Thursday, October 11, 2012

The Importance of Not Being Tone-Deaf

This week the woman who taught us our first Chinese numbers and simple phrases is posting a series she calls "Language Week." Seeing as how she's lived in China for more than two decades, she has all sorts of great language-lerning stories. I thought I'd share a snippet from today's blog, titled "Of Tones and Trains" to demonstrate the importance of getting our tones right:

"We approached the window, stuck our money into the tiny opening and carefully told the lady behind the glass and the date, train number and what type of tickets we wanted. She took our money, wrote out the tickets (they were hand-written pieces of paper in 1992), and handed them to us.

Then, just to verify that we had gotten the right tickets, I stuck my nose back up to the opening and said “shi ba dian ma?” Is 8 o’clock?  The lady nodded her head and said back to me, “shi ba dian.” Is 8 o’clock.

Or so I thought.

Two days later we went to the station at 7, an hour before our 8pm train. When we showed our tickets to get into the soft sleeper waiting room, the attendant on duty looked at our tickets and said YOUR TRAIN LEFT AN HOUR AGO!!

We looked at each other in horror! ...

...we tried to figure out what had happened? How had we so completely misunderstood what time the train was to leave?

It was the tones that had tripped us up.

When we said shi ba dian ma, what was in our minds was this: is 8 o’clock?

When the ticket said shi ba dian, what she had in her mind was: 1800 hours. (6 pm)

Shi said with a falling tone means “is.” Shi said with a rising tone means “10.” Stick ba after it and together they become shiba, which means 18.

We didn’t know if we had said the tone wrong (making her hear it correctly) or if we had incorrectly heard her correct tone. It didn’t matter. The fact remained that we had missed our train because of the tones.

(go read the rest of Joann's entire post. (and while you're at it, subscribe to her blog, it's one of our favorites).
Her other "Language-week"  posts are also worth a read: What Does Ju Mean?, How Long Does it Take to Learn Chinese? and Language Week at Outside-In. This older language-learning post is also good: A Letter to Chinese Language Learners.

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