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.