I Want to Eat Sleep! (On Mandarin Chinese Tones)

I think most beginner Mandarin learners would recognise Transition’s ‘Duìbùqǐ’ song. It’s probably the most-played tune on the first day of any Mandarin class:

Why is the song so popular with first-time learners? Maybe because it perfectly highlights one of the trickiest things you grapple with when you start out learning Mandarin: the four pronunciation tones (with the bonus of a light, catchy tune!).

Image credit: Ninchanese

You can read more about the four tones here. Suffice it to say that in Pinyin — which is the Romanisation of Chinese characters based on their pronunciation — the tones are usually indicated by marks at the top of the letter (for example, mā, má, mǎ, mà are four different words).

The interaction at the start of the ‘Duìbùqǐ’ video has a young English guy approaching a snack stall to order boiled dumplings (shuǐjiǎo 水饺). Instead of doing that though, he inadvertently mixes up the tones and pronounces it as shuìjiào (睡觉). He ends up saying “I want (to eat) sleep.” Both words are composed of “shuijiao”, but the tones are pronounced differently.

“Oh, are you tired?” the dumpling man retorts.

Eventually the message gets across, and a sweet apology song ensues: “Sorry, my Chinese is not so good!” (Duìbùqǐ, wǒ de zhōngwén bù hǎo! 对不起,我的中文不好!)

In my opinion, while pronunciation tones are indeed very important, we also shouldn’t dwell on them too much to the point where we’re afraid to speak at all. I find that generally native speakers can still understand me even if I get a few of my tones off, as long as there’s enough context. (The ‘Duìbùqǐ’ song just exaggerates the situation for comedic effect, but in reality, I think the English guy might have gotten his dumplings eventually.)

There’s a fine line between sounding stilted (like a TV variety show host) and making yourself understood.

It’s hilarious how he uses the hand technique to remember tones

I still often get self-conscious about my tones. But I think the more important thing is to get out there and start using the language. That will help you recognise your mistakes and tame your unruly tones faster.

*

By now you might be thinking to yourself, “Tones are too much trouble.” Let me assure you they’re not. In fact, I believe Filipinos are a pro at tones already. Let me demonstrate.

Imagine you’re waiting for the elevator. Ding! The elevator doors open and you see a fellow Filipino inside.

“Bababa ba?” you ask.

“Bababa,” she replies. *

If you understood that monosyllabic conversation, you’re good to go with Mandarin tones! 😉

Think critically dear readers,

* Translation for non-Filipinos: “Going down?” “Going down.”

Featured image by shiyang xu on Unsplash

The Case for Learning Multiple Languages

I’ve been learning Mandarin Chinese for the past couple of years.

Why did I start?

My kid is studying in a bilingual preschool here, where classes are taught in both English and Mandarin. Because of his age, I was reluctant to enroll him in a language enrichment class* (not all parents have similar qualms) – but somebody at home had to be able to help him revise his lessons if needed.

Also, while Singapore is a multiracial country, ethnic Chinese comprise over 75% of the population. I thought it would be useful to learn a few words to understand the local culture better and not feel too left out of office cooler conversations (though I’m nowhere near that level of fluency now).

I started in a Daily Chinese class with an eclectic group. There were three Singaporean elderly ladies who were using their SkillsFuture credits.** One of these ladies was over 80 years old. They all spoke English at home, despite learning Chinese in school years ago. There were two teachers from international schools, one homemaker, and a banker. The banker, like me, was there primarily because of his preschool daughter. (“My wife wasn’t interested, so…” he shrugged, smiling.)

We were all largely learning for fun, which took the pressure off the term-end test. Our Lǎoshī (老师,teacher) teaches at an international school and has a great sense of humour. He peppers the class with constant jokes, usually self-deprecating ones about his “awful” relationship with his wife. (They’re actually very close.) Two years on and of that original group, only Lǎoshī and I remain.

*

The language grew on me. Unlike English and even Korean, Chinese has no alphabet which makes it notoriously tough to learn. Hànzì (汉字,Chinese characters) are made up of functional components, like Lego blocks. You can make a fairly good guess at the meaning of an unknown character if you’re familiar with some of these components.

Take for example 心 (xīn),which means heart. When used as a “Lego block”, it indicates the character is “related to feelings, temperament, thought, expression or other mental activities.” 想 (to think), 忘 (to forget),意 (idea, thought) all have 心 squashed at the bottom.

Some of Singlish’s nuances also started to make sense to me, like why some sentences were truncated. Often, it’s a direct translation to English of how the sentence would sound in Chinese, hence grammatically correct in the latter.

I find all that fascinating.

*

Don’t get me wrong, some days it’s a tough slog getting through my textbook. I look at a block of text, recognise nothing and think – it’s all Chinese to me. Literally!

I also don’t bring up my class too much. I’m not sure why myself. Maybe it’s because the issue of the Philippines’ relationship with China is a highly sensitive one, fraught with the landmines of over-generalisation and stereotypes on both sides. It will take someone more skilled than I to unpack that dynamic.

*

Language learning, for me, provides a welcome distraction from the stress of work. I find it deeply satisfying to read through a simple passage in Hànzì and find that I understood the gist of what it was trying to say.

I also believe language is a window into a completely different way of seeing the world.

Perhaps I can best explain this view with a story about the Himba tribe colour experiment in Namibia. (The experiment itself was a controversial one, but keeps getting cited by the BBC and other media outfits.)

The Himba have no word for blue and no distinction between blue and green. When tested, they were unable to pick out the blue square from a circle filled with green squares. However, the Himba have more words for green that we do in English. When they were shown a circle with green squares with one square a different shade of green than the others, it was much easier for them to spot the differently-shaded green square compared to native English speakers.

In other words, language not only helps us communicate better — it also shapes our perception.

Isn’t that a great reason to learn more than one?

Think critically dear readers,

* Enrichment classes are big business here in Singapore and probably deserve its own post. Some parents start children as young as 18 months in these classes. The enrichment and private tuition centres near our condo are always jam-packed on weekends (or used to be, pre-Covid 19).

The interesting thing about ‘enrichment’ is it’s not about preventing kids from falling behind, it’s about getting kids ahead.

** All Singaporean citizens receive $500 funding for courses of their choice to promote “lifelong learning” –I think it’s a pretty cool initiative.

Featured image by Hannah Wright on Unsplash