Sorry, my Chinese is not so good

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Music video by a trio of English musicians singing about learning Chinese:

The video begins with some playful banter between a cook in a dumpling shop and one of the musicians.  They both adopt the faux foreign Mandarin accent described here:

"'Ni hao' for foreigners" (10/11/16)


"'Have a good day!' in Mandarin" (9/5/12)

That segues into the foreigner asking for "dumplings" (shuǐjiǎo 水餃) but making it sound like "sleep" (shuìjiào 睡覺).  Seriously, though, it doesn't matter what combinations of tones or no tones he uses, in real life he would not be misunderstood as wanting sleep when he actually wants dumplings.

First of all, nobody is going to walk up to a dumpling cook and say "I want [to] sleep".  Second, when someone is talking about dumplings, the verb "eat" (chī 吃) will often show up somewhere in the sentence, usually right before "dumplings", and nobody is going to say "I want to eat sleep".  Third, when someone is singing about eating dumplings, as happens in this video (1:43 sleep; 1:54 dumplings), melodic tune covers up linguistic tone anyway.


When intonation overrides tone” (6/4/13)

Where did Chinese tones come from and where are they going? ” (6/25/13)

Dissimilation, stress, sandhi, and other tonal variations in Mandarin” (8/26/2014)

"When intonation overrides tone, part 2" (5/11/17)

There are many other Language Log posts on the origins of tones, their canonical forms, departures from the canonical forms, tones in the various topolects, and the evolution of tones.

In the final analysis, context makes clear.

[h.t. Bryan Van Norden]


  1. Colin McLarty said,

    June 6, 2017 @ 4:20 pm

    I think the most important guarantee that the vendor will realize the sounds shuìjiào were meant to be shuǐjiǎo is that the vendor wants to sell 水餃. In many different languages (some of which I had studied for, say 2 hours n the plane) vendors always understand even my poorest efforts to buy from them.

  2. Neil Kubler said,

    June 6, 2017 @ 4:33 pm

    Of course, the vendor–and almost anyone else who understands the context, will understand, BUT the wrong tones will detract from the message! In addition to the intended message of "I want dumplings," secondary and unintended messages are likely also to be communicated, such as "This is a foreigner speaking" and "The foreigner speaks weird Mandarin" and "This is hilariously funny since what he's actually saying is he wants to sleep" and "This is NOT somebody I would probably want as a close friend." My sister, who speaks only a little Mandarin, once wanted to buy shaved ice when she visited me in Taiwan. On her own, she asked Laoban, ni you meiyou bing (tone 4)? "Are you sick?" instead of the intended …bing (tone 4) "Do you have/sell ice?" She came back without the ice. On an entirely separate matter, it is true that in Mandarin, melodic tone overrides syllabic tone; but that is not the case in Cantonese, as Marjorie Chan has pointed out in an article of hers.

  3. Tom Bishop said,

    June 6, 2017 @ 5:17 pm

    Once I walked into a store and asked for salt (yán 盐). They thought I wanted cigarettes (yān 烟). Then I changed the tone to low-falling, which is second tone in Southwest Mandarin, and they understood.

  4. David Morris said,

    June 6, 2017 @ 5:30 pm

    It also happens in a language without tones, but with another feature which English doesn't have. When I was in Korea, I needed to buy honey, which I found in a dictionary is 꿀 (kkul – kk is a 'tensed' consonant (explanations vary)). I simply couldn't make myself understood. I said kkul, no response, then gul, kul, ghul, khul, ggul, kkul and any other possible velar stop. It's a mini-supermarket, for goodness sake! How many things here sound remotely like that? I eventually rang my wife in Australia, said 'Can you please say the Korean word for 'honey'?' then handed the phone to the woman. 'Oh, kkul!' she said, making it sound exactly like what I'd said in the first place.

  5. David L said,

    June 6, 2017 @ 6:23 pm

    On a less exotic note, I once went to a hole-in-the-wall Mexican lunch place in downtown Washington DC and said that I would like a chicken empanada, please. The guy behind the counter gave me an odd look and said, "chicken and banana"?

