The Most Embarrassing Moment while I Speak Chinese
Kaohsiung Medical University-Bintou Junaidi Jallow

Any attempt to learn a second language is wrought with difficulties. New words, new grammar systems, and new pronunciations are challenges that are universal to everyone who attempts to learn a new language, English as my national language I was no exception to this challenge. I was so excited on my first day in Chinese class, but I was soon to realize the following difference between the languages.

One of the most fundamental differences between English and Chinese is the fact that Chinese is a tonal language and English is not. A tonal language is one in which the way a phoneme (or a distinct symbol of sound) is modified through tonal inflection changes the phoneme's meaning. The first tone is high and level, the second starts in the middle and rises to the top, the third starts low, dips to the lowest point, and rises nearly to the top, the forth starts at the top and falls quickly to the bottom, and the fifth is flat with no emphasis. The phoneme Yi, for example, might mean something like "doctor" in tone one, "to shift" in tone two, "already" in tone three, and "strange" in tone 4.

Another difference between the Chinese and English writing systems is that Chinese employs a logographic writing system, while English uses an alphabetic writing system. An alphabetic writing system is one which uses individual letters—each of which roughly corresponds to particular phonemes—to "spell out" how words sound. A logographic system is made up of visual symbols which represent words but not sounds. This means that the pronunciation of Chinese characters is not implied by the way the character is written. Chinese uses four tones that are pitched and a fifth neutral tone. Unlike English, there is no grammatical tense in Chinese. For example, while the English verb "do" becomes "did" to express past tense, Chinese verbs do not change in this way. Instead, Chinese relies on expressing aspect. For example, the aspect particle "le" can be used after a verb or at the end of a sentence to imply that an action has been completed.

Chinese and English differ in terms of dialects, orthography, phonetics, grammar, and in many other important ways. While the above mentioned only begin to describe the ways these languages differ, they provide a fundamental understanding of the major differences and similarities between Chinese and English.

After a semester of Chinese class I started to practice my Chinese on the streets, some days I was lucky enough to have the right tone, although most of the time it seems my tone was always wrong and I had to either use sign language or show my dictionary.  We learned in Chinese class of Kaohsiung's unique features the 10 roads that run from west to east, laid out in numerical order from YiSin Road, ErSheng, SanDuo, SihWei WuFu, LiouHe, CiSian, BaDe, JiouRu, to ShihChyuan towards the north. My University Kaohsiung Medical University is located at Shihchyuan road.

Usually when I take a taxi I just say Kaohsiung medical university dormitory (in Chinese), but this particular day I decided to give the street address. I just entered the taxi and told the driver “Sichuwan” (Shihcyuan) and I guess the driver also miss interpreted my pronunciation for “Sizihwan” and because he didn’t enquire further I was confident that he understood and here I was all proud of accomplishment. Soon after I realized that the direction he was taking was away from KMU and also the meter was getting expensive for the short distance and the worst of all, the taxi driver understood no word of English and here we were all speaking different languages and either not understanding the other and he was heading in the wrong direction.

As a last result I spoke out am going to KMU and to the driver gave a loud laugh and exclamation (oh!), and it was then he explained the mistake I made with pronunciation and imagine the rest of the journey was lessons on tones and pronunciation, but all my focus was on the meter because I ended up having to pay way more. This again points out how important it is to use the right tones in speaking Chinese.