Embrace the Embarrassing Moments: The Importance of Tones!

As part of our Embrace the Embarrassing Moments series, we feature a reader’s story about an embarrassing moment from when they were learning Chinese. Of course, the point of it is not to laugh at the reader :) but to celebrate embarrassing moments, which can actually be helpful to learning Chinese.


My first Chinese Teacher’s name was 曹夏雪(cáo xià xuě). For those of you just starting out, (or those who are illiterate like I am), 曹 is pronounced cao (2nd tone). 

Anyway, the months go by, the leaves turn and Chinese marches along.

Every morning the class would say in unison, “曹老师,你好.”(cáo lǎoshī, nǐhǎo.)

To use the restroom… “cao lao shi” can I use the restroom?”


cáo lǎoshī,wǒ kěyǐ qù xǐshǒujiān ma?

To ask for extra help, “cao laoshi,” can you stay after class on Tuesday?


cáo lǎoshī,nǐ xīngqíèr yǒu kònɡ ma?

To find a tutor… “cao lao shi,” can you recommend a tutor for me?


cáo lǎoshī,nǐ kěyǐ jiànyì gěi wǒ yī gè jiājiāo ma?

One day while talking about my awesome teacher, “cao laoshi” with my friend from Taiwan, he seemed to cringe every time I would mention the name of my wonderful instructor from the Middle Kingdom. “Say it again,” he said. So I repeated myself.

His eyebrows flared up and he shook his head as if to clear out his ears. He finally asked me one more time. Ah ha! , he finally realizes that I’ve confused “cao” (2nd tone) for “cao” (4th tone).

…the fourth tone cao means f*ck.

Moral of the story…be careful with your tones!”

Thank you, anonymous reader, for your great story! Hope you’re enjoying your Amazon gift certificate!

If you’d like to submit a story about an embarrassing moment from learning Chinese , please read more here.

And if you’d like to further improve your language skills, check out FluentU.

Look forward to your stories and comments!

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