  6. bfwebster said,

    June 6, 2017 @ 7:54 pm

    David L:

    Ok, as someone who was once (40 years ago) very fluent in Spanish and is definitely not fluent nowadays, I laughed out loud. "Yo quiero un chicken and banana."

  7. Victor Mair said,

    June 6, 2017 @ 10:13 pm

    Of course, we always want ourselves, our students, and our siblings to speak with the best possible tones. That said, it's better to get the vocabulary right before worrying overmuch about the tones.

    If we go to a sweet shop wanting shaved ice, we'll have a much greater chance of getting what we want, no matter what tones we pronounce it in, if we ask for baobing than if we just ask for bing.

    The importance of mastering correct vocabulary is brought out by this story of something my wife told me that happened to an American friend of hers. He lost something exceedingly important and rushed to the nearest police station, blurting out as he entered: "Wo diu le wo de baopi". All the policemen in the station burst out laughing. My wife's friend wanted to say píbāo 皮包 ("portfolio; briefcase; leather bag"), but instead, reversing the same two syllables / characters, he said bāopí 包皮 ("foreskin"). It wasn't the tones that did him in, it was his inadequate command of vocabulary.

    Here's a blunder I committed myself during my first or second year studying Mandarin. I wanted to tell my wife that my throat hurt, so — with perfect tones, mind you — I said, "Wǒ de hóuzi hěn téng". I wasn't being entirely stupid when I said that, because I knew that the main morpheme for the word meaning "throat" was pronounced hou in the second tone (hóu). I also knew that the word for "throat" was disyllabic. I further knew that -zi was a very productive noun suffix. So it made sense to me that it would be all right to say hóuzi for "throat".

    When I said, "Wǒ de hóuzi hěn téng", Li-ching laughed gleefully and gently instructed me that the proper word for "throat" is hóulóng 喉嚨, not hóuzi 猴子 ("monkey"). The fact that the character for the second syllable of hóulóng is composed of the mouth radical plus the complicated "dragon" phonophore and does not function independently indicates that its purpose in this disyllabic word is structural.

    This is another clear instance that shows the importance of vocabulary over tones and characters. I could have pronounced "houlong" in any combination of tones, and Li-ching not only would have known exactly what I meant, she wouldn't have laughed at me!

    As for Cantonese not changing the linguistic tones to fit melodic tunes, that certainly is not true for modern songs. This was confirmed for me by Bell Yung and Joseph Lam, both of whom are specialists on Chinese music. Joseph said:


    Yes, there are cases when melodic contour overrides linguistic tones, or at least "bend" the linguistic tones to fit the music. This is particularly true when the melodies are not original Chinese tunes but are borrowed from Japanese and other non-Chinese repertoires.


    This would be true of Western popular songs and hymns translated into Cantonese.

    Finally, as pointed out in the original post, the dumpling cook playfully and amicably greets the foreigner with twisted tones. They have no serious problem communicating and being friendly to each other, despite their execrable tones.

    Let us all strive to have perfect MSM tones, but let us not look down on those who have less than perfect tones, especially if they are beginners, are LAOWAI, or are native speakers of other topolects.

  8. Chaon said,

    June 7, 2017 @ 1:16 am

    Could someone please fish my comment out of the spam filter?

  9. Alex said,

    June 7, 2017 @ 4:46 am

    喉咙 is what I used growing up in the states. When I came to Shenzhen it seems like most people use sangzi 嗓子 . I was curious what is the more commonly used on the Mainland or is it regional.


  10. Victor Mair said,

    June 7, 2017 @ 5:35 am

    I was trying to explain to a German friend what I meant by "context makes clear", the last three words of the o.p., but didn't feel confident about any of these translations:


    Kontext macht deutlich
    Kontext macht klar
    Zusammenhang macht deutlich
    Zusammenhang macht klar


    I asked Wolfgang Behr what's the best way to say it in German, and he replied:


    Well, they're all fine. My gut feeling of the frequency in actual
    conversation would be

    "der Zusammenhang macht deutlich, dass"
    "aus dem Zusammenhang wird klar ersichtlich, dass"
    "der Kontext macht klar, dass"
    "der Zusammenhang macht klar, dass"
    "der Zusammenhang macht deutlich klar, dass"

    with the first line being the most frequent.

