Out of the Blue Vocab Trap

In this post I offer some data, a little rant, and then three stories all meant to encourage us lǎowài-s 老外 not to give up on listening comprehension.

I’m often asked, “Is it harder for you to learn Chinese or for a Chinese person to learn English?” Short answer: I don’t know. It’s tough to say because it involves a lot of opinions and complicated factors. But here’s a fact that cannot be ignored about Chinese:

  • There are only 409 possible syllables in Mandarin (see my Pinyin Chart for where I got that number), not including different tones.

Now let’s compare that with English. Chris Barker searched a British English dictionary and found 15,831 different syllables (and he admits that number isn’t 100% accurate). But that’s only unique syllables used in the dictionary. So there are lot’s of other syllables are possible in English (like “foob”) which don’t get counted because there are no words that use them (yet). Just to clarify: “too” and “two” and “to” would still just count as one syllable in that list because it’s about pronunciation not writing.

Not Chinese. 409 syllables. That’s it. That’s all that are allowed. (Which is why it’s so easy to rhyme in Chinese.)

[begin rant]

So who cares? Well, I do. It means that listening comprehension is really hard for me because so many words sound the same in Chinese because they only have 409 “building blocks” to make them. Yes we’ve got words like “too / two / to” and “pair / pare / pear” in English, but the homonym minefield seems to be way more difficult in Chinese. That’s why context (and multi-syllable words count as context) is so important when listening to Chinese. If you have little to no context, accurate listening comprehension becomes virtually impossible.

[end rant]

So here’s the encouraging thing: if you don’t have enough context to understand something, just give up! Don’t be too hard on yourself for not understanding words that fly at you “out of the blue”. Don’t fall for the trap and feel like, “I should have understood that.” No you shouldn’t have. The Chinese people themselves can’t always do it! Let me give you some examples I’ve witnessed.

Story 1: Cash Trap

My English students often ask “How do you say (some Chinese word) in English?” Talk about zero context. They’re sitting there speaking English to each other and BOOM! Chinese syllables flying at my out of the blue. Many times I can figure out the context because we probably have a topic that day in class that gives me a clue. Not so the other day when the topic was “Beggars.”

A student raised his hand and said, “How do you say xianjin in English?” You may notice I’ve omitted the tones from his question. That’s because I wasn’t exactly sure what they were because they came at me so fast. But it didn’t matter. The students around him all chimed in with a unanimous “cash.” He thanked them and the class when on. A few seconds later he raised his hand and said, “Not cash. I mean xianjing.”

The class erupted into confusion. Some students were confirming that indeed “cash” was the word he wanted. Some were saying “trap”. Some were criticizing his Mandarin and not answering his question. And some were asking their neighbors what was going on.

Here are the two words in question:

He really did mean “trap,” and wanted to talk about some sort of trick that beggars use to get money. The class, however, when they heard his (rather unclear and fast) Mandarin utterance assumed he must have wanted to say something about the cash beggars get.

Those two words aren’t even minimal pairs, but because the vocab was out of the blue, and the students didn’t have enough context, they guessed wrong.

Story 2: Soon to be Happy

I was listening to two Chinese girls talking about their recent lives. One confided in us that she’d been depressed lately but that she was hoping her mood would improve soon.

The other girl listened and then nodded in support saying only two syllables: “kuàile.”

“Yes,” the first girl continued, “I want to be happy.”

“No, I meant ‘soon’ things will get better,” the second girl said.

Here’s the confusion:

So that’s the old “Second 4th tone in a row is lower than the first one so it might sound like it’s a 5th tone” trap. It tricked a Chinese girl without enough context. So it can certainly get me.

Story 3: Violent Profits

A student was telling me about her father’s business  She wanted to tell me something that had happened with one of his business partners but didn’t know how to say bào lì in English. I suggested “violent” and she said, “No! Not that bào lì.” I didn’t know what to say then and the conversation came to a halt.

Here’s the problem:

  • bào lì 暴力 = violent
  • bào lì 暴利 = a windfall of money

I didn’t know the second definition of “bào lì” at the time. But I was actually right: bào lì really does mean violent. It just also means something else.

