Chatting in the changing Chinese world
(China Daily)
Updated: 2006-05-19 07:14

I was puzzled the moment my Chinese teacher told me about the four tones. It was my first private lesson in what I thought was this funny-sounding foreign language. I had found my teacher in the personal ads of Beijing Today. Her 30 yuan (US$3.70) fee per hour had looked very attractive indeed.

"What do you mean 'four tones'?" I asked. How could a spoken language have specific tones? I wondered. Sure, I knew that you used a variety of tones in Western languages to express doubt, surprise or anger, but how could a language have four, separate, individual tones, and how were they used? What did they sound like?

My teacher pointed politely to the page of the open textbook, lying on the desk in front of me.

"We use tone in Chinese to express different meanings," she said. "We have a flat tone, an up tone, a down-up tone and a down tone. It's not so bad. You'll get used to it after a while." I stared unhappily at the four rising and falling accents in the book, as she intoned the different ways to say the vowel "a" in Chinese.

"They all kind of sound the same to me," I said. "Can you tell the difference when people are talking quickly?"

"Of course, I can," she answered proudly. "I am Chinese. It's natural for me. Don't think about it too much to start. The big secret is we Chinese don't really use all the tones when we are talking in everyday conversation. We only emphasize key words. You'll pick it up quickly with practice. Practice makes perfect, you know."

"I know," I thought, but how much practice will it take an average student like me to learn a sing-song sounding language which was based on tonal variations that most people apparently didn't bother with most of the time.

That was one year ago. Although my mastery of the Chinese tones still has a long way to go, my progress has been satisfactory and more importantly, my fear of the language has gone.

After several false starts such as buying a CD-learning kit or attending Chinese lessons with 30 other people, I decided that intensive, private, individual tuition was the only way to go.

The pronunciation of the language was just too exotic to spend time listening to a CD alone, or sitting in a classroom for one hour saying perhaps two or three sentences if I was lucky. Intensive pronunciation practice was what I needed in order to learn.

The speech centres in my brain needed to actively use these strange new sounds in order to process and store them.

After a month, I analyzed my progress and realized that I could say the sentences quite well with my teacher, but the following day most of what I had learned had completely disappeared.

My short-term memory could retain the new information but getting it into my long-term memory was something more challenging altogether. A lot of repetition would be required. Months of learning and repeating the same simple stuff would be needed to build a basis of tonal variations in my mind.

After a few months, I even felt that I was starting to make "negative progress." When I started to learn new things, they appeared to have a detrimental effect on all the stuff that I had already learned. Confusion reigned.

Did we get our word "confused" from the name of the famous Chinese philosopher "Confucius"? I wondered. The tones were so confusing I sometimes thought so.

But after half a year of regular practice, the new linguistic network in my mind began to crystallize into what I imagined to be a new, wonderful and growing diamond. A new light of understanding shone through in a multicoloured spectrum of knowledge and satisfaction.

The confusion fell away. Sometimes people began to understand what I said. Sometimes I understood parts of what they said. I had also studied some Chinese characters and street signs began to have some meaning. Parts of headlines in newspapers became magically transformed with my new pictograph recognition abilities. There was still a long way to go, but the diamond had definitely taken shape. All it needed now was time and work to reveal all of its inner beauty.

Before learning Chinese, logic and language were words I did not think were closely associated with one another. In fact, I thought a "logical language" was an oxymoron just like military intelligence.

Normally languages are anything but logical irregular verbs are common, peculiarities of pronunciation occur everywhere, there are general rules but always exceptions to these rules, too.

After having studied Chinese for a short time, the economy and simplicity of compound words in the language began to jump off the page. In a matter of minutes, I had learned the days of the week and the months of the year just by compounding prefix or suffix words with numbers 1 to 7 and 1 to 12.

A vet was an "animal doctor"; a helicopter a 'straight up machine"; a volcano "a fire mountain." I laughed to think what people at home would think if I said I was going to get a "steam vehicle to see the tooth doctor" in English translated as "catch a train to see the dentist."

My main problem with Chinese now is that many Chinese people whom I speak to look upon any communication with me as a chance to speak English. They will not permit me to speak in Chinese. All of my efforts to speak in their language are ignored. Their main concern appears to be practising their own language skills. Whether I want to use what I have learned means nothing to them. Even my Chinese girlfriend is very reluctant to speak Chinese with me.

Taxi drivers usually will engage in some sort of conversation, but saying "Straight on," "Turn left," "Turn right" can get tiresome after a while. Most young people who have had access to English learning will simply refuse to speak to me in their language.

Last week, I went shopping and upon seeing something I liked, I asked an assistant, "Duo shao qian?" in my best Chinese. Even before I had said the last word, he called out the name of a colleague in the shop. She came rushing over, looking very concerned.

"I can speak English. Can I help you?" she announced proudly.

"No. It's OK. Just looking," I replied and moved quickly on. If I could not practise my Chinese, I would shop elsewhere.


(The author from Ireland is a math teacher in the high school affilated to the Renmin University of China. If you are willing to share with readers your ideas and experience in learning Chinese, please email your story to