To Speak, Perchance To 'Dream In Chinese' From when not to say thank you, to an embarrassing run-in at a Shanghai Taco Bell, Deborah Fallows recounts her tumultuous journey through the Chinese language in her new book, Dreaming in Chinese: Mandarin Lessons in Life, Love, and Language.
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To Speak, Perchance To 'Dream In Chinese'

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To Speak, Perchance To 'Dream In Chinese'

To Speak, Perchance To 'Dream In Chinese'

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.


And I'm Melissa Block.

When Deborah Fallows went to live in China with her husband, the journalist James Fallows, she was armed with a few semesters of Mandarin study. Then she got to Shanghai and found she couldn't recognize or speak a single word of what she'd been studying.

She writes about her journey through the Chinese language - and her many missteps along the way - in her new book "Dreaming in Chinese."

Deborah Fallows has a Ph.D. in linguistics and speaks half a dozen languages, but Chinese was another story.

Ms. DEBORAH FALLOWS (Author, "Dreaming in Chinese: Mandarin Lessons in Life, Love, and Language"): I didn't feel like I had anything to hang my hat on with this language. It just bore no resemblance to Romance languages, Germanic languages, Japanese, anything that I'd ever approached before. And there are some things about Chinese that are easy, and then there are a lot of things about Chinese that are hard.

BLOCK: Well, let's talk about that. You point out that Chinese has only 400 syllables, unique syllables, one-tenth of the number that there are in English, which means that there are many, many, many words that sound exactly alike.

Ms. FALLOWS: Homonyms...

BLOCK: And that can get you in a lot of trouble, right?

Ms. FALLOWS: It's homonyms run rampant, yes.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. FALLOWS: Like in English, if you have, say, the word seal - seal, the animal; you have seal a letter; but in Chinese, you have just a plethora of things like that.

The issue with Chinese is that they have these very few syllables. You don't -words like mah(ph), tah(ph), huh(ph), shi, you don't get a lot of long complicated syllables like stretch or plump, where you get consonants clustered together to give you all kinds of varieties. So there's very little to work with. And that actually connects directly to the tone system of Chinese. Since you have so few syllables to work with, one of the ways out of that and distinguishing one syllable for another to make one word or another is to slap a tone onto it. So you can say shi. Shi. Shi. Shi. And you get...

BLOCK: And the meaning will change.

Ms. FALLOWS: ...and the meaning will change with each of those.

BLOCK: You print a short little story in your book, written in Chinese, called "The Lion-Eating Poet in the Stone Den."

Ms. FALLOWS: That's right.

BLOCK: Which looks like a whole bunch of different Chinese characters on the page. But if you were to read it, what would it sound like?

Ms. FALLOWS: It would sound all like shi.

BLOCK: Every word.

Ms. FALLOWS: Every word is shi. The tones might change, but the amazing thing about this poem is that you can tell this entire story using one syllable. It's a real challenge to listen to, especially if your ear is not accustomed to listening and using tones.

BLOCK: And the shi in this poem, you're saying, means lions, market, 10, eat, and stone, among other words.

Ms. FALLOWS: Right, among other things. It's a little fable, and it's not a great story.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. FALLOWS: It doesn't tell a wonderful myth, but it is kind of interesting that you can tell a whole story using one syllable.

BLOCK: You write about something that happened to you one day when you had a craving, an inexplicable craving for cheese when you were living in Shanghai, and you went to Taco Bell. And you were trying to order takeout and just ran into a buzz saw of lack of understanding. What happened?

Ms. FALLOWS: Right. I went in the door and was greeted by this young Chinese guy in a sombrero and little velvet vest and had practiced very hard what I was going to ask him. I wanted to do takeout. The word in Chinese for takeout is dabao. So I wasn't very good at tones at that point and trying to ask him, do you have dabao? A complete blank look on his face.

