December 22, 2012 | Mandarin

Kung Fu and Chinese Tones

I try to kick and I try to speak, and I do neither well.

I have continued along, slowly, with my Pimsleur lessons. The four tones of Mandarin are not quite as scary as I had expected, but then again, I’m not sure how well I’m replicating them.

Pacific College of Oriental Medicine, on Broadway in Flatiron

Pacific College of Oriental Medicine, on Broadway in Flatiron

My best guess is not very well. I think I get them right at times, but many other times, not right.

In Chinese a syllable like ma means four different things depending on which of the four tones you use when you utter it. The four main tones (I am going to stay away from the lurking fifth tone for now) are (1) a flat, high tone, (2) a tone that starts mid-vocal range and rises to high, (3) a tone that starts fairly low, dips lower, then rises fairly high, and (4) a tone that drops from high to low.

I liked this little drawing, on a website site about pinyin (which I believe I have mentioned is the official method in China for writing Chinese using Latin characters) that shows where the various tones fall in one’s normal vocal range.

One thing I have noticed: a syllable is very short. I have trouble squeezing in all the tone action before the end of such a simple utterance. Perhaps I do it all the time in English, but I don’t think about it, and it doesn’t help me in Chinese.

Now, depending on the choice of tone, ma can mean “mother,” “hemp,” “horse,” or “scold.” Don’t think I knew that. I didn’t. I got that off the site on Mandarin.

In pinyin, for the syllable ma you can write ma1 or  to indicate it is pronounced with the first tone, ma2 or for the second, ma3 or  for the third, and ma4 or for the fourth.

I have watched a few YouTube videos on the subject of tones. Most are not terribly lively. This one is an exception: a cute young woman shows you, with the assistance of a notepad and a cat and a high energy level, how to handle the tones.

Chinatex Building, Garment District, Manhattan

Chinatex Building, Garment District, Manhattan

One word I find challenging, tonally speaking, is chá. (Again, that accent means the second tone—the rising one.) This is the word for “tea.” In my oral Pimsleur lessons, tea comes up frequently at the ends of sentences. As in: Would you like to drink some tea? I like tea. Today I didn’t drink tea.

That means I have to raise my pitch at the ends of sentences, which my English-speaking instincts—to drop my pitch when I conclude a sentence—are constantly battling.

Trying to replicate the tones makes me feel hobbled in my expressiveness. I am pretty sure I use tone a lot in English to express mood and emotion. I know there are other ways to express emotion in language—volume, speed, facial expression, slammed doors, etc.—but I still find it difficult to tap into my personality as I concentrate on replicating the tones.

I assume I will get more comfortable with that.

Moving on to another source of Chinese-related physical awkwardness: my kung fu lessons. I have been trying out a new school, which I like very much, but I am pretty lame. In class, I have to stand in the back with the newbies, from which position I try to follow the movements of the instructor up front. 

The fact that I cannot replicate some of the movements does not really bother me that much. It’s a little embarrassing, but I feel I could be doing a lot worse.

Canal Street Station, Chinatown: I Have Passed Through Here a Lot Lately

Canal Street Station, Chinatown: I Have Passed Through Here a Lot Lately

What does, however, embarrass me is all the bowing. There is a lot of bowing involved. For example, if the head of the school is there when I arrive, I have to bow to him and cover one fist with the other hand and say, “Sifu!” (Meaning essentially “master.”) This bowing requirement is in effect even if he is talking to someone or if he is in the middle of teaching another class.

My whole life I have been taught not to interrupt people and not to interrupt classes. It pains me greatly to say “Sifu!” when there is a class going on. So I feel foolish bowing while feeling rude for interrupting. 

I told Brandt how I had to call out sifu mid-class and he said, “Seafood?”

I write the above with trepidation that I will, for disrespecting the sifu, be expelled from my lovely kung fu school, from which I would strongly prefer not to be expelled.

To summarize: I have of late spent much more time than usual raising my pitch at the ends of sentences, interrupting classes with loud utterances, doing sideways kicks, and bowing while performing a strange hand-fist combination, none of which is comfortable for me. It is interesting to confront these challenges, minor as they may be in the larger scheme of things, at a time in my life when I sense a powerful inclination to harden rather than soften my habits.

It is not comfortable, and I am sure it is good for me.

Comments (6)

Ken • Posted on Sun, December 23, 2012 - 9:22 pm EST

Could the trouble with the short syllables have to to do with being used to all the diphthongs in English?

J • Posted on Mon, January 07, 2013 - 11:42 pm EST

The best advice I ever read for pronouncing Mandarin tones (and I wish I could remember where) was to use some body movements to help get in the mood. For 1st tone: tilt your head to the side. 2nd tone: raise your eyebrows. 3rd tone: nod your head down and up. 4th tone: stomp your foot. You end up reciting the tones automatically in spite of yourself (although you do look a little odd). The kinesthetics also help some folks like me with remembering vocabulary.

For the most part, though, when I get the tone wrong, most native Mandarin speakers still know what I meant to say from context.

Ellen Jovin • Posted on Wed, January 09, 2013 - 7:49 pm EST

J, this cracked me up. There are just so many embarrassing things one has to do to learn a language!

I am reassured that people still know what you’re saying most of the time anyway, correct tone or not.

Ellen Jovin • Posted on Wed, January 09, 2013 - 8:04 pm EST

Ken, maybe! All I know is, I need a little more time! :)

Robert Adams • Posted on Wed, February 20, 2013 - 11:58 pm EST

Wow, two things I find interesting!  First, I had not, until now, known how to properly write the Romanization for the four tones in Chinese, thank you.  Second, I have recently been thinking about getting back into Kung Fu.  I studied it in high school (20 years ago), but haven’t done anything with it in years.  Which style do you study?  Grandmaster Sin The, the grandmaster of Shaolin Northern Temple Kung Fu, lives in Lexington KY, just 30 minutes north of where I live.  How long have you been studying?  Did you decide to study Kung Fu because you were learning Chinese or were you studying it before?  There is also a Krav Maga school in Lexington KY and a Ninjitsu school in Mason OH.  I think it would be cool to study different martial arts as one studies different languages.  I would have to find a Savat school though while I’m learning French!  Hmmmm. . .  :-)

Kris L. • Posted on Sun, August 25, 2013 - 9:22 pm EST

Thanks for the youtube!  It was cute (I’m a cat lover!).

You have definitely whetted my appetite…I may have to think of adding Mandarin down the road!

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