Mixed up tones and tips for remembering

Being a tonal language, Mandarin contains lots of words that have the same pronunciation, but different tone. When you first start learning Mandarin it’s difficult to grasp that tone could have such an impact on the meaning of the word. While other, non-tone based language use tone to add emotion to a word, the meaning of the word remains unchanged.

Mixed up tones

With tone being so fundamental to meaning, it’s important that you remember them correctly, but there’ll obviously be instances that you have trouble. Here’s a few character sets that have caused me some trouble over the years, and I sometimes still mix up:

臭(chòu)- smelly
醜(丑 chǒu)- ugly

Make sure you get these two right – you don’t want to call someone smelly when you meant ugly.

床 Chuáng -bed
窗 Chuāng – window
船 Chuán – boat

There’s lots of room for error here, with bed and boat especially, given that 上船 means to embark and 上床 means to go to bed with someone.

白(bái)- white
百(bǎi)- hundred

No funny mistakes to be had here, but still could be a source for confusion.

How to remember the correct tone

I’ve found a few ways that help me to remember the correct tone. The first is to remember the tone as part of a word, so rather than try and remember 白 on its own, instead memorise 白色(báisè). The rhythm of saying the character in a word helps it stick in your head.

The second way is to remember the sound of someone saying the word. This sounds strange, but it really works for me. For instance, I have a friend in Taiwan who I can always picture/hear saying 那個很醜(Nàgè hěn chǒu)in my head, it’s almost like I can replay the sound bite in my head and then recall the pronunciation. This is why watching a lot of Mandarin movies or cartoons is a good idea, you want to be able to make the connection between the word and the sound, and having a memorable person helps to make that connection.

What characters do you confuse the tone of? How to you help yourself remember the correct tone?

  • I often hear beginner’s Chinese learners practicing characters by remembering e.g. 船 as “chuan, second tone” and from this information derive the correct pronunciation of the character, chuán. This also seem to be a common way Chinese teachers imply to their students to learn the character. I always tell them to skip thinking about what tone a character is in, and instead try to remember the full pronunciation including the tone as soon as possible, since this helps one think about different tones as completely different words, instead of ‘words with an extra layer’.

  • I agree that learning the tone along with the sound of the word is far more effective. I have a habit of moving my pencil to trace the tone as I memorize vocab words, because for some reason moving my muscles really helps solidify the connection between the word and the sound.