Wouldn’t it be great to have a conversation in Chinese without any confusion or misunderstanding? But that’s easier said than done! Mastering Mandarin can be quite difficult because of the large number of characters and rules on the intonation and pronunciation. Without a doubt, Chinese homophones or tóng yīn cí (同音词) are the trickiest to master because there are many Chinese words that have the exact same phonetic alphabet in their zhù yīn (注音) or pīn yīn (拼音). They may have similar pronunciations, but they have different characters and meanings depending on their intonations. That’s why it’s important to pay attention to homophonic Chinese words and the four different tones (illustrated below).
If you want to widen your vocabulary to improve your conversational Mandarin skills, here are 5 tricky Chinese homophones you need to know.
1. Mǎi 买 (buy) vs. mài 卖 (sell)
If you’re a shopaholic or conducting business, you should take note that Mǎi 买 (buy) is pronounced by having your pitch start low and slowly rise again (tone 3).
On the other hand, mài 卖 (sell) is pronounced in an exaggerated way where your pitch starts high and falls down immediately (tone 4).
2. Shuì jiào睡觉 (sleep) vs. shuǐ jiǎo 水饺 (dumplings)
This is one of the most popular homophones. In fact, many Chinese lessons use these words as primary examples for students who want to learn Mandarin. Foodies who love to sleep should know the difference between the tones of shuì jiào 睡觉 (sleep) and shuǐ jiǎo 水饺 (dumplings).
Shuì jiào 睡觉 (sleep) is pronounced using the fourth tone in a stressed rise to fall pitches On the other hand, Shuǐ jiǎo 水饺 (dumplings) is pronounced using the third tone in a pitch that goes down first then, up.
3. Yǎn jìng 眼镜 (eye glasses) vs. yǎn jīng 眼睛 (eyes)
These terms are associated with the word, eye or yan 眼, which can be mixed up if said with faulty pronunciation. Yǎn jìng 眼镜 (eye glasses) is pronounced in the third and fourth tones. Yǎn should be said in a third tone that falls then rises, and jìng is pronounced in the fourth tone with a stressed downward pitch.
Yǎn jīng 眼睛 (eyes) is said in the third tone wherein the pitch goes up and down for Yǎn. Jīng is pronounced in a flat pitch, also known as the first tone.
4. Xiān 鲜 (fresh/delicious/tasty) vs. xián 咸 (salty)
These food-related homophones are a must for people who love cooking and eating. Beware of your pronunciation of these words if you want to describe your taste preferences to a waiter or chef. Xiān 鲜 (fresh/delicious/tasty) is pronounced in a flat tone. Xián 咸 (salty) is pronounced in the second tone where your pitch immediately goes up.
5. Lǎo gōng 老公 (husband) vs. láo gōng 劳工 (worker)
If you’re with a relative, friend, or acquaintance, be sure to pay attention to the person you’re referring to. Lǎo gōng 老公 (husband) and 劳工 láo gōng (worker) can mean different things when pronounced incorrectly.
Lǎo in lǎo gōng 老公 (husband) is pronounced in the third tone wherein your pitch goes down then rises up. Láo in láo gōng 劳工 (worker) is pronounced in the second tone in a pitch that rises up right away. 公 and 工 are pronounced as, gōng, in a flat tone.
Want to learn more? Chinese tongue twisters or rào kǒu lìng (繞口令) are some of the best ways to improve your Mandarin skills because they allow you to practice your pronunciation. You can also use Chinese numerical slang on the Internet because of the similar-sounding pronunciation of the words and numbers.