Tag: pragmatics


Nov 2020

Tone of Voice in Chinese Sentences

Understanding and conveying the proper tone of voice in a Chinese sentence isn’t easy. Some languages (Japanese comes to mind) allow you to “codify” levels of politeness or formality directly into the verbs themselves. Or there are super formulaic sentence patterns for certain levels of politeness. Even in English it’s somewhat formulaic (“Please,” “Can you…?”, “Could you…?”), but less so in Chinese.

I remember talking to an AllSet Learning client years ago about this very issue years ago. She was a mother trying to raise polite children, so of course she taught them to use the word “please” for requests, which in Chinese is 请 (qǐng). So she wanted her kids to use 请 (qǐng) for their Chinese language requests. Seems simple, right? Actually, it’s not at all, because while sometimes “please” can be translated directly to 请 in a straightforward way, in many cases it’s just plain awkward in Chinese, and even super polite people just wouldn’t use the word. To be natural in Chinese, you need a much more nuanced understanding of what polite speech in Mandarin is. And that takes time.

I really enjoyed editing the example sentences for Softening the tone of questions with “ne” on the Chinese Grammar Wiki. (We’re getting ready to release the third volume: B2 / Upper Intermediate.) Here’s a sample:

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Go to the grammar point for more examples, and mouse over the English for darker, more legible English translation text.

I’m curious if any readers out there have come across any books, textbooks, resources, etc. that are especially good at helping learners understand tone of voice in Chinese. It seems to me that it’s quite an underserved facet of the journey.

Oh, and for Upper Intermediate fans of the Chinese Grammar Wiki, at AllSet we’re currently working through every single B2 grammar point (we’re almost done with the “Parts of Speech” section of the big B2 grammar point list), editing sentences, adding/fixing pinyin, improving translations, removing “stub” tags, and even rearranging entire articles and reworking explanations. If you have requests or suggestions, now is a good time!