I always believe that tonal mistakes are no big deal and a blunder in tones doesn’t get in the way of a meaningful communication.
However, that belief system was shattered by our recent experience.
Before I explain, let’s step back and take a closer look at the Chinese language.
Leaving its grammar, Pinyin, stroke order and other writing system aside, tones (the four of them) itself can create a stumbling road block on the way to mastering this language. To many learners, this is the most difficult part. Specifically, each syllable has four possible meanings, all depending on its tone. The syllable ma, for example, has multiple meanings – with a first tone (mā) it means mother, with a third tone(mǎ) it means a horse. Mother or horse, it depends on you!
These are just two prime examples of that syllable – there are plenty of others lurking at the back waiting to be voiced.
Equally maddening is the syllable tang, which could mean soup (汤) and sugar (糖), when you apply a first tone (tāng) and second tone (táng) respectively.
In a nutshell, if you get your tones wrong, things can get … let’s say … funny or awkward.
That was my recent revelation.
I took my children to a dumpling restaurant lately, for my own palatal pleasure mainly. Growing up in the north, my fondness for dumplings is only natural. They remind me of home or things mama used to make. My all American kids on the other hand, have no connection of that kind, both emotionally and taste-wise. They hate dumplings, to put it mildly.
Having placed our orders – vegetable dumplings for me, a soup and other side dishes for the kids – we sat back, enjoying our green tea. After several sips of his tea, my son wanted some sugar to sweeten it. So he called the waiter and said, “我要汤” (soup). He wanted to say, “Sugar, please”, but it came out with “Soup, please”. The waiter paused, puzzled, probably thinking, “OK kid, I already took your order, why are you saying it again?” But he still nodded and left.
Soon he came back with a bowl of soup.
“Wow, that was quick!” my son exclaimed! Without giving much thought, he started drinking his soup.
Still sugarless, he was getting a little agitated with his tea getting cold. He called the waiter again, “汤在哪里?”
“You drank it!” was the reply.
Now it was my son’s turn to be embarrassed. He learned on the spot it’s táng not tāng, if he wants sugar next time.