Things They Don’t Tell You in Chinese Class

Here is the situation I was prepared for when I first came here: 

When speaking Mandarin, I say something with the wrong tone and people don’t understand me.

[For anyone who isn’t aware: Mandarin has four tones. This means that any syllable changes its meaning depending on whether your voice rises, falls, dips or stays flat as you say it. Yange, said with dipping tones, means “strict,” while yange said with flat tones means “castrate”. It’s great fun when you get that one wrong.]

 Here’s the situation I didn’t prepare for:

I say something with the correct tone and people still don’t understand me.

The otherday I was chatting with a coworker and I said the word “swimming,” youyong. He didn’t understand so I mimed it. I assumed I’d just mixed up the tone but instead another coworker butted in. “She speaks Chinese better than you!” he said. “How come you didn’t understand her?”

Turns out I had pronounced the word “swimming” perfectly but my particular coworker speaks Northeast Chinese dialect and never really took to Standard Mandarin, (‘Standard Mandarin’ being, after all, just another regional dialect, specifically a Beijing accent). Thanks to his non-standard speech, the poor guy has to deal with a lot of teasing.  

(This linguistic emphasis on standardization also bleeds into English. People often ask me if their English pronunciation is “standard” and I, never sure how to answer, always say “yes.”)

At that point I was thinking..well..I could speak Beijing Chinese perfectly, get all my tones right, and it would still do me no good in how many areas and situations? No doubt this is common knowledge to anyone who’s spent some time here in China, but I’d studied Chinese in Canada and hadn’t yet processed this crucial adjustment. Another day, another frayed neuron…


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