Of Tones and Trains

After standing in line for 2 hours to buy train tickets (yes, there was a line!), my classmate and I finally got to the window. The train schedule we had indicated there was an 8 pm train two days hence from Dalian to Changchun. Because we were still language students and so not entirely confident of our ability to communicate what we wanted, we had used the time in line to practice what we wanted to say.

We approached the window, stuck our money into the tiny opening and carefully told the lady behind the glass and the date, train number and what type of tickets we wanted. She took our money, wrote out the tickets (they were hand-written pieces of paper in 1992), and handed them to us.

Then, just to verify that we had gotten the right tickets, I stuck my nose back up to the opening and said “shi ba dian ma?” Is 8 o’clock?  The lady nodded her head and said back to me, “shi ba dian.” Is 8 o’clock.

Or so I thought.

Two days later we went to the station at 7, an hour before our 8pm train. When we showed our tickets to get into the soft sleeper waiting room, the attendant on duty looked at our tickets and said YOUR TRAIN LEFT AN HOUR AGO!!

We looked at each other in horror!

“If you can find find the station master’s office and get him to sell you a ticket through the back door,” she helpfully said, “then maybe you can get on the 9pm train.”

We somehow marshaled all of our rudimentary language skills and managed to not only find, but also  talk our way into the office of the station master. This was long before the train ticketing system in China was computerized and we knew station masters had control over a certain number of tickets up until departure time that they could dispense as they saw fit. As you can imagine, having guanxi with someone who worked in the station was very advantageous.

We didn’t have any guanxi, but we did have the shock factor on our side of being 2 white girls babbling a mile a minute in Chinese and who had the determination to wear the poor chap down.

He eventually gave in and wrote out a note, then affixed his chop to it. “Go to the platform and find the head of the train. Give this note to him. He will see that you get on the train.”

What he didn’t verbalize, but what I’m sure he was thinking was ‘NOW GET OUT OF MY SIGHT YOU SILLY FOREIGNERS!

While we waited for the train, we tried to figure out what had happened? How had we so completely misunderstood what time the train was to leave?

It was the tones that had tripped us up.

When we said shi ba dian ma, what was in our minds was this: is 8 o’clock?

When the ticket said shi ba dian, what she had in her mind was: 1800 hours. (6 pm)

Shi said with a falling tone means “is.” Shi said with a rising tone means “10.” Stick ba after it and together they become shiba, which means 18.

We didn’t know if we had said the tone wrong (making her hear it correctly) or if we had incorrectly heard her correct tone. It didn’t matter. The fact remained that we had missed our train because of the tones.

Note: This happened 20 years ago so please don’t ask me why we hadn’t checked our tickets when we bought them or at least before going to the station. I have no idea!

For those of you not familiar with Chinese, there are 4 tones. Change a tone on a word (sound) and you change it’s meaning completely. For example, the word (sound) ma said with a first tone (high flat) means mother; said with the second tone (rising) means numb; said with the third tone (dipping) means horse; and said with the fourth tone (falling) means ‘to swear.’

In other words, if you don’t pay attention to the tone when you are speaking, you may accidentally call your mother a horse. I don’t know about you, but that’s certainly a mistake I don’t want to make!

Here are a few tips for learning and practicing tones:

1. Listen a lot.  If you can’t hear the tones, you won’t be able to produce them.

2. Drill, drill, drill. It’s not fun, but it’s necessary.

3. Never consider a vocabulary word to have been ‘learned’ unless you know the tone.

4. Drill vocabulary words in sets, according tones and/or tone combinations.

5. Slow down when speaking. It’s harder to maintain correct tones when speaking too fast. Slowing down your speech gives your brain time to anticipate what tone is coming up.

Do you have any funny stories of miscommunication because your tones got out of whack?

Do you have any tips for mastering tones?

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image source: beijing-travels.com