It’s easy to want to ignore tones when beginners first start out with Chinese.

After all, Chinese is already challenging enough with its thousands of characters. Surely we can put those pesky little diacritical marks aside for now?

That’d be a HUGE mistake.

Chinese is a tonal language, which means that tones are an integral part of any word. Use the wrong tone, and a word can take on a totally different meaning!

Two-word pairs are especially difficult. You not only have to remember the tone of each word, but you also have to combine both words into a phrase, AND say it in a natural manner. Make a mistake at any step of the way, and your speaking partner might think you are using a completely different phrase.

Here are five pairs of two-word phrases for you to practice, accompanied by example sentences. Each pair of phrases has the same syllables, but are pronounced with different tones.

I hope this helps!

1. 同意 tóngyì (agree) vs 统一 tǒngyī (unite)

Example: 你觉得台湾会同意和大陆统一吗?
Nǐ juédé táiwān huì tóngyì hé dàlù tǒngyī ma?

Do you think Taiwan will agree to unite with the mainland?

同意 tóngyì (agree):

统一 tǒngyī (unite):

2. 其实 qíshí (actually) vs 七十 qīshí (seventy)

Example: 其实我现在只有七十块。
Qíshí wǒ xiànzài zhǐyǒu qīshí kuài.

Actually, I only have seventy dollars right now.

其实 qíshí (actually):

七十 qīshí (seventy):

3. 大家 dàjiā (everyone) vs 打架 dǎjià (fight)

Example: 有问题大家可以慢慢说,不用打架。
Yǒu wèntí dàjiā kěyǐ màn man shuō, bùyòng dǎjià.

If there’s any problems, we can talk through them; we don’t have to fight.

大家 dàjiā (we/everyone):

打架 dǎjià (fight):

4. 只是 zhǐshì (only) vs 知识 zhīshì (knowledge)

Example: 这只是一点简单的知识。
Zhè zhǐshì yīdiǎn jiǎndān de zhīshì.

This is just a simple bit of knowledge.

只是 zhǐshì (only/just):

知识 zhīshì (knowledge):

5. 号码 hàomǎ (phone number) vs 好吗 hǎoma (alright?)

Example: 给我你的电话号码,好吗?
Gěi wǒ nǐ de diànhuà hàomǎ, hǎoma?

Give me your phone number, alright?

号码 hàomǎ (number):

好吗 hǎoma (alright):