Banana Shoes

A few weeks ago in my English classes, I was doing lightning safety (it was stormy here, ok?). I ended up using the following joke in each class.

One of the tips from the students would inevitably be: “Always wear shoes if you’re outside.” I would follow that up by asking why. They’d say something about the shoes being made of plastic (which I thought was strange) and I’d say (in English), “No they’re not. The bottoms of your shoes are made of BANANAS!” The class always thought it was hilarious.

Someone would correct me and say, “rubber” and I’d make a big mockery of myself saying things like, “Oh no! Oops! I guess I made a mistake with my pronunciation!”

Now, here’s what I want to know from any Chinese reader(s):

Were my students laughing because:

1. They thought of the very subtle difference between the Chinese word for “banana” (xiāngjiāo 香蕉) and “rubber” (xiàngjiāo 橡胶)–a difference of only one tone?


2. They actually imagined someone walking along the street wearing banana peels on their feet?

I know it’s asking a lot to tell me what my students were thinking. But perhaps you could just give your own response to my little joke. Which did you think of?

For us laowai, here’s the point:

Regardless of why Chinese speakers laugh (or don’t laugh) at that little joke, that’s a little taste of what it must sound like to them when we’re speaking Chinese and we get a tone wrong.

It’s not like in English when you put the stress on the wrong syllable and it’s a little harder to understand (for example saying “relatives” with the stress on the second syllable instead of the first). No. When we get the tones wrong, it’s a whole new word that could be just as nonsensical to Chinese listeners as shoes made of bananas. So we’ve got to get those tones right.

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7 Replies to “Banana Shoes”

  1. No doubt about it, we do have to pay close attention to the tones when learning Chinese.

    Of course, English has its own set of subtle differences, not the least of which is the plethora of barely discernable vowel sounds. We native speakers seldom think twice about them, except perhaps as a fertile ground for puns. (Have you heard about the Hong Kong businessman who left a huge estate when he died? It was the great will of China.) They give learners fits, however. And then there’s “can” and “can’t”. Even native speakers sometimes have trouble with those two.

  2. I’m guessing xiàngjiāo-xiāngjiāo is an especially good tone mix-up because the semantics are vaguely plausible — you could almost visualize a shoe-bottom made out of a banana.

    Even though I’m an evangelist for teaching tones, I admit that people sometimes understand when I get them wrong (the latest Beijing Sounds post happens to cover a bit of this). The less context there is, or the more misleading the context, the more likely you are to be misunderstood when you get a tone wrong. The classic is when you’re asking for a particular item at a grocery store. If it’s one syllable and you get the tone wrong, you’re hosed.

    I think @Jim is right about how mixing up tones is perceived by native speakers. It’s subtler than the difference between rubber and banana in English, cuz you’d never associate those words together. But it’s a lot like individual vowel sounds or certain consonants in English. A native Mandarin speaker would rarely think about how close xiàngjiāo is to xiāngjiāo unless, as with banana-shoe, you kind of force the issue. In the same way, a native English speaker normally doesn’t think about how close together “think” and “sink” are — until they’re put together in a bad pun. In other words, s and th are psychologically significant to English speakers just like tones are to Mandarin speakers — the exact definition of phonemic, of course.

    My favorite getting-a-tone-wrong analogy comes from a dinner I attended many years ago. Non-native speaker (you guess the country, not China) was helping in the kitchen. All of a sudden he stood up and said, rather matter-of-factly, “I breed.” Again, the parallel to tones is the need for context. If he’d said “I cut my hand with a knife and it’s breeding,” we might not even have noticed the error. But given the lack of context, including grammatical context, it became an instant favorite.

    Thanks as always for the great post, Albert.

  3. You said “~~~are made of bananas.” in English, right?

    Maybe some of them didn’t realize at once that you had tried to express xiàngjiāo in Chinese.
    And some of them may understand it’s xiàngjiāo as soon as heard ‘bananas’. But what you said was bananas (or xiāngjiāo). Whatever, it’s like a funny mistake, isn’t it? They could imagine those unbelievable scenes. Your little joke works!

    Jim and syz’s comments have emphasized the tone mix-up in language learning and given a clear explanation. Thanks.

  4. Don’t know you if you’ve covered this yet, but we recently had a group session with Martin Symonds (the author of the Chinese Made Easier books) about how to effectively use language partners and the importance of keeping yourself encouraged. It made me realize some things I’d never noticed before – like how often how I feel about my language progress often has nothing to do with my actual progress, but feeling that way has a big effect on how I perform and how much I enjoy the process.

    I just blogged is here: Learning Chinese & Culture Stress: the importance of playing mind games with yourself

  5. It is not a good joke, hehe, when i read it at first time, i did not get it at all, and realized it is a joke after reading your explanation.

    I think the problem is that people usually do not translate the joke into their own language, which is a good thing is not it? when i start learning english, i translated what i hear or what i read into chinese, and think, what i should say in chinese, then translate it into english, which takes a long time, especially, not many people have the patience to wait until i finish my sentence.

    I do not know if i was taking the right way to learn english. After i realize this, i forced myself to think in english, just like a baby, to know the world all over again in another language. And now, I feel pretty cool to live in a english speaking environment although my accent is too late to change or it would take a long time to change.

    by the way, there ARE shoes made completely by plastic in china. go to some cheap markets and look for sandals.

  6. What happens to the tones of Mandarin when the words to which they are attached feature in song? By and large they disappear. The singer pays little or no heed to them, and yet the listener (if a fluent Mandarin speaker) has no problem understanding the song lyric. If ‘tones’ are so important, how come there are Chinese songs?

  7. If you get the tone wrong for xiangjiao or even slightly wrong you are correctly pronouncing “fucking/sexual intercourse”
    That always gets a laugh.

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