Linguistic Laughingstock-a-phobia

WARNING: This post contains explicit content because the Chinese language contains explicit content and we sometimes say it without meaning to.

Fear of getting laughed at (not with) is a common affective problem for language learners. While there’s no escaping it in any language, there are a few reasons why Chinese is especially nerve-wracking to learn.

1. Getting the Tone Wrong

I still remember my first traumatic experience in this realm. It was a coldish day in winter during my first few months in China. I was teaching a class of 40 students and asked a girl, in Chinese, if she had a pen…or so I thought.

I meant to say:

The whole class erupted into laughter and the girl’s face turned bright red. I knew something was wrong, but no one would tell me what. It wasn’t until some time later that I guessed I’d actually said:

Now people. Seriously. Getting three 3rd tones in a row right is hard under any circumstances. Not to mention the fact that I’d only been in China a matter of months. Also, considering the tone wars that inevitably go on in non-Chinese speakers’ heads, I’m sure I emphasized “pen” like I would have in English (which probably is what lead to my saying the first tone).

Needless to say, I’ve never really recovered from that. When talking about pens now, I always add the measure word (zhī ) and I just refuse to use the word bī , meaning “to force” (I always use qiǎngpò 强迫). And that’s just one of many examples.

A new teacher who just arrived in China told me yesterday he’s terrified of ordering boiled dumplings (shuǐ jiǎo 水饺) because he was told he’s been saying “sleep” (shuì jiào 睡觉). Even though context should help him out, he’s still shaken up.

2. Getting the Tone Right

Because of the huge number of homonyms in Chinese, even when I get the tone right, I’m laughed at by some immature people (remember I work with college students) who want to mock me or someone else.

For example, one of my student’s name is chún (“pure”). But even when I say it right (by now I can tell if I’ve nailed the tone), I hear giggles ripple through the class as her classmates say chǔn (“stupid”) to each other.

I’ve also got several students named xiǎo zhū 小珠 (“little pearl”). Inevitably, I’ll hear giggles as the students repeat exactly what I said (tones and all) but simply think of xiǎo zhū 小猪 (“little pig”).

There’s nothing I can do about these. It’s not like when a student of English mispronounces “six o’clock” and it comes out “sex o’clock.” That would no doubt get a few giggles in an American college class too. The problem is when I say it exactly right and it still causes laughter. It’s just the nature of the language.

3. Switcheroo Words

Because of my mild dyslexia, I live on constant fear of “briefcase,” “honey,” and “marriage.” I’ve already written briefly about these and advised us to try to enjoy the silliness of our mistakes. Once they happen, that’s absolutely the best approach. But the fear of making them again can be very detrimental to the learning process.

4. Double Entendres (aka Chinese people get laughed at too)

This past week, two things happened that have encouraged me in my laughingstock-a-phobia.

Story 1

A Chinese student of mine went into the cafeteria and told the worker she wanted some rice. She said simply:

  • yào fàn 要饭 = I want rice

She said the other Chinese students who heard her burst into laughter because that also means “to beg.” I asked her how she felt at that time. “Embarrassed,” she told me with a serious face. She was not relating this story to show how funny it had been but rather how bad it had made her feel. I sympathized with her. Just to remind you: she’s a native speaker of Chinese. But because the characters “want rice” also mean “to beg,” she was not allowed to ask for rice in that way without receiving ridicule from her peers.

Story 2

On Monday night I was the only foreigner in a little gathering of Chinese students and teachers. One boy shared some advice his mother had given him. A 60-year-old Chinese lady wanted to say she really like the advice of his mother. She said:

And was interrupted by uproarious laughter. She immediately realized what had happened and put her hand to her mouth and started laughing too.

Because tā mā 他妈 and tā mā de 他妈的 are curse words in Chinese, she was not allowed to use perfectly good grammar and vocabulary to say what she wanted to say. Instead, she amended her sentence to be:

Amazing how that extra syllable is the difference between laughter and an otherwise serious discussion.

Story 3

Oh I just can’t help myself! I’m on a roll.

In my first year in China, a student told me he’d gone to get some photos developed and the worker wanted to ask him if he wanted them in a kind of cardboard carrying thing to protect them. The worker said:

Being the kind of guy my student was, he started laughing and said:

The worker was embarrassed because she had actually said “condom” (ānquán tào 安全套) even though she hadn’t meant it that way.


Learning Chinese is scary. You never know when you might say something wrong. The more pitfalls we can know about ahead of time the better we’ll be at avoiding them. But even native speakers can’t avoid all of them.

Any other examples are welcome in the comments section.

