Hacking Chinese

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Tone errors in Mandarin that actually can cause misunderstandings

Tones are important when learning Chinese. I usually explain this to beginners by saying that tones carry about as much information about the meaning of a word as vowels do. This means than getting a tone wrong doesn’t make communication impossible, but it does make it harder, as does any mistake.

Some tone mistakes are more serious than others, though, just like mixing up the vowels in English in some words might just sound a bit odd, whereas in other situations, it changes into another word. If you’re out of luck, it changes meaning to word that is funny and/or embarrassing.

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If you’re a new student, I recommend that you check out the Hacking Chinese guide to Mandarin tones before reading this article.

The Hacking Chinese guide to Mandarin tones

Tone errors in Mandarin that actually can cause confusion

In this article, I’m going to discuss tone errors in Mandarin that actually can cause confusion and impact communication. You might think that there are already dozens of articles that do this, but I’m after something else here.

I’m not going to shame anyone in particular, but other articles about tone mistakes in Chinese typically say that tones are important, and then give you a list of ten funny examples, such as saying xiōngmáo (胸毛, “chest hair”) instead of xióngmāo (熊猫, “panda”). While these may be funny (some of them truly are), they don’t typically cause any problems in communication.

Let’s go to the bitch to play volleyball and swim in the ocean

To better understand this, let’s have a look at an example from Chinese people learning English. Sorting out vowels is a challenge for many Chinese students of English, and one embarrassing example is to pronounce beach as bitch. On the surface, this looks like it could lead to some problems, right? Just like it would be problematic to confuse panda with chest hair.

Well, not really. All languages are context-dependent, Chinese even more so than English. Imagine a Chinese friend of yours calling you one hot summer afternoon and, in her good but accented English, asks how you’re doing and after complaining about the hot weather, invites you to go to the bitch and play some volleyball and swim in the ocean.

The risk of misunderstanding here is close to zero. There is no way you’d think she actually meant bitch and not beach. While it’s impossible to know what would happen in a hypothetical situation like this, I think it’s probable that you wouldn’t even register what she said as bitch; your brain would just assume she meant beach and move on. If you did notice, you might find it slightly amusing, but there’s simply no way you would misunderstand what she said.

Are tones really that important?

Yes, tones are important. Every mistake makes it harder for people to understand what you say, and tone mistakes are very common. Still, I think it’s important to be realistic about how tones work and what problems they can cause if you don’t learn them properly. Someone being confused about why you thought the chest hair was cute is not among them.

This is because the importance of tones is inversely related to the predictability of what you say, so if you say something the speaker can mostly guess from context, tones aren’t very important (neither is accurate language in other areas, including spelling when writing). Conversely, if the listener has no clue what you’re talking about, using the correct tones becomes much more important. Read more in The importance of tones is inversely proportional to the predictability of what you say:

The importance of tones is inversely proportional to the predictability of what you say

Amusing examples that don’t really cause any confusion

This is what happens with all these hilarious examples of mixing up the tones in Mandarin too (if you want to browse more of these, check Liz Carter on Twitter). There’s only a real risk of misunderstanding when said in isolation, not in context. And there is always context.

If you say that you went to the zoo yesterday and thought the xiōngmáo were very cute, native speakers are far more likely to just assume you meant xióngmāo but that your Chinese is not that good yet, rather than be confused by whose chest hair you checked out.

This is true for a number of similar examples:

  • If you say wǒ zhǎobudao wǒ de yǎnjīng when sitting down to read, no-one will think you’ve dropped your eyes and can’t find them, they will just assume you mispronounced glasses and point out that they’re on your forehead.
  • If you say rúguǒ nǐ yǒu shì nǐ kěyǐ wěn wǒ, you run little risk of someone mistaking your instruction to mean that they should kiss you, even if that’s what you said.
  • If you try to buy a ticket to shānghài, the Chinese person in the ticket kiosk will not think you want to hurt someone; they will just assume that you’re a foreigner and ask which time you want to go to Shànghǎi.

There are of course many, many more examples of these amusing examples that you don’t really need to worry that much about as a learner of Chinese. The fact that people can understand something you say even if you get the tones wrong does not mean that tones are not important, just like getting a vowel wrong in English and still being understood doesn’t mean that vowels are not important in English.

Tone errors in Mandarin that actually can cause confusion

As we have seen, many tone errors are amusing, but unlikely to cause real confusion in a conversation. However, there are some tone problems that can cause real problems when communicating. These have a few things in common:

  1. They are interchangeable in a grammatical sense, i.e. they are both nouns, verbs and so on. This is true for chest hair/panda, too.
  2. They are often used in the same context and usually have a related meaning. This is not true for chest hair/panda.
  3. Because of the above two, you might say the wrong word without either you or the person you’re speaking with noticing. Naturally, if you continue talking about the same topic for some time, the misunderstanding is likely to be sorted out sooner or later, but what all the examples below have in common is that it’s not immediately apparent that you’ve said something wrong.

