I like to believe I’m a pretty easygoing person. Granted I overthink every single little thing I do (or not do), but in general I don’t get angry, or insulted, or upset quickly. But there are exceptions. My patience and goodwill only go so far. And reading the sentences below, from the preface to Instant Chinese: How to Express 1,000 different ideas with just 100 key words and phrases, did it for me:
This book uses English phonetics to represent the syllables making up Mandarin Chinese, making it possible for total newcomers to the language to communicate quickly and easily on a basic level without any previous introduction to the language.
Ok, so far so good; if you don’t want to introduce Pinyin and its basic pronunciation rules, fine by me, use this weird English phonetics system (because everybody obviously knows how to pronounce that?!). But hold on to you chairs, now the true horror begins…
This approach does not take into account the four “tones” that are part of Mandarin. But not all of the words in the language are spoken in tones, and the phonetic versions presented here are close enough to the “correct” pronunciation that the meaning is generally understandable.
WHAT?!! No, no, no, and NO. People, DO NOT BELIEVE THIS! You see, I’m getting as wound up as I did the first time I read this. I understand that in today’s world of instant Google translations, microwave diners, and fifteen minutes of fame, everything needs to be fast and furious, but there is no such thing as instant Chinese. All words in Mandarin are spoken with a tone (and why “tones” in quotation marks anyway?), even if it’s the so-called 5th neutral tone, and anybody who has tried their luck at throwing toneless Chinese at a native speaker can back me up here: it is not understandable. I could, and we are indeed doing this, collect dozens of stories of how saying something in the wrong tone can get you into trouble, funny situations, or simply nowhere.
Let me give an example. I ask you what you did today, and you say: I went to the library. Oh, how nice, I say, what did you do there? And you say: I looked at a tree. Excuse me? You repeat: I went to the library and looked at a tree. I don’t understand, did you see a tree in the library? Or you went to the library and saw a tree? What do the two have to do with each other? And so the confusion starts. This is exactly what would happen in Chinese if you disregard (or mispronounce) tones. The Chinese for “reading a book/studying” (kànshū 看书) becomes “to look at a tree” (kànshù 看树) when the tones are different. So no matter how much we would like it to work, toneless Chinese is just not going to happen, or at least it is not going to result in successful communication. Sorry to burst the bubble of instant gratification and result.
I’m not saying that we shouldn’t try to present simple Chinese sentences in as simple a way as possible to a broad audience. I’m just saying that disregarding tones is ridiculous, and claiming that it is possible an outright lie. The basic ingredients for “instant Chinese” are a solid knowledge of a transcription system (such as Pinyin) and tones, regardless of what the author of this book is trying to make us believe.