So I thought, okay, I'm obviously using the tones wrong here, so I'll try dabao with other kinds of tones. So I was trying rising tones, falling tones, falling and rising tones, any combination of tones I could get for the word dabao. Then, I got the menu. I started mimicking - pointing on the menu, pointing to the door as though I were taking a bag out the door...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. FALLOWS: know, and thinking all this, well, come on. How hard can this be? Finally, he went into the back room, into the kitchen and came out with three or four other guys. I went through the routine again with dabao. Dabao. Dabao. Anything I can think of.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. FALLOWS: And one of them had this look of eureka on his face, and he said, oh, dabao.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. FALLOWS: And then they all laughed and went into the other room and said, yes, they do, you know, yes, they do. Yo(ph), they do have dabao.

BLOCK: And when you were asking in that Taco Bell for takeout, they might have been thinking what? What would have sounded similar to what you were asking for?

Ms. FALLOWS: There are a number of things, some of them more embarrassing than others. I was maybe asking for a hug. And I...

BLOCK: These crazy Westerners.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. FALLOWS: Yeah. You just never know what they'll want.

BLOCK: You point one other thing that - well, many other things, but you do point to one glimmer you have into Chinese culture, which has to do with the notion that it can be a very blunt language. To an American, it might seem impolite that there aren't sort of these grace notes, I think you call them, of please and thank yous that are added to things.

Ms. FALLOWS: Right. When people ask you if you want something, like, would you like a glass of water? You'd say, bu yao(ph), which just means don't want or don't need, instead of saying, oh, no, thanks. I'm not really thirsty. Maybe I'll have something later.

BLOCK: Right.

Ms. FALLOWS: With all this padding and softness that you use to communicate in what you think is a polite way in English, you strip all of that away in Chinese. And it's just bu yao(ph). Bu keqi(ph), don't want, cannot. Bu shi(ph), isn't, do not. And I did feel very rude.

But then I noticed this funny thing that was going on, for example, if you're in a restaurant watching a group of close friends eating or maybe it's a family eating, you see this very delicate choreography. For example, you have a common pot of chicken and maybe the mom in the family has got her chopstick and she's very delicately picking out the best little chunks of chicken to put on her child's plate. And you see the dad pouring tea or pouring beer for everybody else in the family, as is appropriate, before pouring it for yourself. So you think: This is very polite, normal, standard behavior.

And then in the midst of all this, one of the kids will say, gei wo yan(ph), give me the salt. It's like, what's going on? Why this point of difference between what you see as polite and what you hear as being really rude?

So I started to look into this a little bit and found that if you're inserting these niceties, these softeners like pleases and thank yous, the Chinese will see that as actually setting up a distance between you and the person you're talking to.

So if I say, please pass the salt, your understanding that I have a certain degree of formality between you and me, which you don't want to insert in that case. So in a family or between and among friends, putting in the pleases and thank yous actually is setting up a distance between you. There's a degree of formality and even can be kind of offensive rather than saying, hey, what's going on here? You know, you're my buddy. You're my friend. You don't need to say please and thank you.

That's what's polite is when you strip away that kind of formality of please and thank you.

BLOCK: I'm wondering if you got to the point where you were in fact dreaming in Chinese...

(Soundbite of laughter)

BLOCK: ...such as the title of your book. Were you seeing characters? Was that the language in your sleep?

Ms. FALLOWS: I dreamed a little in Chinese but not a lot in Chinese. It was more like this odd dictionary dream where I was looking for a word. It was more like this frustrating experience with the tones where I was trying to say something and get it across and someone not understanding me.

BLOCK: Pretty much the story of your time there.

Ms. FALLOWS: The story of my life in China.

BLOCK: Deborah Fallows, thanks for coming in.

Ms. FALLOWS: Thanks, Melissa.

BLOCK: Deborah Fallows' book is "Dreaming in Chinese: Mandarin Lessons in Life, Love, and Language." You can read an excerpt at

(Soundbite of music)

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