So here’s the bottom line: it can be very frustrating when you don’t understand Chinese words because they often sound like a bunch of other words. But don’t blame yourself. The Chinese people themselves can’t always do it, so of course we won’t be able to. Don’t fall for the cash… I mean trap of thinking you should always be able to understand everything, even if you’re at a pretty high level with the language.

Just get more context, clarification, or if worst comes to worst, you can use that time-honored tradition of letting them write the hanzi in the air with their finger. Then take a picture of the air-shape with your smart phone and check the dictionary for it. I’m sure, by now, that’s a feature that Plecco offers, right?

20 Replies to “Out of the Blue Vocab Trap”

  1. Great article! I think this is a problem that pops up more often the less predictable your utterance is. This is why good pronunciation becomes more important the better your Chinese is (you might say unexpected things or even, gasp, be creative). I wrote about that here, in case anyone is interested: http://www.hackingchinese.com/?p=1959

    However, I do think it’s a bit unfair to give Chinese only 400+ syllables, you really should include tones to make it fair, which gives us roughly three times as many syllables. I have also seen other numbers for syllable count in English. San Duanmu in his Phonology of Standard Chinese (2007) makes a comparison between the languages and claims that English has roughly 10,000 syllables.

    I think what you write is important and it’s something that learners need to be aware of. There isn’t much we can do, but at least we should know that it isn’t our fault, it isn’t us being obtuse. This might make it feel better even if it doesn’t help us solve the problem.

    Another factor that makes this even worse is that Chinese is an analytic language where much of the burden of interpretation rests on the listener. After having studied for many years, I really think that listening is by far the hardest component of Chinese.

    You really should update your blog more often! 🙂

  2. It’s true that Chinese is a relatively ambiguous language, and that there is often confusion even among the Chinese themselves. I’ve witnessed these kinds of problems countless times before, with people being unable to understand simple sentences such as “Your forgot your phone!” Yes, there are probably a lot more homophones in Chinese.

    That being said, the previous commenter has correctly pointed out that it’s unfair and arbitrary to just “not include…different tones”. The number should be multiplied by 4 or 5, depending on whether or not you count the neutral tone. Just because something is hard for you doesn’t mean you can ignore it, but lots of people seem to take this approach. If you think they can be ignored, you will probably make much slower progress in distinguishing tones as well as pronouncing words with proper tones (that is, speaking correctly). Personally I have found it very difficult to understand people who speak with incorrect tones (mainly non-native speakers).

    Also, one source of the problem you described above is probably the diversity that exists among Chinese languages, and the fact that Mandarin isn’t the native language of most Chinese people. Specifically, plenty of Chinese people don’t distinguish “n” and “ng” finals (as in your “xianjin-xianjing” example above), not to mention “z” and “zh” and other initials, and variation in tones is extremely common in different dialects. Many speakers carry this over when they speak Mandarin, at least sometimes. Just because Chinese people speak incorrrectly doesn’t mean that Chinese is hard to understand or unclear (or you could argue it does mean this, but only in an indirect sense). To be accurate, then, you’d have to say that some Chinese people speak Chinese unclearly, and that it’s hard to understand these people sometimes.

    This being said, you are certainly correct that Mandarin has a lot of homophones (even if you have overstated that here). You also have correctly pointed out that Chinese people can’t understand each other, and that this problem probably doesn’t happen in a lot of other countries.

  3. “It means that listening comprehension is really hard for me because so many words sound the same in Chinese because they only have 409 “building blocks” to make them…That’s why context (and multi-syllable words count as context) is so important when listening to Chinese…Don’t fall for the trap and feel like, ‘I should have understood that.’ No you shouldn’t have. The Chinese people themselves can’t always do it!”

    Thank you! That’s exactly how I’ve felt all along, and I needed that boost of confidence.

    To be fair, though, when I first read the title of this entry, I thought ‘blue’ went with the word ‘vocabulary’ (since the Chinese words show up as blue on the blog) and it took me a second to understand that it was part of the phrase ‘out of the blue.’ So even our thousands of syllables don’t always help 🙂

  4. I am in complete agreement with you.

    I’m willing to bet that nearly all of us lao3wai4 have, when we announced to friends and family, that we had decided to study “Chinese” (Mandarin, in my case), encountered the remark that “Oh, but the tones are so hard!” I certainly heard that more times than I can count.

