Parrot People Help My Tones

Similar to my astonishment at the previously-discussed Chinese proclivity for stating the obvious, I’ve often been struck by how much of what I say in Chinese gets repeated right back at me. At first I was a little annoyed, and then I realized “Hey, I can use that!”

I’m convinced the hardest thing about speaking Mandarin is getting all those darn tones right. I’m constantly fighting tone wars in my head to try to stifle the natural, feeling-induced tones I’m used to using in English to get the meaning-dictating Chinese tones right. I’m not ashamed to admit that English often wins and my Chinese tones are broken (enter zhonglish). That’s where “parrot people” can actually help.


The fúwùyuán 服务员 actually have a good reason for repeating back what I order: they want to make sure they got it right. Since I often go many months (years) without using some of this vocabulary, it helps to hear it again right away to confirm whether I got the tones right.

Me: suànmiǎo chǎo ròupiàn 蒜苗炒肉片.
Garlic seasoned greens and pork slices (see here)

Waitress: suànmiáo chǎo ròupiàn, shì ba? 蒜苗炒肉片, 是吧? Garlic seasoned greens and pork slices, right?

Me: duì duì duì 对对对.
Right, right, right.

The first duì was for her getting the order right and the next two were for my realization that I’d said the tone for “miao” wrong. (Those 2-3 combos will get ya! The way I said it made it sound like suànmiao.)

It takes some careful listening, but once you know it’s coming (and it usually is), you can prepare for the instant replay and use it. I now purposefully choose words that I’m not sure about just so I can get instant feedback on whether my tones were correct. Of course, the assumption here is that a native speaker will not say it wrong even if I did. I think that’s a pretty safe assumption (usually).


Before I knew the rules for tone combinations, and before I’d memorized exactly how to pronounce the name of my country, I would often say I’m from méiguó or mèiguo or méiguǒ rather than měiguó 美国. Those mispronunciations could be hanzi-fied as 没国, 妹国, and 没果 meaning “not country / not-land,” “younger sister country,” and “no fruit,” respectively.

The good news is: no Chinese person would ever talk about “Not-land” or “Sisterland” so I was never misunderstood. The context was very much in my favor to allow a Chinese person to understand me despite the wrong tones (not always the case at all!). But I noticed people would often (dare I say always?) repeat the name of my country back to me like this:

Stranger: nǐ láizì nǎli? 你来自哪里?
Where are you from?

Me: méiguó.

Stranger: měiguó 美国.

Me: duì

Now I say it right most (dare I say all?) the time, but the repeating hasn’t stopped. That’s the last point I want to make: parrot people don’t mean you’ve said it wrong.

They Do it to Each Other

I often have the treat of listening to two Chinese teachers here on campus meat each other for the first time. The conversation goes something like this.

A: nǐ shì nǎge xì de? 你是哪个系的?
What department do you work in?

B: kuàijì xì 会计系.

A: o, kuàijì xì. wǒ shì wàiyǔ xì de 哦, 会计系. 我是外语系的.
Oh, accounting. I’m in the Foreign Language Department.

B: wàiyǔ xì. nǐ jīngcháng lái zhèlǐ dǎ qiú ma? 外语系. 你经常来这里打球吗?
Foreign Language Department. Do you often come here to play ball? (pingpong, basketball, whatever)

A: bù jīngcháng 不经常.
Not often.

B: o, bù jīngcháng 哦不经常.
Oh, not often.

If I were really on the qiú , I’d get some recordings of this sort of exchange so you don’t have to take my word for it. But trust me, there’s a whole lot of repeating back going on even among Chinese people.

I always get the feeling that it’s more common between strangers or from a xiàshǔ 下属 to a shàngsi 上司. That makes me think there’s something curtural going on like: repeating what someone says is polite or shows that you respect them and what they’ve said. Can anyone shed some light on (guess at) some of the curtural factors behind instant replays? Has anyone else even noticed this? Chime on in.

13 Replies to “Parrot People Help My Tones”

  1. This is done to some extent in Japanese as well. To me it sounds like you’re showing that you’re giving you full, undivided attention to the other person. It also it kind of like showing that you find what they’re saying so interesting that you repeat it.

  2. Definitely a good way of improving your tones. I’m just a bit confused with the first example.

    Normally when two third tones are next to one another, the first will essentially change to a second tone. How could one tell the difference between what you said (presuming you changed the sound of the third tone) and what the fuwuyuan said? ie. doesn’t 3+3 sounds like 2+3, or is there a subtle difference I’m missing? How could you tell that you were wrong?

    Many thanks,


  3. Jonathan,

    Yes, I tried to make that clear but I didn’t do a very good job. Imagine I was just saying “suànmiǎo” by itself. That 3rd tone would just drop away and go into the basement. Then imagine I started over with “chǎo” down in the basement again. That would be two really low tones in a row (which is wrong for this combo). Does that make sense? Maybe I should have transcribed my mistake as “suànmiao chǎo ròupiàn.”

