One of the main challenges to learning Chinese is the homonym minefield you have to navigate for listening comprehension (mostly due to the tones). If you’re in a real biāozhǔn 标准 Mandarin area, there are 2 kinds of problems that can trip up your listening comprehension, and I’m assuming you already know all the vocabulary involved (non-standard areas have a whole bunch of other challenges to listening comprehension):
1. Minimal pairs (only one difference)
The other day I was invited to a colleague’s house to eat some home-made, zhèngzōng 正宗 Chinese food (as if the rest of the food available at Chinese restaurants here is all jiǎde 假的!). While I was in the kitchen not helping, the chef asked if I had a better apple.
Me: Apple? Why do you need apples?
Chef: No! Not an apple. A flat-bottomed pan silly!
Check out the minimal pair:
I was tricked because “apple” is a much more common word and when listening to the chef’s rapid-fire speech, I didn’t have time to analyze all the tones. It just sounded like “apple” to me. Also, I’d never heard “flat” and “pan” put together like that before (although it makes perfect sense).
2. Actual homonyms (sound exactly the same)
The list of single-syllable homonyms is endless. Here’s one example:
Soldier 1: I don’t want another arrow stupid! Give me a sword!
Soldier 2: What do you mean you don’t want another sword? Let’s use measure words, maybe that will help. Or better yet, write the hanzi.
Chinese gets away with way more of those than any other language I’ve ever encountered (Spanish) because they’ve always got that hanzi safety net to fall back on. Also, I’m almost certain that measure words arose (at least partially) to help people differentiate between homonyms (the measure word for arrow is “zhī” 支 and the measure word for sword is “bǎ” 把).
But occasionally you’ll get snookered by a multi-syllable homonym. That’s when it really gets fun:
- shōufèizhàn 收费站 = tollbooth [receive fee station]
- shōufèizhàn 收废站 = trash dump [receive waste station]
It makes you feel sorry for the poor guy who explained to his girlfriend that he works in a tollbooth, but when she told her parents they assumed it was a trash dump. How homonyms killed a blossoming romance.
I can just imagine some gang leader giving directions, “…and then, turn right at the tollbooth.” Later that night, his minions walk in with some ragamuffin in handcuffs.
Boss: What’s this?!
Minion: You told us to go kidnap at the trash dump. This was the only kid there.
Anyone else know any multi-syllable homonyms or minimal pears…oops…I mean pairs? Do share.
The following comic strip was based on this post. Pinyin below. Click image to see original site.]