Hitting the right tone or getting lost in translation

Found: 2010-2016

温馨提示 = wēn xīn tí shì = Please note:

The English equivalent to my Chinese? I wonder how often I say things that could be understood in many other ways than what I intended. Maybe my choice of words isn’t so much the problem, but I definitely have some serious tone issues!

Mandarin is a tonal language. It only uses a fairly small set of syllables but all of them come in up to 5 different tones and -of course- countless different meanings and written characters. Since this isn’t a blog for language geeks, I won’t go into many details. But here is a perfect illustration:

I once gave this story –Chinese characters only- to my good friend and linguist extraordinaire Melody: not only could she read it all using the correct tones, she also got the meaning of the story!

Before I let you giggle about my best Chinese to English translation finds, here are a few more Chinese words that only differ in the tones:

xióng māo 熊猫 panda xiōng máo 胸毛 chest hair
shàng hǎi 上海 Shanghai shāng hài 伤害 to injure
běi jīng 北京 Beijing bèi jǐng 背景 background
lǎo shī 老师 teacher lǎo shi 老是 always
shǒu shì 首饰 jewelry shōu shi 收拾 to tidy up
yán jiū 研究 research yān jiǔ 烟酒 tobacco and alcohol
zhī dào 知道 to know zhí dào 直到 until
gào su 告诉 to tell gāo sù 高速 high speed


On a cab ride to Xining airport in 2016, the last example puzzled me for quite a while. What was the driver trying to “gaosu” (tell) me? Ah, there’s an extra fee if we take the “gaosu” road (toll road). And so, he chose the bumpy dirt roads… (If we had that discussion in English I would have told him that saving the toll will for sure take a toll on his car.)

What do you think? Let's talk!