My daughter likes soy sauce…a lot. At our first meal together in China, she asked me to request some soy sauce. Somehow in all of my study, the word for “soy sauce” had never come up. So I pulled out my phone, opened DianHua Dictionary, and looked up the word. There were a few options, but I was fairly sure it was:
酱油 ／ jiang4 you2
When the waitress returned, I requested “jian4 you2.” #facepalm After several attempts to say it correctly without realizing I had dropped a letter, our fellow diners must have graciously stepped in to help. The waitress soon brought my daughter a bowl of soy sauce, and our fellow diners proceeded to have a lively conversation about my inability to say the word correctly.
Needless to say, I will never forget the word for soy sauce nor its proper pronunciation.
The experience did impress on me early in my trip just how critical pronunciation is in Chinese. With English, you can butcher a lot of words, and we will still figure it out. We may have to ask you to repeat it once or twice, but we’ll get it eventually. In this case, I had the tones and one of two syllables correct in a context where soy sauce would be a reasonable guess. Nevertheless, it just didn’t work.
Pronunciation is important. Pay careful attention to initials and finals, and practice, practice, practice.