Tones of voice – trying to learn Chinese


I’ve been learning Mandarin for 12 months now, and progress although steady is slow. My teacher is a delightful young woman who has an excellent reputation for getting older laowei like myself to speak putonghua (the people’s tongue – as Mandarin is called).

Annie comes to my apartment three times a week for an hour and a half at a time, and by the end of each session I am exhausted and my brain is throbbing.  And on top of that she piles on the written homework….I haven’t worked so hard since Sister Bonaventura drilled us in irregular French verbs at Lusaka Convent.  Every day I try to do an hour of vocab/revision in an attempt to get some of what I’ve been taught firmly embedded in my little grey cells.

Fortunately Chinese characters have been ‘romanised’ into Pinyin so they can be written as they sound using the Roman alphabet with appropriate tone marks above the vowels.

Mandarin has four tones, (five if you include ‘neutral’) a lot less than Cantonese which has nine and failing to get these right is frequently my downfall. When the tone changes, the meaning of the word changes. 

For example,  take the word  TANG,

1st tone  tāng  means soup;

2nd tone táng  means sugar;

3rd tone tăng means to tell lies;

4th tone tàng means boiling hot;

Imagine a situation where I am in a restaurant and ask for some sugar

the waitress brings me a bowl of soup,

and the soup is boiling hot so I couldn’t drink it even if I wanted to – which I don’t, because I didn’t want soup I wanted sugar.  When I try to explain this, it all becomes very muddled and the waitress says I am lying as I had definately ordered hot soup.

During the winter several Chinese friends suggested to me that if I were to start watching one of the many daytime soap operas on television it would improve my listening skills, and help me with pronounciation etc.  What a good idea I thought, and so I flicked through the umpteen channels and eventually found a programme which was on TV three mornings a week and looked just the job. A modern setting, it seemed (from watching the screen) to be about an extended family. A young couple, the husband’s parents and various other friends and relations (this was all guesswork). It seemed that the scheming ex-lover of the husband was hanging round intent on causing trouble… I watched like a hawk, but couldn’t understand a word that was said.  Ho hum, I thought to myself, they are speaking rather fast, I’ll get used to it.

One week later I still couldn’t hear a single word I recognised.  Nothing ventured, nothing gained, I carried on dutifully watching three times a week, waiting for my brain to kick in – nothing, rien, nada…it was all still gobbeldygook…Second week started, STILL couldn’t decipher anything (meanwhile I was making up my own script for what I was seeing).

Finally I cracked, on the third week I told my teacher Annie what I had been doing and how depressing I found it that I couldn’t understand anything.  She was surprised and said there MUST be some words I could understand.  To demonstrate, I turned on the TV and switched to the programme…Annie fell about laughing.

I had been watching a KOREAN soap opera!

About herschelian

Recently moved to Beijing from London - its all new to me! Trying to learn Chinese, and what makes this city tick.
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7 Responses to Tones of voice – trying to learn Chinese

  1. Sheila Taylor says:

    Oh Jo! You couldn’t invent this – I am so in admiration of your determination. Learning Chinese sounds almost impossible…

  2. Dani Wang says:

    Chinese isn’t impossible to learn. Granted the tones are tricky for a native English speaker, but once you get to grips with that, there is a lot of easy points to learning Chinese. Such as the verbs don’t change for person or tense – so no more drills in irregular verbs or even regular verbs (unlike French!)

  3. Learning chinese seems hard, but it is not really hard. My native language is Somali, kinda like Arabic. But I am willing to learn though the tones are hard to understand.

  4. it sucks man. hahah .. I can’t write my name, say hello. goodbye, thank you in chinese, also can write in chinese those words, but I have never been in china or chinese school, got my chinese friends.

  5. tobi says:

    hehe, so interesting!

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