Chinese Language Blog

Tongue Twisters (绕口令) Posted by on Nov 22, 2011 in Culture, Vocabulary

On the first day of study abroad in Beijing, my Chinese teachers taught our class this little tongue twister to help us work with our tones:

老师是四十四,是不是?(lǎoshī shì sìshísì, shì bú shì)

Translation: The Teacher is 44, no (is this true/true of false)?

Why this seemingly innocuous sentence? Was it really all that important to repeat (over and over) how to ask a simple, age-related question to a teacher? No. It was all because of the tones and pronunciation involved. Our teachers were trying to accustom our tongues to the Chinese language.

For a bunch of US students just arriving in Beijing, acclimating your ear was difficult enough, but speaking the language? It was like trying to talk with cotton balls in your mouth. Our teachers were providing us with standards Chinese “tongue twisters” or  绕口令 (ràokǒulìng) to whip our voices into shape (like this laowai):

All the text books and character sheets in the world will not prepare your mouth for the litany of linguistic leaps levied at your lethargic laowai larynx (try saying that five times fast) when you first start speaking Mandarin. In the first weeks abroad, I would literally find myself tongue tied, that is, able to produce the sound and character in my head, or through recognition, but utterly unable to make the conversion from brain to mouth. As I soon realized, in order to speak Chinese, I had to create my own “chinese voice”.

Whether it was making sure that my tones would have the proper inflection, learning to create sounds that are non-existent within English, or finding a natural cadence and rhythm to my talk, all required practice and repetition. Language is often muscle dependent-you either use it or lose it. It takes a good amount of work training your tongue, but there are fun ways to practice. If you really want to master your spoken Chinese, try some of these tongue twisters out:

mā mā qí mǎ,
mǎ màn, mā mā mà mǎ.
Translation: Mother is riding a horse. The horse moves slowly. Mother chides the horse

四 是 四 , 十 是 十 , 十 四 是 十 四 , 四 十 是 四 十 , 四 十 四 只 石 狮 子 是 死 的
sì shì sì
shí shì shí
shí sì shì shí sì
sì shí shì sì shí
sì shí sì zhī shí shī zǐ shì sǐ de.
Translation: 4 is 4, 10 is 10, 14 is 14, 40 is 40, 44 small stones are dead


zhīdào jiù shuō zhīdào
bù zhīdào jiù shuō bù zhīdào
bū yào zhīdào shuō bù zhīdào
yě bū yào bù zhīdào shuō zhīdào
nǐ zhīdào bù zhīdào
Translation: If you know, just say you know. If you don’t know, just say you don’t know. You shouldn’t know and say you don’t know. And you shouldn’t NOT know and say you DO know. You know?

Now see how you compare to Jackie Chan:

Follow Steve on twitter: @seeitbelieveit

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About the Author: Stephen

Writer and blogger for all things China related. Follow me on twitter: @seeitbelieveit -- My Background: Fluent Mandarin speaker with 3+ years working, living, studying and teaching throughout the mainland. Student of Kung Fu and avid photographer and documentarian.


  1. lol:

    why so hard

  2. Dzier:

    I think you should have written – 知不知道 instead of 知道不知道. It is not a mistake, but I think, that the first way of writing is more common one.

  3. June:

    Hi! The translation for 四 十 四 只 石 狮 子 是 死 的 should be ‘fourty four stone lions are dead’

  4. Demos fan:

    Sooooooo easy

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