25 Replies to “Linguistic Laughingstock-a-phobia”

  1. I completely agree with this article – and it has lead me to also suffer from the same phobia, so lets see if I can’t drudge up some painful memories…

    As I Brit, I was once at dinner with my girlfriends family, and the conversation turned to me not being cold – which I wanted to attribute to saying that Brits are 大侠人 (heroes). However I muddled my tones and instead spat out 大虾人 (big-prawn-men). Alas, a laughing uproar followed and I’ve never lived it down…

    Then there’s when taking photos on a trip. After crouching down for some photos with my girlfriends Mum and Aunt for a while I thought I could string together the action + 死我了 (as when you’re really tired and can say 累死我了 without so much as a snigger) structure to joke that crouching down had done the same. So what did I come out with? None other than 玩死我了 – a phrase apparently used to describe Chinese ‘cougars’ (old women sleeping with younger guys) who might die from the exertion… And this was my girlfriends family!

    Older examples are mixing up words, asking for the (vinegar) at my gf’s cousins wedding lead to me asking for (fuck). 我要操 (I want fuck) – not the most appropriate.

    Or simply trying to joke that my gf is an old woman and calling her a whore – 老女人.

    This can only be getting more common when beginners studying in China try to practice one of their first words to address women politely as 小姐 (miss) but missing out what the slang has become since their old textbooks were printed (prostitute)!

    Escape is impossible!

  2. 他妈的: And was interrupted by uproarious laughter”

    Only in this China is this kind of childish pun worthy of ‘uproarious laughter’. Especially when it’s a foreigner making a slip up (a tiny, benign one at that). Where’s the wit, the nuance of dry sarcasm? Nope. Just a foreigner accidently using a slang word, or, heaven forbid, the wrong tone. Comedy Gold. Maybe that’s why the only comedian in the country anyone’s ever heard of doesn’t even think of himself as a comedian: Jacky Chan. Oh yeah, that’s right, he’s from Hong Kong. Not China.

    China has Zhou Libo, who intersperses “hahaha Taiwan” and “Hahahah Beijing”.. with Mock BJ Opera. He’s a comic genius ladies and gentleman.

  3. I love hearing stories about language mistakes because we learners all make them. I’ll add a couple of mine that have happened since I arrived in Taiwan.

    A English-speaking Taiwanese friend invited me and a friend of hers to a meal. It was the first time I had met her friend, a woman much younger than myself. My friend had been acting as an interpreter, but I was itching to practice my shaky Chinese. At one point her friend wanted to ask me something and, wanting her to ask me directly in Chinese, I thought I said “Nǐ kě yǐ wèn wǒ” (你可以問我-You can ask me) but I guess all those 3rd tones confused me and I ended up telling her “Nǐ kě yǐ wěn wǒ” (你可以吻我-You can kiss me).

    After 3.5 years here I’m still making crazy mistakes. Recently, I was riding my scooter trying to find the high speed rail station, but got lost. I stopped at a convenience store and asked, in my (I thought) very best Chinese, “Gāo tiě zhàn zài nǎ lǐ?” (高鐵站在哪裡?-Where is the high speed rail station?) The two workers looked at each other and said they didn’t know. Thinking this was another case of ‘they see a foreigner and automatically shut off the Chinese comprehension’ I repeated, slowly and loudly and emphasizing my perfect (!) tones, “Gāo tiě zhàn zài nǎ lǐ?” Again, the two shrugged their shoulders.

    I knew that the station should have been a well-known landmark, so I assumed they were just apathetic minimum-wage flunkies. I located a map in the store and pointed out the high speed rail station. Immediately they exclaimed, “O, Gāo tiě zhàn!” At hearing them say that, I realized that I had mistakenly substituted another of my often-used words. The whole time I had been asking, “GUŌ TIĒ zhàn zài nǎ lǐ?” (Where is the fried dumpling station?)

  4. Way back when I was teaching at Jilin University I went out for dinner at a little place on campus with a couple of students, one male, one female. We were looking over the menu, and the guy said 我们吃鸡还是吃鱼? (Should we have chicken or fish?) Nobody really seemed to have a preference, so he decidedly said 我们吃鸡吧! (鸡巴 = cock I looked at him sideways, biting my lip. He realized how it came out and then kind of looked at me quizzically and whispered (being in the presence of a lady) “you know what that means?!” I replied “um, yeah…you can have that if you want — I’ll just have some fried rice.”

  5. I once tried to tell a joke in Chinese in front of about 60 people, except instead of the police officer trying to chase (, gǎn) the blonde, brunette, and redhead, he was trying to them… It was a pretty long joke before I realized what I had said.