For more about in which contexts tones are important, check my article The importance of tones is inversely proportional to the predictability of what you say

The list below is based on my experience as a learner and a teacher, plus stories I’ve heard from other learners and teachers. Nothing on the list is hypothetical, meaning that they have all caused actual misunderstandings that weren’t immediately apparent. If you have encountered more examples, I’d be delighted if you left a comment and shared your story!

  • 买/卖 (買/賣), mǎi/mài, “to buy”/”to sell” – I think most learners of Chinese have problems with this pair at some point. Even as an advanced learner, I sometimes make this mistake, although I always hear that it comes out wrong nowadays and can correct myself. It’s possible to have a long conversation where the other person thinks you’re talking about selling a phone, car or house without noticing that you’re actually talking about buying one.
  • 哪里/那里 (哪裡/裡), nǎlǐ/nàlǐ, “where”/”there” – This is another pair that most students encounter early on their Chinese-learning journeys. This pair can cause confusion if you mix them up because both words typically appear in the same place in sentences, but one is a question and the other is not. In English, this is dealt with by using different word order (it’s there” vs. “where is it”), but in Chinese, the only difference is the tone of the first syllable and the intonation of the whole phrase.
  • 汉语/韩语 (漢語/韓語), hànyǔ/hányǔ, “Chinese language”/”Korean language” – These are bound to cause confusion because both are languages and it’s often impossible for the listener to know which one you mean. Naturally, Chinese people are more likely to think that you as a beginner mean that your Chinese is not very good, but there are plenty of situations where it’s less clear.
  • 泰语/台语 (泰語/台語 ),  tàiyǔ/táiyǔ, “Thai language”/”Taiwanese language” – Similar to the above, these are both languages that can be used in exactly the same type of questions. It’s more likely to cause trouble for someone studying in Taiwan for obvious reasons, perhaps especially for students from Thailand.
  • 臭/丑 (臭/醜), chòu/chǒu, “smelly”/”ugly” – This is one of the few cases which can cause a misunderstanding that are isn’t found out at all. You can say that a person is smelly or ugly, and unless you then say something that is directly connected to this, the other person has no way of knowing that you actually meant the other one. I can’t imagine where this would cause real trouble, though.
  • Get your tones right! Shǎnxī in blue; Shānxī in red.

    山西/陕西 (山西/陝西), shānxī/shǎnxī, “Shanxi province”/”Shaanxi province” – This pair seems to be designed to troll Chinese learners (or even worse, students of China who don’t study Chinese and therefore don’t know about tones). In English, an extra “a” is added as a stand-in for the third tone. Talking about geography, where in China you’ve been and so on, getting the tone right here is important! The fact that they are next to each other complicates things further.

  • 杯子/被子 (杯子/被子), bēizi/bèizi, “cup; glass”/”quilt” – Both these things can be bought in the same type of shop and they are both things you have at home and might want to talk about in Chinese. It’s nice to have a cup when you feel cold, but it’s even better to have a quilt!
  • 花/画 (花/畫), huā/huà, “flower”/”painting” – These are both things you can have in your home or things you might want to buy. Admittedly, the real-world situations where this would truly be confusing are quite small, but I’ve managed to encounter them! Using the correct measure word usually sorts these things out, though. A similar example is 书/树 (書/樹), shū/shù, “book”/”tree”, but again, there are few real-world examples where this would cause trouble. I have been confused by this once when a student tried to describe a word when playing a word game and said yǒu hěn duō shū, whereupon I guessed túshūguǎn “library”, but he actually meant sēnlín “forest”.
  • 栗子/李子 (栗子/李子), lìzi/lǐzi, “chestnut”/”plum” – These will certainly cause confusion because they can both be purchased and eaten, usually at the same stand or in the same shop. Note that there’s also 梨 “pear”, but that 子 is normally not added in this case, so it’s less likely to be only a tone issue if you get it wrong. Credit to Adam for providing this example in the comment section.
  • 季/集, jì/jí, “season”/”episode” – This pair can be troublesome when you discuss TV series in Chinese, such as when discussing what episode to watch, how many seasons you have seen, etc. There’s often nothing in the context that makes it clear which one it is, so if you mess up the tones here, people will be confused! Credit to Yoyo Chinese on Twitter for highlighting this one.

Most of the time when I list things on Hacking Chinese, my goal is not to make an exhaustive list; I simply want to show some examples. Sometimes though, such as in my article about Chinese characters that share the same components but are still different, I really want to find as many examples as possible. Have you encountered more examples of words that only differ in tones that are likely to cause trouble? Leave a comment and share your story!

