Sunday, November 18, 2012

Confusing second and third tones in Mandarin

I have never had the easiest time distinguishing between second and third tones in Mandarin conversation. Knowing more vocabulary helps compensate somewhat, such that even without totally precisely hearing tones, I might be able to extrapolate words correctly based on context. Two conversations I had more than a decade ago show how misinterpreting second and third tones can thoroughly confuse the speaker's meaning.

A Mainland Chinese friend and I had previously arranged to have lunch together. Before our meal, she called me, and said:

"我們吃完飯以後... (Wǒ men chī wán fàn yǐhòu...; After we eat...)

I mistakenly thought she said:

我們吃晚飯以後... (Wǒ men chī wǎn fàn yǐhòu...; After we eat dinner...)

My misunderstanding led to thorough confusion, since she had no idea what I had been missing in the tone realm. My recollection is that English had to come to the rescue to clarify which meal we were actually getting together for on that occasion. 吃完飯 is a pretty common phrase in my experience (now!), but that could have been the first time I'd heard it in casual conversation, as opposed to in some classroom lesson context.

Another time, a Kinmen friend who had much more English experience than her younger brother offered to give him an English name. He responded by saying:

沒一個好聽. (Méi yī gè hǎo tīng; None of them sound good.)

I mistakenly, and completely incorrectly, thought he said:

一個好聽. (Měi yī gè hǎo tīng; They all sound good.)

Had he actually meant that, the phrase should actually have been:

每一個好聽. (Měi yī gè dōu hǎo tīng.)

However, that grammatical indicator escaped me at the time.

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