Tones and pitch changes of Putonghua and drunken Welshman

Written by April Zhang on Sunday, 11 July 2021. Posted in Student's Posts

Tones and pitch changes of Putonghua and drunken Welshman

A fact that all Chinese language learners will eventually learn by personal experience is the changes of tones and pitches. Shared by Tony many years ago, this hilarious recounting of his personal experience will definitely put a smile on your face, as it did to all of us. That was the reason that he wrote it down.

The wonderful and insightful observation articulated so well by Tony is the similarities between Chinese and English in terms of their regional accents. 

Many years has gone by since Tony wrote this piece. It is still worth reading again and again to remind us to be flexible and adaptive when using pinyin as the main tool to teach and learn Chinese.  

Enjoy this humorous story —

 

Drunken Welshmen and variations in Mandarin:

 

Have you ever attempted conversation with a drunken Welshman? I did one evening after getting well prepared at the Rugby Sevens (A huge event in Hong Kong features short and exciting rugby games which are favoured by rugby fans all over the world). 

We supposedly shared English as our native tongue. However, I found him almost unintelligible. A view shared by a polyglot French friend who’d joined us earlier before abandoning us in search of a conversation spoken in a version of English he could understand. 

The oddly musical lilting melody of even a sober Welshman is often melodically entertaining and reminds me of the tones and pitch changes of Putonghua.

Back at Easter, I’d ambitiously set off to Beijing with my family, following this with a solo week in Qingdao, Shandong. I was armed with all that MSL could do to assist slow learners. With only a marginal affinity for language, I felt optimistic and full of fresh hope for glimpses into the meanings within the cacophony that surrounded me everywhere in China. 

Perhaps I was overly ambitious or simply delusional…certainly I was ill-prepared. In hindsight, it’s obvious that the regional variations of Mandarin should be at least as numerous and extreme as those we find amongst English-speakers. 

We’ve all been told in class of the overuse of and emphasis on “r” in Beijing. Easy enough really, sounds curiously engaging and quaintly regional but quite manageable. 

Qingdao was once a de-facto German colony or trading enclave. Interesting Teutonic or middle-European architecture remains downtown and in the old suburbs of the port city. As does a more emphatic use of the “r” than even Beijing has combined with some very difficult guttural sounds that I was not able to reproduce for fear of being arrested for hawking and spitting. 

But, it’s not just the sounds…..another test is hidden for the unwary Mandarin neophyte. Tones! 

In Qingdao, it seems, a first tone is changed to a third (high/level becomes falling/rising) and a second tone becomes a fourth (rising becomes falling). I’m sure this is challenging even for good students and native speakers of Mandarin. I’m told the bright side is that third and fourth tones remain unchanged. However, I can’t attest to that, since I couldn’t tell which were which. I wish they’d had a sign at the airport warning me of this when I arrived. 

On reflection, conversations with drunken Welshmen are now on my list of useful preparation activities before my next trip to deepest China.

About the Author

April Zhang

April Zhang

April Zhang is the founder of MSL Master and the author of two series of Chinese textbooks, Mandarin Express series and Chinese Reading and Writing series, which are highly relevant and very effective for non-Chinese speakers to learn Mandarin Chinese.


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