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  1. Adam says:

    Pear, plum, chestnut: 梨子 lízi, 李子 lǐzi, 栗子 lìzi. However, maybe the 子 is not used with each of them (?).
    床 and 窗. The bed and the window belong to the same set. Then again, maybe 窗 is not much used without 户 or something else, is it?

    1. Olle Linge says:

      I think it’s normally just 梨, not 梨子, but the other two normally take 子 and I’ll add them to the list in the article. A very good example, thanks! Regarding 窗 and 床, I can’t really see a situation where they would be truly confused. If funny mistakes are what we’re after, there are plenty with 上床 and 上船 and similar, but I can’t come up with reasonable contexts where those can be confused. Stewart Lee brings up 同窗朋友 vs. 同床朋友 in his book, but that seems really far-fetched to me.

  2. 夏南 says:

    I always remember a time when I confused ‘party’ (派对 pàiduì) with ‘to line up’ (排队 páiduì). I was living in Beijing and had just come back from a weekend in Shanghai and was telling some friends that I’d gone there for a party. They were ver confused for a few minutes when they thought I’d gone there to line up.

    1. Olle Linge says:

      Yeah, I remember having trouble with that pair, too. However, it seems to be more of the “oh, why did you go there to… ah, I see, you meant party” type and unlikely to persist for long. Still amusing, of course, foreigners really like to queue? 🙂

  3. Sara K. says:

    Actually, I know of a situation in which the wěn/wèn caused confusion (in a way). A friend of mine was narrating a story in her Mandarin class, and she said that she went up to a man and kissed him. Her teacher ‘corrected’ her and said that the correct way to say ‘ask’ is ‘wèn’ but my friend really meant that she went up and kissed the guy.

    I guess that goes to show how it could go the other way – even if you say exactly what you mean in Mandarin, if the idea sounds too strange (walking up to a man & kissing him vs. walking up to a man and asking him), another Mandarin speaker might (mistakenly) assume that you made a tone mistake.

    1. Olle Linge says:

      Oh, I think I remember you telling me about this story before! I remembered someone had told me about it, but couldn’t recall who. You bring up an interesting point, though, namely that if there are two possibilities and one is very unlikely, you can run into problems if you actually want to say the unlikely word. I don’t see why you would do this, but let’s say you actually went to the zoo and saw some awesome chest hair there, then you’d probably be in trouble even if your tones are good. However, I think this situation is so rare that it might never have happened in real life. 🙂 But in theory, it’s probably possible to construct extremely specific situations in which even bizarre mix-ups would cause trouble.

  4. David Lloyd-Jones says:

    I don’t think confusion is the big problem. It seems to me there are two big problems: insulting people and sounding like a fool.

    When you’re speaking a language other than your own, you very quickly tell your interlocutor a great deal about yourself. If you have never shown them and their language the respect demonstrated by making the attempt to pronounce it sensibly, or at least humbly, then you have instantly signalled your arrogance, or stupidity, or inability to function in the real world, or all three.

    Getting some intonations wrong is not a problem. If you have established your good standing, people will forgive, will make the effort to see through the haze of your errors, and will often, perhaps usually, try to help you improve. If you haven’t — if, for instance, you have moved your voice up a register in tone or volume because the backward natives are always iggerant — people in all countries will instantly adjust. In most cases, they will simply treat you like an infant, take up some distance, and try to be kind. On rare occasions, they will respond with a hostility equal to that implied by your insensitivity.

    That, not the nonexistent danger of confusing panda-bears and chest hair, is why paying attention to intonation is important.

    1. Olle Linge says:

      It seems you are making the same argument as the article does? The main idea I’m trying to convey is that a) most tone mistakes of the kind listed in other articles about tone mistakes typically don’t cause any confusion (such as panda/chest hair), and b) some tone mistakes actually do cause confusion, as proved by the fact that these are all real examples (these are very rare, though, the examples here took years to collect).

  5. Gary Hepner says:

    Two examples I’ve run into. One is ‘Xiao san’ (a mistress in Taiwan/maybe China) and ‘Xiao shan’: a small mountain. I had a very funny conversation in earlier days of learning Chinese. This isn’t so much to do with tones though.

    Another definite tonal one is gan1 and gan4. Dry and to do. And in Taiwan my students giggled about gan4 as a swear word.

    1. Olle Linge says:

      I think these sort into the “amusing, but don’t really cause confusion” category, right? Or have you actually been in a conversation where someone truly believed you meant one while you actually meant the other? 🙂

  6. phil smith says:

    My wife: 我们在第二前面见面(we meet on the platform in front of carriage two towards the front)
    In my head: We meet in front of exit D2

  7. Adam says:

    那里,哪里 (or 那儿,哪儿) Mistaking sentences like He went there and Where did he go? may be confusing for the interlocutor whether on speaking or on listening.

    1. Olle Linge says:

      It amazes me that I did not think of this pair when writing the article! I’ll add them to the list of examples. Thanks!

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