Dueling Lăowài is a new feature on Toshuo.com. This is my rebuttal of Prince Roy’s arguments against adding tone marks to roadsigns. If you missed the opening arguments of our friendly debate, be sure to check them out!

Tone Marks on Roadsigns Part IMark’s opening argument.
Tone Marks on Roadsigns Part IIPrince Roy’s opening argument.

Mark’s Rebuttal

In part two of this series, Prince Roy made several arguments against adding tone marks to roadsigns, some excellent and others a bit mystifying to me. I’ll give a quick run-down of his reasons not to use tone marks on street signs, and then address them one by one:

  • Making roadsigns with tone marks is expensive.
  • Tone marks are useless, except for a small sub-set of foreigners who are students.
  • Taiwanese people can’t read pinyin anyway
  • It’s a lost cause- we’ll be lucky if Taiwan ever even manages to use standard pinyin uniformly.
  • The PRC doesn’t include tone marks on its signs, despite the fact that they would be even more beneficial on the mainland, therefore Taiwan shouldn’t include them either

Signs with Tone Marks Are Cheap

I have to concede that there really isn’t a way to justify the cost of replacing roadsigns just to add something that only benefits character illiterate foreigners. That isn’t really what I was arguing when I talked about costs in my opening argument, though. Unless Jason S. and Matt come through on their offer to start a guerrilla graffiti campaign and add the tones themselves, it would be very expensive to add tone marks to the signs right now.

Fortunately, though, roadsigns are already replaced frequently. So, when analyzing the cost of putting tone marks on signs, it’s only really fair to look at the cost beyond that of signs without them. What are the costs, beyond those of just putting up a sign anyway? Considering the fact that the government already hires romanization “experts” to convert the street names into pinyin, and that adding tones is trivial, I can only think of one additional cost- paint. In other words, the additional costs of adding tone marks would be insignificant as long as a sign is going up anyway.

Many Character Illiterate People Can Read Tone Marks

Right now, Shida has over 5,000 Mandarin students, nearly all of whom can read pinyin tone marks. There are also dozens of other Chinese language programs for foreigners in the city. Aside from current students, there are also quite a few people who have previous learning experience. Every last one of my coworkers I’ve had for the last two years has been able to read pinyin with tones. Heck, I’ve even met people who’ve picked up a smattering of Chinese from the Lonely Planet Mandarin phrasebook and were able to get the right tones single syllables pretty reliably.

One final group that I think deserves to be mentioned is foreign spouses. Right now, one in five marriages in Taiwan involves a foreign spouse. I realize that many of these spouses have not studied Chinese before, but a large number do take advantage of the free instruction subsidized by the government. Regardless of whether pinyin is used in their classes or they are exclusively taught in zhuyin, they will learn the tones, and the pinyin on signs will be far easier for them to read than the characters, at least for the first several years.

For those who doubt the number of foreigners in Taiwan who can read tone marks, there’s a simple test. Write “mā má mă mà” on a piece of paper and then ask foreign looking people if they know what the tone marks are. I’m willing to bet that a sizable majority will be able to read them. I’m willing to bet beer.

Taiwanese People Can’t Read Pinyin

You’ve got me there. I would be surprised if I rode in cabs for hours on end before reaching a nearby destination if I were relying on a Taiwanese cab driver’s ability to read an address written in pinyin. But, so what? If the signs had tones, then passengers could just say the address with certainty. Even people who didn’t know any Chinese at all, didn’t have any local friends, and didn’t come with a company that could help them, could just run a pinyin address through one of the many free online tools to convert it to zhuyin, which the driver could read if necessary.

It’s a Lost Cause

It pains me to say it, but Prince Roy’s probably right about this point. Going on about tone marks isn’t very reasonable, considering that just a month ago I lived on a street less than a kilometer long that still managed to be romanized differently on the signs at each end of the street. My only defense is to hide behind the words of George Bernard Shaw:

“Reasonable people adapt themselves to the world. Unreasonable people attempt to adapt the world to themselves. All progress, therefore, depends on unreasonable people.”

The PRC Doesn’t Include Tone Marks on Its Signs

This is the part of his argument I understood the least. The PRC doesn’t have very good laws to protect foreign investors from being swindled. Considering how much more foreign investment the PRC attracts than Taiwan does, does that mean that Taiwan shouldn’t have good protections for foreign investors either? Of course, not. Tone marks on the signs all over China would be great. It would be great to have them here, too.


This wraps up my part of this Dueling Lăowài feature. Be sure the fourth and final part of the debate, Prince Roy’s rebuttal.

Tone Marks on Roadsigns Part IVPrince Roy’s rebuttal.