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Previous Challenge Entry (Level 3 – Advanced)
Topic: Melody (08/24/06)

TITLE: The Horse and the Language Student
By Suzanne R


Silence in my heart.

Hopes dashed because of a stupid language.

The big brown horse plods slowly. It ignores its female rider. The woman has wild hair and a tormented face. She screams, gesturing madly at the beast.

Or is it me who has gone mad?

Only six months ago, I’d stood tall, shoulders square, face raised, singing lustily, “I’ll go to the world.” The lyrics echoed in my heart, even throughout the teary farewells and the journey across the globe.

Why didn’t I go to another part of the world? Someplace where people don’t sing to communicate.

Many Asian languages are tonal. Tones … implements of torture for the uninitiated.

“Can I ask you?” easily becomes “Can I kiss you?” It only takes one tiny change of tone. I know. I’ve said it.

“I like to sleep” and “I like dumplings” are also too close for comfort. Only tones separate them. I enjoy both. Yet the steadily plodding horse doesn’t stop for either.

I still had music in my heart in those early days of language study. The tune was confused, tenuous, up and down, loud and soft. But there was a melody, nonetheless. It was like my grasp of tones really … a bit all over the place.

Then the slow horse of language study obliterated the music of my heart.

Oh, the theory sounds simple enough. It’s all about musical pitch. The first tone is high. ‘Ma’, first tone, means ‘mother’. The second tone has a rising inflection. ‘Ma’, second tone, means ‘numb’.

The third tone is pronounced like your voice is galloping down the bottom of a dip, over a bridge and a little way up the other side. ‘Ma’, third tone, means ‘horse’.

The bane of the existence of all would-be-Chinese-speaking-westerners is the filthy fourth tone. It should be easy enough – simply the vocal equivalent of running down a long hill. The problem is that most westerners come to a screeching halt halfway down, causing confusion and injury. ‘Ma’, fourth tone, means ‘to scold’.

Last but not least is the neutral tone. ‘Ma’ pronounced quickly and lightly converts a statement to a question.

‘Mama qi ma. Ma man ma? Mama ma ma.” ‘Mother rides a horse. Is the horse slow? Mother scolds the horse.’

Yet without correct tones, it is nonsense.

After several months of language school, the music in my heart had changed to angry low chords. The melody was somewhat like a third tone, but with no hope of going up the hill again.

Whatever the music is like internally, it is never possible to adequately express frustration in a language in which one is not proficient. Tongue-tied doesn’t begin to describe it.

My heart became ‘ma’, second tone, meaning ‘numb’.

I suppose I should be thankful I only need to learn Mandarin Chinese. Cantonese has between six and nine tones … experts can’t quite decide how to define the word ‘tone’.

Music … melody … necessary for speaking Chinese … is only half the battle. The other hurdle is the visual aspect of Chinese characters. The word ‘ma’ (third tone) actually looks like a horse … with a bit of imagination. Put a pictograph of a broad-hipped woman in front of it and you get ‘ma’ (first tone), meaning mother. I gaze at the statement, ‘Mama qi ma’ (Mother rides the horse). I can see the determined but frustrated lady sitting astride that slow horse, gesticulating madly as she scolds it.

Gently, God speaks into my heart in a language that isn’t tonal but simply warm and calming.

“My ‘pleasure is not in the strength of the horse … the LORD delights in those who fear him, who put their hope in his unfailing love.’” (Psalm 147:10a,11 NIV).

China’s melodious language has stripped me of every skerrick of self-respect and confidence. Yet God doesn’t call us to sound intelligent … let alone be intelligent. He only calls us to hope in Him.

A weak but audible strain of music returns to my wrung-out heart.

“Mama qi ma. Get back on that horse, dear woman.”

What was that? In what language?

“Stop scolding. Start singing.”

Forget the egotistical ‘I’, though. ‘I’ll go to the world?’ Now THAT is ‘ben’ … fourth tone … stupid. The power to gallop (ben - first tone) originates (ben – third tone) in the Creator of language itself.

It is in Him alone that any language student must hope.

Anyhow, it really doesn’t matter how slowly that horse plods.

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This article has been read 1342 times
Member Comments
Member Date
Amy Michelle Wiley 08/31/06
This is great!! It gives a great message along with interesting information, in a very entertaining way. I wonder if the author is who I think... ;-)
Beth Muehlhausen09/01/06
I learned a lot here! Interesting how some foreign languages do sound musical...but I didn't know how tough the sounds were to differentiate in this case! I liked this line: "the music in my heart had changed to angry low chords." Very descriptive.
Lynda Lee Schab 09/01/06
You learn something new every day! I never knew about the Chinese "tone" thing. This piece could have been confusing but you made it very clear by writing in plain English! Thanks for the lesson and for sharing your language struggles with us. Beautifully done!
Lynda Schultz 09/01/06
I'm glad I only had to learn Spanish - that was hard enough! But quite apart from having earned my undying admiration for your dedicated plodding (couldn't resist the horse thing!) in language study (assuming this is a personal story), you have written a wonderful piece. A masterful work, indeed.
Jan Ackerson 09/01/06
This was totally fascinating--I loved it! You took a subject that could have been dry and academic, and wrote your conflict in an almost lyrical way. Awesome!
Debbie Sickler09/01/06
I really enjoyed your different approach to the topic and the way you described the different tones. My old boss tried to teach my coworkers and I how to say thank you in Chinese one day, so I can totally relate to the tone difficulties. (we had a blast with it by the way. hehe) Thanks for an interesting and fun read. :)
Bonnie Derksen09/01/06
I LOVED THIS! Better than reading it would be to hear you, the author and obviously language student, read it out to the rest of us, your audience. Wow! you have brought to light the challenge of learning Chinese in a most entertaining way. Masterfully written and I thank you.
Karen Ward09/02/06
As a former student of linguistics, I not only applaud your writing, but empathise with your tonal struggles! Did you know that in Russian, the only difference between 'teacher' and 'torture' is which syllable you stress? Not as tricky as tones, but some would say an interesting co-incidence!
Well written, I agree with other comments that what could have been confusing and boring was crystal clear and engaging, well done!
Joanne Malley09/03/06
Very interesting, indeed! I'm comfortable knowing that God doesn't care what I sound like, or even if I can make any sounds. The murmurings of my soul are enough for Him. Good job!
Ann Grover09/05/06
I was fascinated and enchanted from beginning to end! I learned something, too! VERY well written and very visual!
Joanne Sher 09/05/06
Very, very intriguing - I definitely learned something new today! Wonderfully done, too! You do an excellent job of explaining, in an interesting and entertaining way, what this woman was going through!
Shari Armstrong 09/05/06
Oh my! and I thought Basic Musicianship with solfedge was torture!! favorite quote "Yet God doesn’t call us to sound intelligent … let alone be intelligent." :) Love it!
Rebecca Livermore09/05/06
Any native English speaker who has ever tried doing the tonal thing can relate to your story! I once took a language acquisition course, and I'll tell you, I was SO glad the language I was going to have to learn is NOT tonal! Thanks for exlaining the difficulty of it, and the impact it had on your emotions so clearly. Blessings!
Val Clark09/08/06
Wow! What an engaging insight into your language struggles. And good to know that the horse isn't plodding anymore - or is it?
Jenny Fulton 10/26/08
Wow! I can completely relate, though I'm not studying it as intensely. I love how you used the tones and words to tell the story! It is very encouraging. :-)