    As a former musician, I had no trouble at all with the tones, although I imagine that some people do, even with pu3tong1hua4 (which I sometimes describe, as far as tones, and only tones, are concerned, as “Chinese for dummies”). My validation here comes from my wife and her large circle of friends, all from the PRC, so I know that I pretty much get the tones right just about all of the time. But I did understand that I had to be careful about them, because I’d read plenty about notorious traps like “bi” and “gan.” I’ll leave you to supply the tones here.

    But less than a year into my study, the problem of homonyms had hit me square between the eyes, and of course it has never gone away. Classifiers, by comparison, are a quaint nuisance. Homonyms are a veritable plague of confusion for me. The lack of cognates in English would rank for me as a distant #2 on the scale of difficulty. I should mention here that I have studied several other languages, more or less successfully, but they were all Western; cognates are everywhere, but this is obviously not the case with any Chinese language. Still, I learned to live with approaching Mandarin vocabulary in a complete vacuum.

    But I can’t see ever getting used to the sheer impoverishment of distinct sounds in Mandarin.

  5. @Olle Linge (and David Pritts),

    Yes, you’re right. Tones count for making MORE distinct syllables. But here’s why I didn’t include them: they only count after you’ve figured them out 🙂 To the beginner (or even advanced student) who can’t hear the difference between a rapid-fire 1st tone and a rapid-fire 4th tone, those differences might as well not exist. And they really don’t exist when you talk about a 3+3 combo and a 2+3 combo. Those actually sound the same (which is why 起码 sounds exactly like 骑马). The tones are certainly harder for us non-tone geniuses to pick out than the differences between “la” and “na”.

    And, by the way, it’s interesting to note that not all syllables can have every tones. Some of my favorite one-tone-only syllables are “gei” (only 3rd tone allowed), “neng” (only 2nd tone), and “shei” (only 2nd tone).

    Where was that list of all those possible tones for each syllable? Was that on this blog or somewhere else? I know someone did that research at some point because certainly didn’t figure it out by myself.

  6. @Steve C,

    You’re welcome. As a veteran learner of Chinese, I’m finding more and more that my job is simply to find new ways to tell others “you’re not crazy.” Glad you didn’t feel “blue” about the title confusion for too long 😉

  7. @Rick,

    Congrats on getting the tones right so often! That’s nothing to da3 pen1 ti4 打喷嚏 at.

    I don’t know very much about other languages, but I’ve heard others bemoan Chinese’s “sheer impoverishment of distinct sounds” as you so eloquently put it. It does seem to be an empirical fact we’ve got to come to grips with.

  8. Sure, sometimes tone sandhi in chinese dictates that a third tone will be pronounced as a second tone, or sometimes a third tone will only be pronounced as a “half-third tone”, etc. What you have described (起码=骑马, etc) is the exception rather than the rule (the majority of the time, tones are distinct and clear, unless the speaker is speaking incorrectly; some Chinese people do speak incorrectly, which is a greater cause of the problem, but the source you identified is, as far as I can see, not really the problem).

    Whenever someone says tones don’t count, or we won’t worry about tones, or in any way not emprhasizing tones, I think that ends up doing a disservice to all learners. Indeed, I’ve met many learners who don’t think it’s even important to learn tones. Some of them even believe that Chinese people don’t use tones when speaking! What we should be doing is encouraging people to focus on tones from the very beginning, rather than saying that Chinese has a problem with too many homophones, when the problem is actually that some people aren’t spending the necessary time working on this difficult aspect of the language.

    Anyway, that being said, I do want to reiterate that I agree with you that chinese has a relatively large number of homophones, and a smaller number of sounds…just that you’ve made that problem way worse by underemphasizing the importance of tones.

  9. I used to think that zhao-jiao, chao-qiao, etc., sound similiar. Sometimes I still have this problem. If many learners had the same problem, we would accurately say that Chinese has certain sounds which are difficult for many learners to distinguish, but we wouldn’t say there are too many homophones.

  10. “sometimes a third tone will only be pronounced as a ‘half-third tone'”

    David Pritts, are you in the PRC? I ask that because here in Taiwan a third tone is ALWAYS pronounced half-third. The only time I ever hear it pronounced with the full dip-and-rise is when a Taiwanese is explaining to a foreigner how to pronounce a word in isolation. To a beginning Chinese learner this is misleading, because the word will thereafter never be pronounced like that in real life!

