Church Boy Badtones

On ChinesePod we recently did a podcast lesson about being misunderstood because of incorrect tones, and then getting corrected (in Chinese). It prompted quite a few comments, including this amusing little anecdote in a comment from lostinasia:

> The only time I can recall when I had a substitution problem like this was asking for sauce (jiang4 [酱]) and instead saying ginger (jiang1 [姜]). (Ginger wasn’t totally out of place with the hot pot, but I still wished I’d received the sauce). Oh, and for the longest time at tea stands I asked for “jiao4 tang2″ [教堂] (=church) tea instead of “jiao1 tang2″ [焦糖] (=caramel) tea. They understood me, given the context, but when I finally got it right they commented that for weeks they’d been enjoying my mistake, and I’d become known as “Church Boy”, or something like that. But there are countless other times when people simply haven’t understood me, and my tones are surely a big part of that.

Oh yes, I’ve certainly been there.


John Pasden

John is a Shanghai-based linguist and entrepreneur, founder of AllSet Learning.


  1. So funny, guess you foreigners must have spent quite a hard time in making the tone problem clear… but sure besides misunderstanding, the left is fun… good luck with Chinese study..

  2. off the top of my head I can think of two instances of tone induced confusion. in a bar I once got salt when i wanted cigarettes (I was drinking tequilla). and this summer while waiting along side a rode in kashgar I told someone I was waiting for a truck for a lift (Huo4che1), and he laughed saying there were no trains here. A third person overhearing the conversation than pointed out that he had maybe misheard. anyway I think more often ka3che1 is used.
    generally speaking, learning tones should not be done in the book, but by practise. friends who have learned tones in the books usually have more difficulties than those who have used the words many times, and hence can often guess the correct tone.

  3. Once i got my salary and noticed that it was couple of hundreds less. I inquired in the accountant office, and was told the reason.
    Angered, i went back to th eteachers office. When the Chinese teachers noticed i wasn’t happy, they asked what was wrong and i grimply explained that i had too much saliva.
    Saliva = kou3 shui3
    taxes = kou4 shui4

    I have one more anecdote, but i don’t feel very well telling it here. It involves me harrassing for months the postal workers in the big Post Office on Chengfu lu…. Actually i just wanted to ask for a pen, ( bi3 ) so i could write the address.
    I couldn’t understand why a perfectly normal person would suddenly turn bright red and will go away muttering to himself, after giving me the pen of course, when I asked them: Qing wen, ni you bi ma?”

    Tones are important…..

  4. Sue,

    I had almost the same with my female mandarin teacher who had a very colorfull pen:

    Qing Gei Wo Kan Yi Xia Nide Bi

    Things were not quite the same again!

  5. Ok… John, you win. Tones are important. Great examples by everyone.

    I am still soo green with Mandarin.

    Now Josh, you seem to be quite versed in 上海話 shanghainese. Do you prefer to use Shanghainese to lessen the problem with tones? Assuming that Shanghainese has more tones and less homophones than Mandarin.

  6. please excuse my poor choice of words John, “point well made” was the better choice.

  7. My 0.02 cent correlate to another recent post by John: Even for the Chinese Mandarin tones are HELL. Most of those who speak Mandarin have lousy tones unless they are from the north. The reason they can understand each other is not due to the [in]correct tones but due to the “music of the language” — even if it’s influanced by their native dialect, there’s still music to it. Something foreigners who have not been living long in china, simply lack.

  8. Be careful when asking for the 网吧, too.

  9. I tried buying the film 草房子 when fresh to Beijing. The shocked look on the faces of the staff didn’t drop when I assured them the film was “very popular in Hong Kong”.

  10. tones are confusing

  11. 网吧??? What the heck is that? Do you guys actually have bars with internet service on the mainland? If so I’ve gotta see it!

  12. @ Mark,

    I assume you were being sarcastic, but in the event you were not, someone asking for directions to the nearest internet bar “wang3 ba1 (网吧)”, could easily slip and make the mistake of saying “wang2 ba1 (王八)” instead,which actually means “b@$tard”.

  13. Man, some of these stories are great.

    THM, Mark lives in Taiwan, where they say 网咖 instead of 网吧. I’m surprised he didn’t learn this word when he visited the PRC, though…

  14. “Ni you bi ma?” First thing I said in China ever. And yes, I f-ed it up.

  15. hmm… I’ve been making more conscious efforts on tones every since your tone lesson on Cpod.

    The other day I found myself saying words without context to someone else… I was trying to say 實驗 (P:shi yan) “experiment” which I think are 2 and 4th tones… I think.. but soon realized I was really saying 吸煙 (P:xi yan), “to smoke”, both first tones.. I think…

    I wasn’t really sure what the tones were.. but I could tell it was wrong… and xi and shi.. well.. they sound so much alike, that my Cantonese ABC years can barely tell the difference until I need to type it on the computer and have to type the correct pinyin before the word appears.

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