I had an childhood advantage in learning Chinese, as I heard a lot of Mandarin while I was growing up. My father spoke Mandarin, although even I could discern that he did so with a pronounced American accent. He was a professor of political science, specializing in China, and our home was frequently full of Chinese guests.
I learned early that Chinese was a tonal language. I knew how to say hello, and my father — and our guests — were quick to correct me if I didn’t get the tones just right. They would chortle and tell me that I had just said, “You are a good horse.” Then they would point out the difference in the tones between what I meant to say and what had caused their mirth. With that kind of correction, I learned quickly.
At least that was Mandarin. Eventually, I went away to college. During my sophomore year, I accidentally learned Cantonese when I was supposed to be learning Mandarin. It happened like this:
I was in Paris, studying French for the school year when my family made plans to go the Far East for the summer. My dad arranged for me to join the family in Hong Kong. He also made arrangements with a prominent language school in Paris for me to take a series of private lessons in Chinese.
I hadn’t picked up much vocabulary as a child, so I was quite pleased with the lessons. I was tutored by an elderly Chinese gentleman who took great pains over my pronunciation. I studied with him for a couple of months before it was time for me to go off to Hong Kong.
When I met my father in Hong Kong, I greeted him politely as the old gentleman had taught me to. My father looked blank. I guessed that maybe my accent wasn’t so great after all. Then I started counting aloud, figuring at least he would recognize that. He did. He said, “But you’re counting in Cantonese!”
It turned out that everything I had learned was Cantonese. We figured out that the old Chinese gentleman back in Paris must have needed the money and so he pulled the wool over the eyes of the administrators at the school. My father contacted the school, told them the story, and got his money back.
I studied Mandarin with another tutor during that summer, and I found that the Cantonese I had learned wasn’t completely worthless. Although the two languages are pronounced very differently, they both use several tones. The practice in recognizing and pronouncing tones came in very handy.