    Regarding everyday Mandarin as it’s pronounced in Taiwan, the available syllable count goes down because of the Taiwanese habit of not differentiating between sh/s, c/s, zh/z etc. It’s pretty frustrating for learners who have used Mainland learning materials.

    David Pritts wrote, “Personally I have found it very difficult to understand people who speak with incorrect tones (mainly non-native speakers)” and I wholeheartedly agree. When I hear a non-native speaker totally disregard tones it grates on my ears and I struggle to understand.

    I’ve also heard what I can only describe as “foreigner Chinese” used by some native speakers when speaking with foreigners. It sounds like they’re saying every word in first tone. I assume they do this thinking the foreigner will understand better? I really don’t know. Have any of you come across this?

  11. @Albert,

    First, I of course meant “homophones” and not “homonyms” in my first post; I was attempting to do several things at once, and wasn’t paying attention.

    A friend of mine, who studied Polish for several years (I have not studied that language), and who has also picked up a fair bit of Mandarin through travels to the PRC and also because his son is in a Chinese Immersion School, mentioned to me that Polish, for some reason, also contains an unaccountable large number of homophones. I wouldn’t have expected this, since I think of European languages as generally being extensively cross-fertilized.

    And I would expect the tones in Cantonese to drive me crazy.

  12. @ Steve C,

    The lack of differentiation between sh/s and zh/z is something that my wife also does, although she is from Hunan. She actually attributes the differnetiation to Taiiwanese influence!

    I wonder if her lack of distinction between these sounds is because her native language is Xiang (湘语), about which I know nothing.

    Any thoughts, anyone.

  13. About the whole third tone business:

    I once saw a sonographic study of Mandarin that focused on how the tones are actually used in real exchanges. The result that really caught my eye was that the typical falling-rising profile of the third tone really only occurs, as Steve C noted, when word pronunciation is demonstrated in isolation.

    In actual spoken Mandarin, the third tone is more often than not a low level tone, paralleling the first tone. So, a diagram of the “four” tones in Mandarin (ignoring the neutral, since it has no typical profile), looks like an “X” with bars across the top and bottom.

    This is actually how I mostly hear the third tone, although the next most common, to me, anyway, is indeed a hint of the “half-third” profile.

    I’ve had great success using the low level tone when sandhi is not called for.

  14. @Rick

    I looked up Xiang on YouTube to hear a sample of it spoken…it sounds cool.

    In Taiwan most everyone (native speakers, that is) can speak or at least understand Min Nan. I haven’t even begun to try to tackle it…I just cannot wrap my head around the extensive tone changes.

    A linguist tries to give an overview of Min Nan’s tone sandhi in the video below. I can’t watch it too much or it’ll make my head explode!


  15. Steve C. Yes, I’m in the PRC (or will be in a couple weeks) Here, third tones are usually, but not always, pronounced as half-third tones or second tones. At the end of a sentence or clause, or before any kind of pause, or in isolation–that is, whenever not being influenced by the characters after it–they would be pronounced fully, I believe. Or when teaching language learners 🙂

    That being said, a half-third tone is still a distinct tone, so the only problem is with traditional pedagogy, which insists that 3rd tone is “falling then rising” (or whatever) whereas this is probably not the best way to teach it, as Steve C. points out.

  16. Just want to add that, for me at least, distinguishing homophones is the hardest aspect of learning chinese.

    In comparison, I don’t seem to have any problems speaking or remembering tones now except when uttering particularly long sentences quickly or relaxedly/lazily with close friends. Now, strangers often comment that “your pronunciation is very standard” instead of the more ambiguous “your chinese is very good”. Here in Anhui province, this is often followed by “you speak chinese better than me”. Hmmm. My listening, speaking (sentence formation), reading and writing abilities are certainly short of any native speaker’s but my pronuncation has fooled them (or at least given them a reason to flatter me)!

    So having (mistakenly) decided my chinese is quite good, the aforementioned stranger is likely to barrage me with very fast, very long sentences, leaving my poor mind struggling to comprehend and process the meaning of all those homonyms. My mind races through all those recently learned words but invariably cannot keep up. Without context, I am often completely baffled.

    I then reply, in apparently standard chinese, that I do not understand. : )

  17. By the way, thank you so much for the articles on this website. They inspire me to continue learning this difficult language.

