How tones can make or break your Chinese
In English, homophones can confuse you. Did your friend say ‘here’ or ‘hear’? ‘Bear’ or ‘bare’?
Misunderstandings have no doubt arisen from a misheard statement in English, but those are already minor compared to what you can get in Mandarin.
Since the pronunciation of each character in Mandarin is monosyllabic, there are only so many combinations of letters to give you different sounds. For example, I just opened a “small” dictionary and found no less than 49 characters under the pinyin “fu”. That’s why Mandarin includes tones. The dashes and ‘V’s above each word’s pinyin show how the word should be said, reducing the possible alternative words a person could be saying. It’s still somewhat unwieldy, but with the context of the conversation, it is certainly manageable.
This makes correct tones essential in Mandarin since the slightest mistake could transform your sentence into confounding gibberish. Don’t believe me? Have a look:
See how big a deal it can be? You could get lead poisoning if you actually ate a battery, while you’d probably get sued if you kept trying to kiss the wrong person!
Remembering the right tone for the right word is largely down to practice, so don’t feel discouraged if you keep shocking people or driving them to laughter. Gradually you’ll remember more words and tones, so don’t give up! Besides, you’ve never seen the 9 tones of Cantonese yet…