The deal about tones

So the biggest obstacles for any American learning Mandarin are a) the writing, and b) the tones.  The writing is pretty straight forward; if you read a lot and write a lot, your reading and writing will get better, and eventually you can know all these characters.

The tones, for a lot of us are a bigger problem.

Here’s what they tell you:  Mandarin syllables have five tones; high, rising, low, falling, and neutral.  Google ‘mandarin tones’ if you want a good explanation; for now, it’s enough for me to tell you that mā má mǎ mà ma are all totally different words, (mother, hemp, horse, grasshopper, question particle) and they don’t necessarily sound alike to Chinese people.  Every single word in Mandarin has an assigned tone, and when you learn a word you have to learn the tone.

Here’s what they don’t tell you:  American English totally uses tones also.  The only differences is that American English intonation is not assigned syllable by syllable like in Chinese.  Instead, it’s a sentence long intonation contour that affects the meaning of a sentence.

Don’t believe me?  Check out how I the following sentences have different intonation:

I’m hungry for peanuts.
I’m hungry for peanuts?
I’m HUNGRY for peanuts.  (i.e., not HORNY, but HUNGRY).
I’M hungry for peanuts.   (i.e., not “him,” but me!)
I’m hungry FOR peanuts.  ( i.e., not “because of,” silly)
I’m hungry for PEANUTS.  (i.e., not popcorn, silly)

There are a thousand other intonation contours I can use to give these sentences different flavors ( e.g., sarcastic, pathetic, insistent, etc.)  that depend on your reading of this sentence; I cannot represent all of these different intonation contours with capital letters and punctuation, so you’ll just have to believe me.

Ok, here’s what Americans usually get stuck on:  you shouldn’t use American intonation contours in other languages.  If you try to use them in Spanish, French, or Italian, your words will probably be understood, but the intonation you so skillfully chose to spin that sentence does not translate.  It just makes you sound like an over-emphatic American.  Those languages have their own set of contours, and if you want to sound good, you have to learn them.

Now Chinese is a lot to remember; tones, word order, syllables that all sound the same, crazy consonants that all sound the same… but here’s the deal:  When you try to put American intonation contours on Mandarin sentences, you end up wiping out all those Mandarin tones that belong to the syllables.  You end up being incomprehensible to pretty much everyone but other American students of Mandarin language.

I can hear Americans struggling with meaning, trying desperately to put words together, hoping that with some extra emphasis on the American intonation contours, they will get their meaning across.  I happen to understand them perfectly.  Chinese people, on the other hand, do not.

And that’s the deal with tones.

One thought on “The deal about tones

  1. or now, it’s enough for me to tell you that mā má mǎ mà ma are all totally different words

    Are the tones visible in written Chinese? I ask because teh intarweb is notorious in English for lost meaning due to lack of intonation. I can only imagine what it might be like if syllabic intonation was lost to the visual word.


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