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Mastering the Chinese language: One thing I can say is ‘sorry’


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Oh, the tones, the tones!

You probably know enough about Chinese languages – Shanghaiese or Cantonese or the pu tong hua ("common speech") that we call Mandarin – to recall that they are tonal.

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People used to say that Chinese people spoke in a "sing-song" way, and now that I've been listening to this music for a while, I realize that English must sound monotonous to folks here. (The French have felt this for a long time, actually.)

The varying tones do add melody to the language, and a certain intensity, too.

For the first year I lived in China, I thought arguments were breaking out constantly for no reason I could see.

Whenever I was with friends who could speak English, I'd ask, "Are you angry right now?" or "What are those guys fighting about?" The answer was wonderment, or confusion, or just a chuckling, "They're talking about soup/the weather/the lunch menu."

I was fooled by rising, strident tones that in English generally mean consternation, incredulity or rage, whereas in Chinese languages the tone of voice doesn't just add emotion: It is how you say what you mean.

Here is the most frequently used Mandarin example: Depending on your tone of voice, one syllable – ma – can mean "mother" (first, flat tone), "hemp" (second, rising tone, like a questioning tone in English), "horse" (third, falling-then-rising tone), or "scold" (fourth, a falling tone).

Stuck on the end of a sentence, with no particular tone at all, ma indicates that a question has been asked. One of the many initial difficulties of trying to speak Chinese is that, unlike with most Western languages, I can't recognize a question by the rising voice.

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Grammar in Chinese is much more straightforward than in English, but hearing and knowing the meaning associated with tones – the example above only gives some of the meanings for ma – well, it's a tad discouraging.

I repeatedly catch myself in yet another spasm of wide-eyed optimism: Someone's name, or a phrase, gets me excited, thinking I've made (yes!) another linguistic connection.

"Oh, I get it," I think.

Then I ask, and I have a 93-per-cent chance of being told, "No, that's a different feng. That's first tone, not second."

Or, even more bewildering to an illiterate like me, my patient friends explain that "it's the same tone but a different character."

It sounds the same, is written the same in pinyin (the romanized alphabetic form of Chinese), but is represented by a different pictorial character and has a completely other meaning.

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"Okay, thanks." (Sighing ensues.)

Two years ago, while teaching an oral English class for masters students, I called upon Ms. Gao, proud to have said her name with a clear tone, not my usual English monotone.

There were some embarrassed murmurs, Ms. Gao lowered her head, and a few of the guys in the back snorted and grinned.

I had pronounced her name in the third tone (my favourite default tone, the rising/falling one) instead of the first (the flat tone).

"Gao" can mean "high," it can be a family name, or several other things I don't know about yet. That day, though, I learned a new, slang meaning for the word at her blushing expense. I had just called this shy young scholar "Miss Sex Act."

Recently, it happened again with one of my favourite freshman writing students, Zhu Jiarong.

I called upon Ms. Zhu and got a bigger laugh than any of my intentional jokes do. Her surname is in the fourth tone, an abruptly falling sound, whereas I had used the first (flat) tone, one that sounds to me like a raised-voice command.

I was just trying to be emphatic, to keep the kiddies awake. Success! I had called her "Miss Pig." The class howled.

Ms. Zhu quietly told me my mistake, and she had the grace and good humour to accept my dui bu qi ("sorry").

The good news is that I have become very skilled at making apologies in Chinese. I can easily express regret for the scarcity of the songs I know in that musical language, and for my tone-deaf delivery of the words and expressions I do know.

I can get myself into a pickup basketball game, call fouls, implore guys to pass the ball, and congratulate them for a big rebound or a sweet shot.

There are a few other kinds of conversation I can sometimes understand and take a limited part in, though I often need one of my friends to be the Chinese-to-Chinese translator.

I used to think I had a decent ear for language, even for music, but my linguistic adventures here often leave me feeling like half a Beethoven: deaf to the melodies, and also unable to remember and produce them.

Humility is a good thing, right?

James Howden, who is from Ottawa, is teaching English in northeastern China.

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