Watch out! Pronouncing Chinese Correctly and Common Mistakes

2012 June 18
by Anna

Watch out!

One criticism that many Westerns have about Chinese is that everything sounds the same. There is some truth in that complaint given that “shì” (one of the most common sounds in Chinese) takes up 41 pages in a standard Chinese dictionary. Chinese is a very contextually dependent language, meaning that the exact same sounds can have a completely different meaning when used in a different context.

As a tone based language, pronunciation is definitely the most important part of learning authentic Chinese. The four tones that make up Chinese are called the first, second, third, and fourth tones. The first tone is represented by a straight line (ā), second tone by a line sloping upwards (á), third tone by a “v” shaped line (ǎ), and fourth tone by a downward sloping line (à). Here is a tone map to show how each tone is pronounced.

The numbers on the right side are indicative of the voice pitch; one being the lowest sounding pitch, and five being the highest sound pitch.

 

Unlike western languages, putting your own emphasis and accent on words can lead to some pretty uncomfortable misunderstandings. Before getting too involved, lets start with the first sound that you learn in Chinese, “ma”. Pronuncing “ma” in four different ways means four entirely different things.

What is the difference in meaning between mā, má, mǎ, and mà?  

Mā: most commonly, this “ma” is associated with this character 妈,meaning “mother”[1]

Má: 麻,the character most commonly associated with this “ma” is never used alone. It can be used with the word májiàng-麻将(Mahjong) or with the word máfan-麻烦 (trouble/problematic).

Mǎ: this “ma” means “horse.” This character “马”is an ancient character and has changed very little from the first system of Chinese characters.

Mà: this “ma” can have several meanings, the simplest being “to tell off” or “to insult”-骂。

 

So now you understand how important pronunciation is to studying Chinese. However, now you find yourself unable to speak at all, because you’re too nervous that you might call your mother a horse. Don’t worry! No one is perfect starting out. Plus, don’t forget that even though you might not say something perfectly correct, because Chinese is so contextually oriented most people will understand what you mean to say, and assume that you are not incredibly rude for calling your mother a horse J

 

Below is a list of some “watch out” words that may help you avoid some embarrassing situations:

 

1 – This can cause some confusion, especially at market places where it is very possible that you would like to sell some tomatoes rather than buy some.

Buy:  Mǎi-买

Sell: Mài-卖

 

2 – This might be both an inadvertent and interesting way to start up a conversation with the people at the fruit stand.

Sentence: Jùzi-句子

Tangerine: Júzi-橘子

 

3 – Don’t be too surprised if someone says “red” when you ask what his or her favorite food is.

Dishes, cuisine:  Cài-菜

Color: Cǎi-彩

 

4 – Chinese teachers are probably used to this one by now, but I’m sure being called both naïve and old fashioned gets annoying sometimes.

Teacher: Lǎoshī-老师

Naive: Lǎoshí-老实

Old fashioned: Lǎoshì-老式

 

These are just some of the common mistakes that can be made in Mandarin Chinese. Don’t forget to learn the tones and practice your pronunciation when learning the language. Also if you have any favorites please don’t hesitate to email us, thanks and good luck with your studies!

 

 


[1] When saying “mother” one usually repeats mā twice as in “māmā” “妈妈”。

3 Responses leave one →
  1. February 10, 2014

    How do I know how to pronounce the words, at least until I get more familiar with the language? Like, I know “bu yong xie” is “you’re welcome”, but is it pronounced “boo yang ksee-ay”, “buh yong ex-ee” or something completely different?

    Thank you for your help!

  2. SWIRLsite permalink*
    February 11, 2014

    Thank you for your question. We recommend learning pinyin (official phonetic system for transcribing the Mandarin pronunciations of Chinese characters into the Latin alphabet in China) to help you with your pronunciation of Mandarin, http://www.hillslearning.com/resources/learn-chinese/chinese-flash-cards/ “Buyong xie (不用谢)” is one way to say “you are welcome” while “buyong keqi (不用客气)” is another way to say “you’re welcome.”

  3. February 11, 2014

    Thank you so much! This is a great help.

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