    The only one I find a bit odd is "Der Kontext macht deutlich, dass/ob", but you can find some 800 g-hits for it as well.


    I've also never felt comfortable about how to express this idea in Chinese, but suspect that one of these might do in certain circumstances:


    shàngxiàwén shuōmíng 上下文说明 16,700 ghits

    yǔjìng míngquè 语境明确 9,240 ghits

    shàngxiàwén qīngchǔ 上下文清楚 72,400 ghits


  11. Victor Mair said,

    June 7, 2017 @ 11:16 am

    For those of you who are wondering what bàobīng 刨冰 ("shaved ice") is, here's the Wikipedia article on it:

  12. Bob Ladd said,

    June 7, 2017 @ 3:09 pm

    I agree with David Morris that there is nothing special about tones here. ANY phonemic distinction that is difficult for a given L2 speaker has the potential to create embarrassing or hilarious mistakes (but also, the L1 listener will usually get the intended meaning from the context anyway).

  13. Eric said,

    June 7, 2017 @ 10:07 pm

    I agree with Bob Ladd that the ‘shuijiao’ example isn’t unique for language learning. However, I do think there’s something importantly different about tones compared to the Korean case noted by David Morris. In the Korean case, it’s a few tricky sounds that, while common, affect only a small number of words overall. For lexical tone languages, those tricky sounds are part of nearly every word in the language. So, whereas a second language learner may get only a small communicative/social benefit out of heavy focus on mastering Korean stop consonants, focusing on tones will pay dividends for almost every syllable they produce, and smoothly recognizing the tones will make accurately learning every single new word a bit easier.

    Additionally, I think it’s fairly common for learners (from non-tonal language backgrounds) to have no idea at all what the proper tone for a word is. This situation may occur for consonants and vowels, but I feel that it's less likely. As a learning challenge, this complete lack of information is an exceptionally hard problem to fix over time. The longer it takes for learners to master tones, the larger their backlog of vocabulary with missing or inaccurate tone information, and there is no simple way to fill in those gaps. It has to be done word by word. In contrast, if the learner knows the proper sound, but just can’t hear or produce it consistently, there is at least a chance for systematic changes to affect the vocabulary without word by word re-learning. (And, of course, in the case of Chinese, characters are of zero help for remembering tones, and even Pinyin is of limited help because it's easy to remember the letters and forget the tone diacritics.)

  14. Victor Mair said,

    June 8, 2017 @ 9:50 pm

    From venyamit:

    Reading your post about foreigners buying dumplings reminded me of an experience I had soon after arriving in Chengdu. I had managed to get a Chinese tutor and had been congratulated on how well I was approximating the sounds of Mandarin. Buoyed up by this praise, I went out the next day to get some baozi for lunch. Unfortunately, I ended up having baozi for dinner as well: I was handed ten after trying to ask for four and I was too dismayed to demur. I had no idea at the time that the local speech was so different from Modern Standard Mandarin.

    Note from VHM:

    On baozi, see this Wikipedia article and these posts, among others:

    "Fun bun pun" (4/9/17)

    "T-shirt slogans" (11/7/16)

  15. Geoff said,

    June 9, 2017 @ 7:18 pm

    In English, part of the skill of song-writing is matching the natural word stress to the metre of the tune. If Maria von Trapp had been called Isabelle or Madeleine, you may be sure that Hammerstein would not have written , 'How do we solve a problem like Isabelle?'

    In Chinese, is similar value given to matching the word tones to the melody?

  16. hanmeng said,

    June 9, 2017 @ 10:59 pm

    I know what you mean by "dumpling", but it's a such a vague translation. I find it applied not only to 餃子 jiǎo​zi, but also to 小籠包 xiǎo​lóng​bāo, 生煎包 shēng​jiān​bāo, 麵疙瘩 miàn​gē​da, and even 粽子 zòng​zi. It suggests that, if anglophones don't have a proper word for something, they can't properly conceive of its existence.

  17. Bob Ladd said,

    June 10, 2017 @ 4:13 pm

    @Eric: good point.
    @Geoff: possibly more than you ever wanted to know about this here.

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