  6. @Harland,

    What strikes you as racist about Gymnosopher’s comment? I didn’t delete it because he was pointing out mistakes he made in Chinese that were laughed at (or should have been) by Chinese people, which is what the post was about.

    If there’s something that needs deleting, I’m the one who has to do so I’m interested to hear what you think the problem is. Thanks.

  7. Waaah, waaah, waaah, complain, complain, complain. Like nobody has achieved fluency in Chinese before. Sounds like you need a tourist’s phrasebook, not a textbook. Go for the Lonely Planet guide and quit whining.

  8. @Harland,

    Hello indeed. I’m so confused that I’m considering deleting all your comments.

    I think you’re the only one using the word “niggardly” here. (Am I taking crazy pills?)

  9. I’d also be interested/amused to hear how I’m racists – as Steve above aptly points out, we find out some of the strangest things even about our own personal character from some enlightened souls online…

    @Albert, can’t blame you for not understanding gibberish! I guess someone freely using racist terms feels qualified to put the label on others too? But again, like Steve pointed out, as soon as you commented it did seem to be you, your blog and book being attacked. Fancy that.

    @Sjaco – I’d be a little suspicious about this having happened to your friend/someone they know in particular as although the mix up of tones between 睡觉 and 水饺 are commonly pointed out (and made into music videos: this exact sentence was mentioned to me by another student just on Friday as ‘a joke told by a teacher re language learner’ – well, 一晚睡觉多少钱 was the line in that given to a waitress.

  10. I wonder if you could’ve avoided the first one by saying 钢笔, even if you still had the tone on wrong.

    The only personal example that comes to mind is the 眼睛, 眼镜 difference, which I’ve had a hell of a time getting right. Fortunately though, I never had to buy a pair of glasses in China. 🙂

    • @TL1138,
      Maybe gang1 bi3 钢笔 would have helped avoid the issue. In general, the more syllables you can say the better 🙂

      Thanks very much and I’m glad you’re finding the sight useful!

      I guess I’ll let the comments stay for now. It turned out to be constructive in the end. But I do like the advice “don’t feed the trolls”! Is that a popular thing to say in online forums these days? I’m a little bit out of the loop I think.

  11. Umm… The word “niggardly” has absolutely nothing to do with race.

    It is of Scandanvian origin for one.
    It means ‘cheap, miserly, stingy’ for two.
    It’s NOT spelled “niggerdly” either anyways.

    @Albert: Great site. I have been teaching myself to read and write Chinese this year and this site has been a great help. (Learning to speak is harder since I don’t have many people to talk to, but piece by piece…) Thanks!

  12. @Albert,
    Yes, I’ve seen the phrase “don’t feed the trolls” on many message boards. After the second or third inflammatory comment, you can usually recognize the troll’s intent and get him to leave by just ignoring him.

    I recently heard of a free site called The Mixxer that connects language learners from all over the world for speaking and listening practice through Skype. Here’s the link:

    (I’m not connected with that site in any way, so I hope it’s OK to post it here.)

  13. The tone jokes here are quite funny 🙂 It is important for teacher to train their students starting from the beginning to exaggerate the tones.For the first tone, think it as the high peeping sound from your microwave when your food is ready,diiiiiiiing, and say it a bit longer. For the second tone, rise your face up and say the tone. For the third tone, when you pronounce it, you dip your chin down and then up. For the fourth one, stamp your feet and say it fiercely.
    My students enjoy the tone aware movement when we are doing the vocab at the beginning of the lesson. It is very fun, try it. Welcome to my website for more Chinese learning help including listening comprehension:) Have good time learning Chinese and enjoy the beauty of it!!

  14. Haha, what a hoot that troll Harland is! He must control+F his way through websites looking for the N-word … Gymnospher did say it … just happened to have an s in front, that’s all.

    I would be willing to bet poor old Trolland would find the Chinese in general a lot more racist than he might like to guess … 那个那个那个

    Look up “chinese racists” on Youtube to hear comedian Peter Sellers’ fantastically funny take on the constant Nage usage he heard in Beijing.

  15. You know, for all the homophones, and words separated only by tones, I’d expect a lot more word play in their humor.

    I also feel like I’ve had to be overly obvious that it was an intentional play on words (perhaps because I sometimes still mispronounce words, or because I look like an obvious foreigner so I MUST be wrong, haha). Oh well. All the more reason to practice.

  16. Nice work all, glad to hear I’m not the only one screwing things up!

    I’m a chinese teacher and to demonstrate how important tones are I make my 13 year old first year students promise not repeat the story of how I accidentally asked someone to kiss me when I was first in china (对不起,我可以吻你吗?)Awful Chinese, and pretty funny result!

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