Tone Corrections from a 3-year-old


When my daughter was still learning to talk, she used to occasionally make tone mistakes, and this amused everybody. Now she’s almost 4, attending a Chinese pre-school, and her tones are pretty perfect.

The other day I was taking to her about a picture that featured a Chinese lantern (pictured at right). I was speaking in English, but for some reason I also brought up the Chinese word: 灯笼 (dēnglong). I pronounced it “dēnglóng.” Although those are the correct tones for those characters, I slipped up, because for this word, the second character should be read as a neutral tone: “dēnglong.”

She immediately pounced on my mistake. This is the first time she’s corrected me in a tone error, and she was delighted. (I’m sure I have many more years of this to look forward to…)

So then she was all, “ha ha, you said ‘dēnlóng’ instead of ‘dēnlong’…” and I noticed a mistake on her part. Instead of saying “dēng,” she was actually saying “dēn” (final -n instead of final -ng). I pointed this out, and she was, of course, incredulous that she, too, could be wrong. Looks like we’ll need to spend some time training that “thick Shanghai accent” out of her!

My daughter has also commented to me on how people from different countries pronounce English in different ways… I’m looking forward to having more linguistic conversations with my bilingual kid!


John Pasden

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


  1. In my experience at ECNU and in Shanghai, I found more Shanghainese speakers went -n to -ng in Mandarin than the other way round.

    Xinjiang mandarin, OTOH, is -n all day long, to the point where people have trouble with getting the right character typing pinyin.

  2. I think she’s got you beat.

    I always tried that game of correcting native Chinese speakers’ pronunciation, but they would never admit to any mistake and they probably aren’t wrong considering its how they grow up speaking and how everyone else in their region speaks. My favorite is those that say milk with L’s- “liu lai”.

    What’s your take on that? You can’t tell someone the way they grew up speaking is incorrect, or can you? Your daughter is making a “mistake” that may not really be a mistake in Shanghai. I know the typical answer is that Beijing is standard, but with a country and history so expansive, you can’t dismiss the rest of the billion people as having poor accents.

    That also makes me think about how English is evolving and you’ve got people in many countries that speak differently and have created their own English. I’d love to tell people in Asia that phrases like “Fighting” are not real, but they are now because they’ve made it their own!

    That was much longer than intended but the point is:

    You were incorrect because you used something in a way that other speakers of the language would all conclude is not the way that that word is supposed to be said.

    Your daughter was not incorrect because she has a population of millions that pronounce the word the same way.

    • Where did “Fighting!” actually come from, and how did it become people’s go-to translation for “加油!”? I heard the Koreans made it up (following which it’s easy to see how it would spread to China) but I have no proof, only hearsay.

    • Accents are fine, but there is also a standard, and to deviate from it too excessively makes you seem uneducated. The key is to know what’s “excessive,” and that’s cultural.

      Also, some foreigners don’t hear the Chinese “-ng” when it’s actually there; I’ve witnessed this many times while working at ChinesePod. In a recording of a word, a user will say it’s a mistake because it’s recorded with “-n” and not “-ng”, but the Chinese staff can hear the “-ng” and so can I, so we can only conclude that there’s a certain Chinese pronunciation of “-ng” which can be hard for non-Chinese to recognize.

  3. Just for the record, in Taiwan standard Mandarin (according to experience and to my ROC Ministry of Education approved dictionary), 燈籠 is pronounced dēnglóng with a distinct second tone.

    • Heh, thanks… I was pretty sure I had heard “dēnglóng” before!

      • Hello 郝先生 and John,

        It seems to me that the neutral tone is less common in Taiwan. Does anyone know how much less common?

        Here’s one example I remember:

        When I was living in Taiwan, I was studying Chinese there and I was using a textbook from Taiwan that taught 先生 (Mr.) with two first tones in succession instead of a first tone followed by a neutral tone. And, when I payed attention to how people in Taiwan actually spoke 先生, I noticed that they actually spoke it that way (with two first tones instead of using a neutral tone on the second character).

        I’m sure 先生 wasn’t the only example I came across.

      • …adding on to my previous post:

        I just bumped into another example. It happened when I was reading John’s post “Better Non-comprehension: Getting Beyond ‘ting bu dong'”. In that post, John mentions several alternatives to 「聼不懂」 including 「什麽?我沒聼清楚。」.

        I read the Chinese characters aloud in my head 「什麽?我沒聼清楚。」and clearly heard myself pronounce「清楚」as qing1chu3. And then I hovered my mouse cursor over the text and saw from the Chinese help popup bubble that「清楚」was annotated with the pronunciation of qing1chu5. I thought, “Oh my god! Really?”

        I remember back when I was living in Taiwan, I heard「清楚」a lot because people would often tell me that my 發音 was very 清楚, and I clearly remember it being pronounced first tone followed by third tone.

        I immediately checked in Pleco (a Chinese dictionary mobile app I downloaded to my phone after I returned to America), and sure enough, it was first tone followed by neutral tone.

        I thought, “No, it can’t just be me.” So, I Google searched for “Taiwan Ministry of Education dictionary” and found an online dictionary and searched for「清楚」. To my relief, it’s listed as first tone followed by third tone there. I breathed a sigh of relief. I am certain now that I did hear people in Taiwan pronounce it first tone followed by third tone. I wasn’t making it up. LoL.

        Here’s a link to the Taiwan MoE dictionary entry for「清楚」:

        And, while I’m here, I thought I may as well look up ‘deng long’ too. Here’s a link to that page:


  4. John, thanks for sharing this close encounter with the future linguist kind, I must say the future is indeed bright for her!

    On the neutral tone for the second syllable of a two syllable word for some common words, I always find it a hassle for foreigner and I think it is a bugbear that needs to be addressed. One textbook I encounter suggests that it is alright not to neutralise the second syllable, but looking at HSK syllabus seems to suggest it is mandatory to pronounce as such. What is your take on this?

    I am quite familiar with Taiwanese Mandarin and it does not have any neutral sound, even for the reduplicates like 爸爸,妈妈,看看 etc.

    • Not true. Taiwanese Mandarin does have plenty of 輕聲, just not as many compared to the mainland standard. Examples include family terms (爸爸,媽媽,爺爺,奶奶,伯伯, 叔叔, etc.), 鑰匙, 暖和, 生意 (when it means business), 蛤蟆, 錯處, 凑合, 山藥, 漂亮, 畜生, 熱鬧, 指甲, 做作, etc. not to mention all the 子-suffix words like 桌子, 椅子, etc.

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