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7 Sets of Chinese Homophones to Better Train Your Ears and Eyes

Jun. 28, 2019

HSK 3 quiz

Have you ever tried to say something in Chinese only to use the wrong tones and say something completely inappropriate or random? Don’t worry! It happens to every Chinese learner in the beginning.

This is because Chinese has a limited number of syllables, only about 30% of what English has, therefore tones are used to distinguish the syllables and to create the meaning of a word. This also creates the use of more similar sounding words, called homophones.

In Chinese, there are plenty of homophones, which literally mean “same sound words”, and near-homophones that are linguistically interesting and can even create comical situations. Once you are able to distinguish more homophones from one another your efficiency of learning Chinese characters will certainly improve.

Not only will learning homophonic Chinese characters help you to understand the homophonic culture and perspective of Chinese people, but it will also reduce frustrations and misunderstanding encountered in daily communication. Let’s go over 7 homophones that can be found confusing Chinese learners all over the world.

#1 Common and confused homophones in daily life:

I. 枕头 (Zhěntou) vs 针头 (Zhēntóu)

枕头 (Zhěntou) pillow

针头 (Zhēntóu) pinhead; syringe needle; needle tip

“枕头 (Zhěntou)” means pillow while “针头 (zhēntóu)” means needle. “针头 (Zhēntóu)” could easily cause some strange looks if you use it in place of “pillow”. “I want to decorate my bed with more ‘针头 (zhēntóu)’.” Strange indeed!

II. 河南 (Hénán) vs 荷兰 (Hélán)

河南 (Hénán) Henan (Chinese Province)

荷兰 (Hélán) Holland

When my Dutch friend was meeting a new Chinese person for the first time, she asked where he was from. To her surprise, he said “荷兰 (Hélán)”. She excitedly started speaking Dutch to him. After he just stood there for a while, not sure what was happening, she asked for clarification. He happily assured her he was Chinese and from “河南 (Hénán)” Henan Province. She was so embarrassed at the time!

III. 过奖 (Guòjiǎng)vs 果酱 (Guǒjiàng)

过奖 (Guòjiǎng) overpraise; undeserved compliment

果酱 (Guǒjiàng) jam; squish; marmalade

Imagine ordering a bagel and you think you hear the server offer “过奖 (guòjiǎng)” on the side. While it may be the best idea in the world for a restaurant concept, it is not a reality yet. She most definitely was offering a side of “果酱 (guǒjiàng) jam” and not you made a compliment on her perfect haircut.

#2 Internet language (humorous Chinese homophones):

If you live and breathe online forums, you will undoubtedly encounter internet slang and terms that have evolved from regular words to mean something completely new.

By reviewing these words you can know more about internet slang and terms.

IV. 微博 (Wēi bó) vs 围脖 (Wéibó)

微博 (Wēi bó) Sina Microblog; Sina Twitter; Weibo (a kind of Chinese social App like Twitter)

围脖 (Wéibó) scarf; muffler

Wēibó-The Twitter in China (Intermediate)

V. 同学 (Tóngxué) vs 童鞋 (Tóng xié)

同学 (Tóngxué) classmate; schoolmate; schoolfellow

童鞋 (Tóng xié) child’s shoes

VI. 喜欢 (Xǐhuān) vs 稀饭 (Xīfàn)

喜欢 (Xǐhuān) like; love; enjoy; be fond of

稀饭 (Xīfàn) rice or millet gruel; porridge; thin gruel;

Sentence Structure: 我喜欢… (Wǒ xǐhuan…) I like…

#3 Transliteration of network homophones borrowed from English:

VII. 太可惜 (Tài kěxī) & taxi

The Chinese pronunciation of “太可惜 (tài kěxī)” sounds like the pronunciation of English word “taxi.” It actually means “It’s a pity!”

One bonus of learning Chinese for natives of non-tonal languages is that you won’t easily confuse similar words. In this case hearing, words that do coincidently sound similar to English can create majorly confusing situations.

Sara: “I need to run more but I lost my shoes.”
Li Li: “太可惜 (Tài kěxī)”

Sara “Why would I take a taxi when I need to run more?”
Li Li: “??”

See what I mean? Now you will never have to encounter this situation. You’re welcome!

HSK 3 quiz
1. What are the correct pronunciations of Chinese words “过奖” and “荷兰”?

A. Guǒjiàng / Hélán
B. Guòjiǎng / Hénán
C. Guǒjiàng / Hénán
D. Guòjiǎng / Hélán

2. If you need a pillow, you should say ____.

A. 我需要一个针头。(Wǒ xūyào yígè zhēntóu.)

B. 我需要一个枕头。(Wǒ xūyào yígè zhěntou.)

C. 我不需要针头。(Wǒ bù xūyào zhēntóu.)

D. 我不需要枕头。(Wǒ bù xūyào zhěntou .)

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