Mandarin Chinese Polyphones

In Chinese by Sarah Heath

This is a guest post from That’s Mandarin. Find out more at the end of this article.

Having trouble distinguishing between when to use a certain pronunciation for the same character? Ever not understood a sentence because a character was pronounced differently?

If you have prior knowledge of Chinese, you must know that there are quite a few Chinese characters known as polyphones that can be pronounced in two or even three different ways depending on the context. Therefore, having a clear idea of how they should be pronounced in different situations will certainly take your listening comprehension to a higher level.

So, without further-a-do, let’s learn Mandarin Chinese polyphones.

1. 二 (èr) vs. (liǎng)

Strictly speaking, these are two different characters. However, despite the fact that both characters stand for “two”, their pronunciation is completely different depending on the situation. When “2” is being counted as a number or appears in a code, it is pronounced as “èr”. However, when it is used with a measure word to indicate quantity, such as “two books”, it should be pronounced as “liǎng”.


Wǒ de fáng jiān hào shì èr wǔ líng sān
My room number is 2503

Wǒ yào liǎng bēi chá
I want two cups of tea

2. 少 (shǎo) vs. (shào)

In terms of this character, what you need to pay attention to is that although the spelling remains unchanged, the tones are different depending on the context. When “少” is pronounced in the third tone, its meaning is “little” in terms of quantity. However, if the pronunciation is changed to the forth tone, the meaning of the character will become “young”.


Kāifēi tài shǎo le
There is too little coffee

Qīngshàonián yīnggāi nǔlì xuéxí
Teenagers should study hard


青少年 (qīngshàonián) teenager(s)

应该 (yīnggāi) should

努力 (nǔlì) hardworking

3. 只(zhī) vs. (zhǐ)

This word can often be heard in Chinese people’s daily lives as it turns out to be a commonly-used measure word when it is pronounced in the first tone, and it is usually used to describe small animals. When the pronunciation of this word is changed to the third tone, it means “only” and it is often followed by a verb.


Wǒ yǒu yī zhī xiǎo māo
I have a small cat

Tā zhǐ xǐhuan báisè de yīfu
She only likes white clothes


猫 (māo) cat

白色 (bái sè) white color

衣服 (yīfu) clothes

4. 得(de) vs. (děi)

得 (de) is one of the most important auxiliary words that can be used with an adjective in order to turn it into an adverb:

Tā zhōngwén shuō de hěn hǎo
He speaks Chinese very well

Thus, whenever you want to make a sentence like “Jason drives very fast” or “She dances very well”, you’ll need to use the structure “Noun + verb + 得 (de) + 很 (hěn) + adj”.

Well, when the word is pronounced as “děi”, it means “have to” and it is often followed by a verb.


Xiànzài wǒ děi huí jiā
I have to go home now

5. 难 (nán) vs. (nàn)

No matter if it is pronounced in the second tone or the forth tone, this word has a derogatory meaning, which is “difficult” (when being pronounced in the second tone) and “catastrophe” (when being pronounced in the forth tone).


Zhōngwén hěn nán
Chinese is difficult

Táifēng shì yī zhǒng kěpà de zāinàn
Typhoon is a horrifying disaster


台风 (táifēng) typhoon

可怕 (kěpà) horrible, frightening

灾难 (zāinàn) disaster

Hopefully now you understand the importance to learn Mandarin Chinese polyphones, and are able to use them more often in your daily Mandarin Chinese experiences!

Want to learn more aboutThat’s Mandarin? Click here.

Talk about this post on our forum!