Friday, March 01, 2013

Friday Loose Bloggers Consortium: Getting Things Wrong in a Foreign Language

Wow, this topic was cut out for me!  Even though I've been learning Chinese for about 30 years, I still have a lot of learning to do, and I often get things wrong!  Luckily I haven't made too many catastrophic mistakes.

I have made plenty of mistakes myself, but I am reminded of something that happened to someone else.  The Chinese language is based on tones.  Let me give you an example of what I mean by "tone".   In some ways, the English language also has tones.  For example, many people might say "How are you?", but emphasize the "you" in this way; "How are YOU?"  Notice how on the word "you" your voice starts high and then drops?  It's a falling tone.  The Chinese language also uses a falling tone for one of their tones.  In the English language, we can choose to emphasize whichever word we want by adding the falling tone.  We could say, "How ARE you?", giving a falling tone to the word "are".  Similarly, we could say, "HOW are you?", by giving a falling tone to the word "how".  In Chinese, however, a word with a falling tone is always said with the falling tone.  You would emphasize that word by exaggerating the falling tone.  But you would never say it in a flat way.  There are other tones as well, and each word is always said with that tone.

Most Chinese are used to foreigners not being able to say tones right.  They can usually understand what we are trying to say, even if we use no tones at all.  But really a mark of good Chinese language skill is to use the correct tone.  When writing a Chinese character, you cannot tell what tone is used for the word.  Everyone just knows what tone goes with which character.  But if you are speaking, and not writing, it is really important to get the tone right so that they know which word you are using.  For example, the word "ma" with one tone means Mom.  The word "ma" with another tone means to scold.  The word "ma" with still another tone means horse.  You really have to be careful to not use the word horse when referring to your Mom!

So I heard of someone who really messed up with a whole sentence worth of tones.  Instead of asking the waitress for "Yi wan shui jiao", which if said correctly means a bowl of dumplings, they accidently used the wrong tones.  In asking the waitress for "Yi wan shui jiao", they said the right sounds, but used the wrong tones and asked for "A night's sleep".   Those two things are hardly interchangeable.  :)

But like I said, the Chinese can usually figure out what you are trying to say.  One day I went to buy an external hard drive.  The word in chinese for computer is "dian nao" which literally translated means "electric brain".  I didn't know how to say hard drive.  I told the sales clerk that I didn't know how to say in Chinese what I wanted to buy, but that I wanted to buy an external brain for my electric brain.  (computer)  She laughed at first, but she understood!  I am now the proud owner of a new hard drive.

Probably one of the funniest mess ups I've heard, happened when I was a missionary.  One poor young missionary never could get the knack of Chinese.  Even at the end of his mission, he still not only confused the tones, but confused the sounds as well.  It was quite humorous to hear him trying to teach about the Prophet at the head of our church, but accidentally use the word banana instead.  Also not interchangeable.  :D

I can't wait to find out what the other consortium members have written about this topic.  Drop by their blogs if you would like to find out:
  RummuserAnuAshkokGaelikkaGrannymarPadmumMagpie11, andAkanksha,Will KnotMaria the Silver FoxAnkiNema Noor Paul Plain Joe, and RohitBlack watertownThe Old Fossil, our newest member MAXI! and last, but not least SHACKMAN! :)


Rummuser said...

The tonality is quite a common feature in all Indian languages as well. Moreover, all of them use phonetic alphabets which makes it easy but when the same erudite Indian tries to read English aloud he will flounder because it is not phonetic.

shackman said...

One of the most interesting visits I ever has at a Chibnese restaurant happened years ago. I was with my buddy ARch and we were stopping for sy=upper after watching a Giants/Reds double header at Candlestick park. The waitress came to our table prepared to take our order and Arch immedialely launched into fluent Chinese - easy to tell it was fluent by the look of joy on the waitress's face. He placed the order and then spoke to the lady for a few more minutes before she walkwed away with our order. That was the best service ever in a restaurant. Turns out Arch was a linguistics expert during the Viet Nanm war - he is fluent in 2 dialects of Chinese, speaks Vietnamese, Spanish and Thai.

vaxhacker said...

It's comforting to know that you, after infinitely more study than I've managed, still have to think about these things :)

I've been struck by how very difficult it seems to be for English-speakers to get the pronunciation or tones down at all, at least from taking a few Chinese lessons here and there and joining a couple of conversation groups here. The way we learned it, by actually living in Taiwan for 16 months, was so very beneficial.

I do recall that Taiwanese computer store personnel had similar problems properly pronouncing English computer words, so don't feel too bad :)

Maria from Silver Fox said...

I had an opportunity to visit the Naevy's Language Institute in Monterey, CA. Our guide said that the young military personnel that was there for advanced language training (Many different languages) often joined together in chorus or choir groups. He said there was a strong relationship between Language and Music. After reading your blog, it becomes easy to understand.

Maxi said...

Funny stories, D. I like the hard drive story. Made me realize that I need an external brain for my "dead" brain.
blessings ~ maxi

Grannymar said...

I have an external brain for my electric brain, but I could with another one for foggy area between my ears! :lol:

Looney said...

You are reminding me of how many tone mix ups I have made over the years. I am glad Chinese are patient.

cedar51 said...

I'm not sure we have regular tones in New Zealand...but if you put an emphasis on certain words it will taken as angry, sad, happy or other...maybe that is a worldwide way.