in succession of another one as a second tone – nǐ hǎo → ní hǎo – wǒ hěn hǎo → wǒ hén hǎo
Your third tone does not have to rise at the end if another (non-third) tone follows.
不 changes to the second tone before the 4th tone.
一+4th tone becomes yí (including 一个 yí ge)
一+other tones can become yì
Tones are part of what convey meaning, so it is important to learn them, and this may require extra effort if you are not used to tonal languages. Like many aspects of pronounciation, tones might sometimes not be expressed very distinctly in actual speech, especially when people are speaking quickly.
I'm struggling with how to say this nicely and constructively. I think you want an honest opinion, so here goes my perspective...
With English, I'm quite fond of all the different accents and pronunciations. There's such a melting pot: it's quite interesting to me to hear all the variations. It's all quite charming to me, to hear a mimic who can toss off a bunch of accents at will. So, I have tolerance to variations of speech in my native (or adopted?) language of English. Who's to say what a proper accent is for English?
I also recognize that children are omnipotent with the sound generation, but it gets lost... For example, I didn't learn how to roll my R's at an early age, so now I can't roll my R's. My Spanish will always come up short. I'm sure my French accent is also miserable...
Now with Chinese... I grew up with knowing it as a young child but lost much of the language, yet I retained the ear for it. If there a bunch of Mandarin speakers, the background sound feels like natural even though I don't understand the words.
For whatever reason, my gut reaction to hearing badly pronounced Mandarin is like finger nails on a chalkboard. I'll add, that if I hear a different dialect of Chinese, it will be disconcerting to me but it's not an irritant. Many other Asiatic tonal languages will seem alien and familiar at the same time.
Another data point that I encountered: I saw on TV, that Chinese had a higher proportion of the population that had "perfect pitch". The program attributed it to the tonality of the language.
So my bottom line, if you don't get the tones right, it just sounds dreadful. I'm sure your Chinese friends are pleased your making an effort to learn their language, but I also suspect it's tough on their ears...
I'll also add, that my ear for the Chinese language is "innate", in that it's wired in my subconscious from an early age. I can't even begin to explain to somebody why their tones are wrong. It's pretty subtle.
Why I have these feelings is a great mystery to me, but there it is.
So, I hope that helps.