WARNING: This post contains explicit content because the Chinese language contains explicit content and we sometimes say it without meaning to.
Fear of getting laughed at (not with) is a common affective problem for language learners. While there’s no escaping it in any language, there are a few reasons why Chinese is especially nerve-wracking to learn.
1. Getting the Tone Wrong
I still remember my first traumatic experience in this realm. It was a coldish day in winter during my first few months in China. I was teaching a class of 40 students and asked a girl, in Chinese, if she had a pen…or so I thought.
I meant to say:
- nǐ yǒu bǐ ma? 你有笔吗? = Do you have a pen?
The whole class erupted into laughter and the girl’s face turned bright red. I knew something was wrong, but no one would tell me what. It wasn’t until some time later that I guessed I’d actually said:
- nǐ yǒu bī ma? 你有屄吗? = Do you have a c*nt?
Now people. Seriously. Getting three 3rd tones in a row right is hard under any circumstances. Not to mention the fact that I’d only been in China a matter of months. Also, considering the tone wars that inevitably go on in non-Chinese speakers’ heads, I’m sure I emphasized “pen” like I would have in English (which probably is what lead to my saying the first tone).
Needless to say, I’ve never really recovered from that. When talking about pens now, I always add the measure word (zhī 支) and I just refuse to use the word bī 逼, meaning “to force” (I always use qiǎngpò 强迫). And that’s just one of many examples.
A new teacher who just arrived in China told me yesterday he’s terrified of ordering boiled dumplings (shuǐ jiǎo 水饺) because he was told he’s been saying “sleep” (shuì jiào 睡觉). Even though context should help him out, he’s still shaken up.
2. Getting the Tone Right
Because of the huge number of homonyms in Chinese, even when I get the tone right, I’m laughed at by some immature people (remember I work with college students) who want to mock me or someone else.
For example, one of my student’s name is chún 纯 (“pure”). But even when I say it right (by now I can tell if I’ve nailed the tone), I hear giggles ripple through the class as her classmates say chǔn 惷 (“stupid”) to each other.
I’ve also got several students named xiǎo zhū 小珠 (“little pearl”). Inevitably, I’ll hear giggles as the students repeat exactly what I said (tones and all) but simply think of xiǎo zhū 小猪 (“little pig”).
There’s nothing I can do about these. It’s not like when a student of English mispronounces “six o’clock” and it comes out “sex o’clock.” That would no doubt get a few giggles in an American college class too. The problem is when I say it exactly right and it still causes laughter. It’s just the nature of the language.
3. Switcheroo Words
Because of my mild dyslexia, I live on constant fear of “briefcase,” “honey,” and “marriage.” I’ve already written briefly about these and advised us to try to enjoy the silliness of our mistakes. Once they happen, that’s absolutely the best approach. But the fear of making them again can be very detrimental to the learning process.
4. Double Entendres (aka Chinese people get laughed at too)
This past week, two things happened that have encouraged me in my laughingstock-a-phobia.
A Chinese student of mine went into the cafeteria and told the worker she wanted some rice. She said simply:
- yào fàn 要饭 = I want rice
She said the other Chinese students who heard her burst into laughter because that also means “to beg.” I asked her how she felt at that time. “Embarrassed,” she told me with a serious face. She was not relating this story to show how funny it had been but rather how bad it had made her feel. I sympathized with her. Just to remind you: she’s a native speaker of Chinese. But because the characters “want rice” also mean “to beg,” she was not allowed to ask for rice in that way without receiving ridicule from her peers.
On Monday night I was the only foreigner in a little gathering of Chinese students and teachers. One boy shared some advice his mother had given him. A 60-year-old Chinese lady wanted to say she really like the advice of his mother. She said:
- wǒ juéde tā mā de jiànyì– 我觉得他妈的建议– = I think his mother’s advice—
Amazing how that extra syllable is the difference between laughter and an otherwise serious discussion.
Oh I just can’t help myself! I’m on a roll.
In my first year in China, a student told me he’d gone to get some photos developed and the worker wanted to ask him if he wanted them in a kind of cardboard carrying thing to protect them. The worker said:
- yào bú yào ānquán tào? 要不要安全套? = Do you want a protective case?
Being the kind of guy my student was, he started laughing and said:
- gěi wǒ gè bìyùn tào 给我个避孕套 = Give me a condom.
The worker was embarrassed because she had actually said “condom” (ānquán tào 安全套) even though she hadn’t meant it that way.
Learning Chinese is scary. You never know when you might say something wrong. The more pitfalls we can know about ahead of time the better we’ll be at avoiding them. But even native speakers can’t avoid all of them.
Any other examples are welcome in the comments section.