Sunday, August 9, 2009

No Sleeping in the Dumpling Shop! (A.K.A. The Importance of Tone)

shopping for dumpling
Originally uploaded by melitta
"Ooooohhhh," my friend groaned after indulging in a feast of yummy (but filling!) dumplings, "Shuijiao make me shuijiao" he drawled, rolling on the couch.

Dumplings = 水餃 = shui3 jiao3
Sleep = 睡覺 = shui4 jiao4

We all laughed along with him. A few months before, he had railed against the shop owner who hadn't understood his request for dumplings. He conceded that his tones might have been a bit off, but, "I was in a dumpling shop!! I mean, come on! Did they really think I was saying that I wanted to sleep??"

I've thought about this for many years now and I've concluded that this is precisely what they thought in the first minute after he spoke. After all, it's what he announced upon coming into their shop, and it seems to me that the function of language is to avoid/minimize the need for second guessing. We naturally accept what someone says at face value, even if it doesn't make sense, before resorting to considering other options, which is more work.

In my own life, as an ESL teacher, I often am confronted with sentences that don't make sense, all because of a slight pronunciation error. For example, many native Chinese speakers have trouble with English vowel sounds, in particular distinguishing (or seeing the need to distinguish) long from short vowels.

After a decade of being perplexed at least once a class by mispronunciation, I know for a fact that I as a native speaker take a sentence at face value before considering other alternatives, and I'm inclined to think that most people do the same.

The best example I have is the time when I asked my class what they did over the weekend. After throwing the question out to my group, I looked expectantly at the first student in the row of desks strung out in a half circle around the room, a pretty, unassuming girl with a nice smile.

"Bitch," she promptly answered.

"Pardon me?" I said, slightly taken aback.

"Bitch," she repeated, before helpfully adding with a smile, "I yesterday go to bitch."

"Oh, beach! You went to the beeeeeeeeach" I said, relieved I wasn't being cursed at.

"Yes, beeeitch, I went to the beeeeeeitch" she repeated, making a slightly modified yet still incorrect stab at the word in question.

We spent the next 20 minutes practising "bitch" vs. "beach" along with a bunch of other examples, "hit/heat", "rip/reap", etc. Judging from a few of their expressions, I'm sure many of them thought I was nit-picking. Surely, they must have been saying to themselves, such a small difference in pronunciation wouldn't make a big difference.

But it did, because when I hear a sentence that doesn't make sense, I don't immediately come up with a mental list of possible substitutions for the word in question. I think I'm predisposed to give whatever they're saying a shot, more than to substitute vowel sounds and think of other more likely words that would better fit their sentence. That comes a minute later, when it's clear we are miscommunicating. But in the first moment, I believe what I'm hearing. Hence, I thought Sandy was calling me a bitch.

Likewise, I think that the folks in the dumpling restaurant thought my friend had wandered into the wrong place. Maybe he had mistaken their shop for a hotel, maybe he was just a bit odd and said random things to people. I'm sure that with a minute or two of gestures and pointing, they understood that he did indeed want to eat dumplings and not sleep, but in the first minute, they heard sleep.

Tone is something most native English speakers must battle to understand the importance of, because we don't have it, but before raging against the native speaker that "refuses" to understand you, I ask you to play the long/short vowel game in English and see how well you do, i.e:
"Tap/tape the table.", "I need a mat/mate.", "Wrap/rape the flowers please." And on and on...

The bottom line is:
Don't underestimate the all importance of tone. (Or you might be getting directions to the nearest hotel instead of your dinner!)

Tone - Starting on the right foot

My Daughter 5 years old
Originally uploaded by
While there are many advantages to being self taught, one of the disadvantages is that the learner tends to pick and choose what's important to him/her. In my case,I decided that learning tones per se really didn't matter that much - as long as I mimicked what I heard acurately.

That was not a good idea.

It's way way WAY better to learn your tones as you go, and to be (or rather, have your teacher/native speaker friend be) vigilant about your pronunciation. I had to spend a lot of time learning tones and how to speak correctly long after I started studying, and I can tell you that it's not the way to go.

I managed to improve my tones (thus elevating my Chinese) after the fact with lots of practice and constant repetition. It was work, it's still work, but it's worth it. I spend a lot of time listening and repeating. I listen and repeat the dialogues from my book, Very Practical Chinese while I'm doing housework. I listen and repeat Youtube clips. I also started writing out paragraphs (once I had finished the dialogues) to make sure I knew the proper pinyin/tone for each character. I learned the hard way that mimicking a native speaker is important, but knowing the tones that you're trying to mimick is of vital importance; otherwise, there's a strong likelihood that when you try to "mix and match" your sentences, you'll screw your tones up. Remember... (this is your mantra!) Tone Is Everything. (well, almost everything!)