By Various authors

20 April 2018 - 08:00

'There was a tray full of tangerines next to the cashier, but no matter how many times I asked, he pointed outside with increasing irritation.' Photo ©

Sharon McCutcheon used under licence and adapted from the original.

For UN Chinese Language Day, we asked British Council colleagues who have studied Mandarin to tell us about their most memorable mistake with tone while living and working in China. 

I like to read the tissues in the morning 

During my first week in China, I went to a kiosk to buy a pack of tissues, which I thought should be 一包纸 (yibaozhi – first, first and third tone). To my confusion, the shopkeeper handed me a copy of the Chinese Financial and Economic Times, a 报纸 (baozhi – fourth and third tone).

Do you want an extra cup on your bed? 

While living with a host family in Zhuhai, I mentioned I was cold during the nights. After I said this, my host mother would ask (or so I thought) before I went to bed each night if I’d like an extra cup (杯子 beizi – first tone) to help keep me warm. It seemed like a strange solution to me, so I declined each time. After about five nights, rather than asking, my host mother handed me a thick duvet and said 被子! (beizi – fourth tone). I was never cold again and was also reassured that my hosts didn’t hug cups at night to keep warm.

Would you like cigarettes on your potatoes?

I asked for salt (盐 yan – second tone) at my local grocer. I realised I had used the wrong tone when I was handed a packet of cigarettes (烟 yan – first tone).

Can you give me directions to the turtle?

On a school trip to Beijing in 2005 (before the age of smartphones), I was looking for an internet cafe. I asked a few people for the nearest internet cafe (网吧 wangba – third and first tone), but was met with shocked looks. Eventually, I asked a newspaper vendor. After staring at me for a moment, he laughed and pointed me down the road towards an internet cafe. On arrival, I checked a dictionary and discovered that the word I used literally translates to 'turtle', which is an insult in Mandarin.

That restaurant makes the best sleep 

I was on a weekend trip with some Chinese friends when we started discussing dinner plans. We were in my hotel room at the time. I had been craving dumplings (水饺 shuijiao – third and third tone) all day, so I emphatically said 'I want dumplings!' Then I watched in confusion as my friends quickly left the room and wished me a good night. Later I realised that I had said 'I want to sleep!' (睡觉 shuijiao – fourth and fourth tone).

Are these saws organic? 

I went to my local fruit shop for the first time and asked for a tangerine (橘子 juzi – second and neutral tone). There was a tray full of tangerines next to the cashier, but no matter how many times I asked, he pointed outside with increasing irritation. Frustrated, I left. Later, I found out I had been asking to buy a saw (锯子 juzi – fourth and neutral tone) in the fruit shop and the cashier had been pointing me towards a tool shop down the road.

There is still time for schools in England to sign up to the Mandarin Excellence Programme for September 2018. 

Find study and work opportunities available in China through the Generation UK - China programme

The British Council’s Mandarin Excellence Programme is an intensive language programme, which aims to get at least 5,000 school pupils in England on track to fluency in Mandarin Chinese by 2020 – hopefully avoiding some of the mistakes described above. 

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