March 27, 2013 | Mandarin

More Than One One in Chinese

Tones for this basic number are all over the place.

As I go through my Fluenz lessons, over and over I have been getting the word for “one” wrong when I type it in pinyin. Not the letters—which are just y plus i, so how wrong could one really go with those?—but rather, the tones.

So finally I went and looked this humble little number up, and lo and behold, it appears it can be expressed with any of three to four different tones depending on the syllable’s proximity to other tones.

Yī Bēi Kāfēi (But Pronounced Yì Bēi Kāfēi)

My Cup of Coffee Is ‘Yī Bēi Kāfēi’ (But Pronounced ‘Yì Bēi Kāfēi’)

By itself—as part of a number, and also at the end of a sentence, I believe—“one” is in the first tone: . No problem.

But if it is followed by the first, second, or third tone, it is pronounced with the fourth tone. In Fluenz, I see zài yào yì píng for “want another bottle.” Another example would be yì tiān (one day).

And when “one” comes before the fourth tone, it is pronounced in the second tone. In Fluenz, I just had to type in zài yào yí ge kāfēi. (Want another coffee.)

So wait a second, is ge considered fourth tone? I am not seeing any written tones on my ge’s in Fluenz.

Yes, it is, according to the Society for Anglo-Chinese Understanding, which shows ge with a fourth tone: . But maybe that’s only because on that page, the ge is standing there all by its lonesome. I see on another post elsewhere on the Wild Wild Web that ge is supposed to be a neutral tone in many cases where it is mistakenly written with a fourth tone. So maybe the rule for yī being pronounced as yí is really that it should be pronounced as second tone not only before fourth tone but also before the neutral tone, of which I still have a very shady understanding.

Complicating things, I read somewhere else that when “one” is between two similar verbs, it changes to the neutral tone. Can’t picture that at present. I think, however, that this is not the biggest of my problems in Mandarin Chinese.

Finally, here’s one other issue. I read the following on a University of North Carolina Chapel Hill website: “When writing Pinyin, note that, despite the change when speaking, the original tone marks are still written.”

Great! But that’s not how it’s working in my Fluenz software. If it were, I wouldn’t be getting so many answers wrong. Is Fluenz violating this standard for the sake of pedagogical expediency, or is UNC not representing a universal point of view?

Don’t get me wrong, I am feeling very fond of my Fluenz at present, but they did not explain my yi’s to me.

It’s funny the kinds of things that can trip up the solo language learner—often they are such little things, but so disproportionately perplexing!

Comments (4)

Charles • Posted on Fri, March 29, 2013 - 9:49 pm EST

I’m sorry to say that Fluenz is violating the standard.  Personally, I’m fine with that as it would have really helped me when I was learning.

Ellen Jovin • Posted on Fri, March 29, 2013 - 10:01 pm EST

Thank you, Charles. I think it’s an interesting issue: Should you teach people in a way that helps them more with pronunciation, or should you teach them the standard pinyin writing standards?

I think I come down in favor of standard pinyin. First, I don’t think it seems like a GREAT idea to undermine people’s grasp of pinyin; best to teach them the way people normally write things.

Second, I am pretty sure I am learning the tones faster through oral methods than by reading the direction the accent is pointing on my yi’s, so I’m not sure constantly switching around the diacritical marks is all that helpful to my spoken Chinese.

Third, Fluenz should definitely tell me what they are up to so I don’t get confused about what standard pinyin is and why I keep getting everything wrong.

But this is a minor issue and has not been especially injurious to my learning.

Ellen Jovin • Posted on Fri, March 29, 2013 - 10:12 pm EST

Addendum: I guess if Fluenz explained it, it COULD be helpful as a teaching technique. This comes up a lot in their lessons with bú yào (meaning “don’t want”), too. I seem to recall that it took me a while to figure out why bù was becoming bú in that phrase.

I just wouldn’t want to start writing the pinyin wrong as a result. For example, I actually don’t know now whether I am supposed to write bú yào or bù yào. I don’t know whether Fluenz changes to second tone there just to help me pronounce it or whether that’s really what I’m supposed to write in that phrase.

Charles • Posted on Sun, March 31, 2013 - 11:58 am EST

I’ve been thinking about this and I believe I don’t feel so strongly about it because pinyin is a tool—nobody ever intended it to replace writing in Chinese (i.e., hanzi) and its pretty much only used as a pronunciation guide.

My pedagogical pet peeve is when teachers (native teachers) tell their students that 学 is pronounced like 水.  I attended a famous summer “boot camp” for Mandarin once and all the first and second “year” students pronounced the two words the same.  When I asked the TA about this, he said its easier for them when they’re first learning pronunciation and that they’ll “re-teach” them once they get to higher levels.  Now, that, I believe, was inexcusable.

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