Oh I know what you’re thinking, the dreaded tones!

The Mandarin Chinese language has become famous as a difficult language to learn not least because phonetically it features four distinct tones, actually five if you count the neutral one. However you can relax a little, the tones don’t require any extra-special brain power to learn, you just need to follow the old adage, practice makes perfect. At the end of the day the tones are tones and there are certain rules and you just have to learn them. The daunting aspect is not actually knowing what they are but from understanding the importance of them as incorrect or mis-pronunciations can result in altering the meaning of words and entire sentences, que some potentially embarrassing moments. However the more you speak, the more mistakes you make, the better you will get. It’s essential you practice these tones and get them perfect then nothing can stop you from reaching oral fluency. We don’t want to sound like a mother but it’s important you don’t forget these tones.

What are Chinese Tones?

Pinyin is the romanization of Chinese using the standard alphabetical letters to correspond with the sounds of Mandarin, consisting of three parts. Letters/sounds split into two groups, initials and finals, then 4 diacritical marks which indicate the 4 different pronunciation tones of words – a flat, rising, dipping and falling pitch. Put these together and you make a Chinese word. Different words have different tones. Please watch the following link to hear the tones:

Common Tone Mistakes

hànyǔ (汉语) vs. hányǔ (韩语)

Chinese language vs. Korean language

As a Mandarin learner it’s better not to get this one wrong. If someone asks you what language you’re learning, now you know. No excuses!

mǎi () vs.  mài ()

Buy vs. sell

It’s definitely easy to get these antonyms confused.

yǎnjīng (眼睛) vs. yǎnjìng (眼镜)

Eyes vs. glasses

Be sure to compliment the right thing, someone’s eyes or glasses.

Huā () vs. huà ()

Flower vs. painting

Some beautiful paintings do indeed have some beautiful flowers, isn’t that a tongue twister?

bēizi (杯子) vs. bèizi (被子)

Cup vs. quilt

Two items you will definitely need whilst staying in China, so if you need to buy and need to ask where each item is, get them right!

chòu () vs. chǒu ()

Smelly vs. ugly

Be careful with this double combo right here.

shuìjiào (睡觉 ) vs. shuǐjiǎo (水饺)

to sleep vs. boiled dumplings

Other homophones may have words with some relation or can feature in the same syntax. But unless you have dumplings before you sleep, these two couldn’t be further apart. Better not look silly in a dumpling restaurant though.

hǎo kǔ (好苦) vs. hǎo kù (好酷)

Bitter vs. Cool

Nothing like giving a compliment but accidentally uttering an insult.

lǎo gōng(老公) vs. láo gōng (劳工 )

Hubsand vs. laborer

If you’re a married woman you’d better be careful on this one. Don’t get mixed up between your husband and a laborer haha.

xióng māo (熊猫) vs.  xiōng máo (胸毛)

Panda vs. chest hair

One is cute and the well the other is man fluff, I’ll leave you to decide which one is which.

Thanks for reading. We just wanted to round things up and say learning any language is a journey and is full of mistakes but as long as you learn from the mistakes, you’ll get there, so don’t be afraid. No one will look down at you, we’re here to help. Mandarin is certainly a fun language so why not have some fun along the way.

Remember to practice, practice, practice!


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  • The components of Pinyin

    The components of Pinyin

  • Some examples of initials, finals and of course the four tones.

    Some examples of initials, finals and of course the four tones.