Tone really is important

I knew that.  I wrote a whole dissertation on tone.  I tell other Chinese learners all the time that tones are really important and they really do need to learn them.  And yet, on some level, I still have a hard time comprehending that tones are just as important as, say, vowels are.  I’d like to pretend it’s because I studied African tone systems where tones sort of float around to different words and seem somehow less integral to the word itself.  But really, I know it’s my own English speaking self getting in the way.  If I mispronounce a Chinese word, it’s almost always the tone I get wrong.  If I mishear a Chinese word, it’s almost always because I hear the wrong tone.  And so on some level I assume that when a Chinese person tries to understand what I’m saying, they’ll automatically look for a word that’s the same as what I said but with a different tone.  Not so.

The other day, I asked my driver where I could buy tea (chá–rising tone).  Or so I thought.  But I instead I said cha1 (high tone).  My driver thought I was asking where to buy a car (che1)–same tone that I used, different vowel.

Another time, I was trying to ask my ayi if she had seen my daughter’s shoes.  I said xie1 zi.  It should have been xié zi.  I’m not sure what she thought I said, but when she repeated it back to me, it was jie zi–not sure what tone she used, but it was an entirely different consonant.

And so I repeat, tones matter.

Sorry, my diacritics aren’t all showing up correctly.  I’ll work on it one of these days.

1=high level tone/straight line above the vowel


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