I eat many people

When learning Cantonese it is easy to inadvertently say, “I love Hong Kong! I eat many people here!” rather than, “I love Hong Kong! I know many people here!”

Canto flashcards

The trouble lies in the tones: high, low, rising, falling, flat, etc. Mandarin has four tones. Vexing, but at least a finite four. Cantonese has either six or nine tones depending on which resource you consult. My own tutor initially said there were six tones, but then threw in another three on the sly a few months ago.

Despite the tones, in context, one’s meaning can usually be understood even with a few errors. Native speakers the world over look past mistakes for meaning. For example, one Dutch woman told me that she is careful to say “cannot” rather than “can’t” out of fear of saying a crude English curse word. But if she had said, “I c_nt meet you next Tuesday,” I wouldn’t have even noticed her mistaken vulgarity because of the context.

Similarly, despite being truly horrid at memorizing and pronouncing Mandarin tones, I have found that most Chinese speakers are kind enough to sort through my verbal wreckage to deduce my meaning.

I have used this kindness as an excuse for sloppiness for about a decade.

It is time to be less lazy.

So I am now trying harder than ever to shove the Cantonese tones firmly into my brain and out of my mouth — all six or nine of them — because I’d rather it be crystal clear that I am saying “gau,” the number nine (when said with a high rising tone), and not “gau,” a crude word for penis (when said with a high level tone).

Have you studied a tonal language? Please share your tricks, advice, hacks and sympathy.

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10 responses to “I eat many people

  1. I haven’t, but I knew a man who taught in Hong Kong for some years and loved attention in any form. When he went to the markets, he practically got a standing ovation because he said such ridiculous things. He loved it.

  2. Thai is a tonal language so I feel your pain. For a long time, it seemed, I didn’t hear the tones, but now I do/can. I think just good ‘ol fashioned practice helped me…but I know there are folks who are ‘tone deaf’ and yeah, that’s rough. But if people know you are trying, I think that counts for something! Good luck.

    • The first step is recognizing that my years of solving the tone problem by ignoring tones, has to end. The silver lining is that somehow along the way my ear started hearing them slightly more clearly. Slowly … slowly… Thanks for the support!

  3. Off on a tangent, the Australian language is known to be difficult for other English speaking people. Apparently, we elongate the vowels or something, finish off a sentence on a high pitch so it sounds like a question and shorten words like brekkie for breakfast, or arvo for afternoon. Sometimes today is spoken as too – dai. And the joke goes: some tourist is hurt in Australia and goes to the hospital. The doctor comes in and says How are you going today. But to it comes across to the tourist as ” Hi, you are going to die.”

    I am sure the context of the conversation will carry you across.

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