  18. It is not so much unfair to the Chinese to say that it has only roughly 400 possible syllables, as it is simply false. Not the number of syllables count, but the combined factor of the number of syllables plus the average length of the word. There are languages that have far less (Hawai’ian is the utmost example, they have only 13 consonants, 3 vowels and only open syllables possible, which gives only 52 possible syllables; Japanese might be better known here; but their words are in general longer than one syllable, as are the English ones). If you want to count in the number of syllables in English in a comparable way as you have counted the Chinese ones, you should take into consideration only those syllables that actually exist as monosyllabic words.

    It is simply a wrong approach to omit the tones with Chinese syllables, they are as relevant phonetical factor as the difference between -n and -ng, or as the English length of the vowel and the degree of openness. From the point of view of my language which has all vowels of the “middle” length (length irrelevant), I could easily say – English has only half of the syllables mentioned by anybody if we omit the vowel-length factor. To an average Polish untrained ear, the English words (in the Standard British pronunciation) “hut” and “heart”; “Pete” and “pit”; “Pat” and “pet” sound the same.

    Tone is not a special factor added to a syllable, it is an inherent part of the syllable in Chinese. This way we obtain more than 1246 syllables in Chinese (this is the number I remember from one of my former teachers – Han Zhenhu at McGill in Montreal back in 1995 – I have never calculated them myself; but this figure, as I remember, has taken into consideration only 4 tones, as if the “neutral” tone(s) didn’t exist – so it is still incomplete).
    I think that perceiving tones as something extra, added to “ready” syllable, is wrong. No syllable without a tone does exist in Chinese. The result of this approach is not marking the tones in practical pinyin (apart from the coursebooks and dictionaries); the superiority of Gwoyeu Romatzyh (and even Zhuyin zimu (Bopomofo), in this aspect is now evident to me – they simply do not let you skip the tone “for time present”.
    Both these factors are the main cause of the failure of learning correct pronunciation (including myself, this reflection I am making many years after I have started learning Chinese for the first time, now being the 5th approach, in Taiwan, so for the first time in a Chinese speaking environment).

    Another cause of this failure in correct pronunciation is treating the words of Chinese as a simle sum or combination of two basically separate syllables – each of them having to be learned with a separate tones. For me now it is obvious that we should learn dyssylabic words with their tonal pattern – on of the (theoretical) 20 patterns – much about the same way as people are learning the intonation of single words in Japanese or Scandinavian languages. It is the way Albert has been comparing the pronunciation of 哪裡 to other dyssylabic words in another post.

  19. @Rick

    Polish (my mmother tongue) in fact does have a huge number of “homophones” only to an untrained English ear which cannot make the difference between “ś” and “sz” (roughly similar to Chinese “x” and “sh”, respectively), and treat them both as the equivalents of one single English “sh” which is pronounced somewhere between; per analogy the voiced pair: “ź” and “ż” (compare to “zh” in Brezhnev); and the affricates; “ć”, “cz”, and “trz” (the first two to be compared to Chinese “q” and “ch”, the third one to Tibetan “tr”); “dź” “dż” and “drz” (per analogy the voiced ones – Chinese “j”, “zh” and Tibetan “dr”). We have plenty of jokes about those who mispronounce let say “cz” for “trz” or of “ć” for “cz” (or vice-versa), because the first one was an obvious factor in the pronunciation of Polish Jews and our German neighbours (the Benedict XVIth “Polish”), like czy” (whether, if, ) and “trzy” (3); “czysta” (clear, clean; also a brand of vodka) for “trzysta” (300) or “ciepać” (to f*k) for “trzepać” (to clean a carpet by beating the dust off).

    Polish has also homophones if you consider that the inflected forms of a given noun/verb SHOULD necessarily be different for each of the cases (which is not a fact; e.g. the Genitive and the Dative singular of the feminine gender words with palatalised ending stem have always the same form, similarily as the Nominative and the Accusative plural of the same group of words). If so, you would have to consider the three Present singular forms of most of French verbs to be “homophones” – which simnply doesn’;t wok as these are just different (from the point of view of the grammar and spelling) yet identical (from the point of view of phonetics) forms of the same word.

    Sorry, Albert, for these long digressions.

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