    But you’re right, I couldn’t have known from the way she said it whether it was 2+3 or 3+3, so maybe I should think of a better example for this. Too bad I picked the ONLY combination this little listening exercise doesn’t work for. 🙂

  4. I have a theory, why Chinese people also do it when they talk to each other. So many words in Chinese sound so similar, that it has become a habit to always check if they understood each other correctly. It’s probably something they do unconsciously. What do you think?

  5. To Jonathan
    The ‘3+3’ -> ‘2+3’ rule applies only if the two characters form a single phrase.
    Albert’s mistake has nothing to do with that rule, though. The correct pronunciation should be suan 4 miao 2), no matter what it is followed by.

  6. As I said in other posts, a language for its native speakers is not simply a tool for exchanging information. Albert is wrong when he said the Chinese are simply repeating each other’s sentence. I can understand how difficult it is for him to tell the differences between the same words said by the two different speakers.

    Let me translate one of Albert’s examples.

    A: nǐ shì nǎge xì de? 你是哪个系的?
    What department do you work in?

    B: kuàijì xì 会计系.

    A: o, kuàijì xì. wǒ shì wàiyǔ xì de , 会计系. 我是外语系的.
    Accounting is interesting. Unluckily, I’m in the Foreign Language Department.

    B: wàiyǔ xì. nǐ jīngcháng lái zhèlǐ dǎ qiú ma? 外语系. 你经常来这里打球吗?
    Come on,
    foreign Language Department is not that bad. Do you often come here to play ball? (pingpong, basketball, whatever)

  7. When I was fresh off the boat, I had a similar experience with taxi drivers asking what country I was from. But it wasn’t a tone problem so much as a listening problem compounded by similar tones.

    Taxi driver: (Nǐ shì něiguóde?) 你是哪国的?
    What country are you from?

    Me: (Duì.) 对。

    [Taxi driver looks puzzled, maybe thinking I’m a little slow on the uptake.]

    Taxi driver: (Nǐ shì měiguórén ma?) 你是美国人吗?
    Are you American?

    Me: (Shì, wǒ shì měiguórén.) 是,我是美国人。
    Yes, I’m American.

    [I look a little puzzled, maybe thinking the taxi driver is a little slow on the uptake.]

  8. By the way, ‘ ( to hit, beat) the ball)’ could not be used for ‘whatever’ balls. For foot ball, one should say ‘ kick) (the ball‘. And this kind of ‘lazy language’ is only used when both speakers know what kind of ball they are talking about.

  9. Before completely reading your post I went to my 大学 to copy some essential grammar books, bringing 老婆 along so that I got the best price was crucial, when speaking to the man (saying sth I had no clue of) I noticed she had repeated what he said exactly, after asking her why she did that she said she was haggling and that they often do it during haggling, what I took from her full explanation was, they do this during haggling as a way of making a question, repeating it lets the other know she wants to go lower, or in other words is asking if its alright to go lower. Although I have no idea what his cue would be to say she couldn’t.

  10. When a subordinate just repeats what his/her boss just says, sometimes it means the subordinate is trying to get his /her boss’ huan xin欢心,trying to agree with whatever the boss says. In China, we always say”shao shuo hua , duo zuo shi 少说话,多做事”. Can you understand this? I know American always express what they think to their boss(maybe not always, but more than chinese.) In China, most people don’t talk to their bosses freely, just in case you might say something wrong, then you might lost your job or give the bad impression to your boss. So it would be much save just repeat what your boss says sometimes.

    When two strangers talk, when they repeat , maybe they are trying to show repect , maybe just because they don’t really know what else to say, they don’t really much about each other , not sure what to ask. They just can’t feel free to express theirself. Or maybe they just simply lost interest to talk to the each other.

  11. Just wanted to add a little note about Chinese speakers repeating what has been said to them. They do it to check understanding. It shows the other person you are listening attentively to what they are saying. I find that many English speakers (myself included) only repeat something when we don’t understand it as means of asking for clarification. This can lead to trouble when speaking Chinese.

  12. Hi,

    I also made that experience, but never thought about to use it for myself to study, good idea.

    But actually my first thought about that was that there is also a lot of misunderstanding between native speakers due to the tones, so that they need to confirm they understand right.

    We should ask some natives to bring more light into that 🙂


  13. This is definitely true, what you say about Chinese people repeating back what you say. I’ve always noticed it, especially with certain Chinese people.. I think it is for politeness and for clarification, as has been said..

    I can’t remember where but I remember reading an article about “Chinese liking to state the obvious”. Hehe. I think this is one of those examples…

    I have become used to some of these things, so I didn’t actually notice it until I read this! A very interesting observation~

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