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.
If you’re a new student, I recommend that you check out the Hacking Chinese guide to Mandarin tones before reading this article.
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 take a swim
To better understand this, let’s have a look at an example from Chinese people learn 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 take a swim.
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.
Amusing examples than 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.
Tones are still important
Tones are of course 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.
Tone errors in Mandarin that actually can cause confusion
However, there are some tone problems that can cause real problems when communicating. These have a few things in common:
- 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.
- They are often used in the same context and usually have a related meaning. This is not true for chest hair/panda.
- 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.
- 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.
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 lí “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.
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!