When I bring out my very basic Chinese and manage to be understood – ie I order 3 vegetable buns and 3 vegetable buns are what I end up with – I feel a real sense of satisfaction.
Being understood is hugely motivating.
However, recently after a particularly good moment – I think I had managed to successfully order a couple of varieties of buns and a tea egg (茶叶蛋 – cháyèdàn) – my Chinese fiance Peter said “you can be understood but … you sound like a robot”.
He went on to say that he thought I wasn’t using tones because I was scared of getting the tones wrong. And he was right. To some extent.
Not only am I scared of getting them wrong but I also find it really hard to speak whole sentences with tones. I can say the tones in individual words but when it comes to sentences my tones just disappear.
I have heard that the best way to overcome this is to exaggerate your tones and that they really won’t sound as exaggerated to Chinese people’s ears as they do to English speakers’ but I find this is much easier said than done.
Firstly, I find that if I do this I have to speak reeaaalllyyy sloooowly.
Secondly, I also suspect that to understand my toneless Chinese native speakers are using context as much as possible to figure out what I am trying to say so I figure the more I say the more context I am giving them.
To encourage myself I remind myself that when I first started learning no one seemed to understand a single thing I was saying – now they seem to understand me most of the time but I’d still like to sound like a person (even if it will never be a native speaking person).
I’m interested to hear if other people have encountered sounding like a robot in Chinese and how they have overcome this and become a fully functioning human Chinese speaker.