If you want to improve your verbal dexterity in Chinese, try mastering one of the many exciting Mandarin tongue twisters. Like those in other languages, Chinese tongue twisters test your ability to string together consonants and vowels in challenging combinations. Practicing Chinese tongue twisters also provides the extra dimension of navigating the four tones.
English speakers are probably familiar with tongue twisters like “Peter Piper,” “How Much Wood Would a Woodchuck Chuck,” and “Sally Sells Seashells.” As tough as these English tongue twisters are, Chinese tongue twisters in particular can really trip up your tongue and get your head spinning.
Mandarin learners looking for a stimulating change of pace can use them to practice juggling consonants, vowels, tones, and changes in mouth shape.
For Mandarin learners, there are some benefits of learning and practicing tongue twisters in Chinese:
- Tongue twisters get you interested in learning and practicing Chinese by being fun, challenging, and often silly.
- You can practice Chinese tongue twisters to improve speech skills. Practicing tongue twister pronunciation targets the different meanings, tones, consonants, and vowels that form words.
- Tongue twisters introduce you to new Chinese words, which helps you learn Chinese vocabulary. (For the best way to learn and retain this vocab, use Hack Chinese and its custom-built vocabulary lists.)
So if you’re looking for a way to improve your Chinese, give Mandarin tongue twisters a shot! Everyone from beginners to advanced learners can find appropriate tongue twisters to try. If you’re up for the challenge, keep on reading to try out some of the most popular tongue twisters.
Popular Chinese Tongue Twisters
四是四 (sì shì sì): “Four Is Four, Forty Is Forty”
Before you dive too deep into Chinese tongue twisters, try your hand (or mouth?) at one of the most common tongue twisters for beginners. The /sh/ and /s/ sounds in Chinese are the focus here. Although it’s easy to grasp the meaning of this tongue twister, it’s actually one of the hardest to nail down in terms of pronunciation.
|四是四。||sì shì sì.||Four is four.|
|十是十，||shí shì shí,||Ten is ten,|
|十四是十四，||shí sì shì shí sì,||Fourteen is fourteen,|
|四十是四十，||sì shí shì sì shí,||Forty is forty,|
|四十四是四十四。||sì shí sì shì sì shí sì.||Forty-four is forty-four.|
知道就说知道 (zhī dào jiù shuō zhī dào): “If You Know, Say You Know”
This is a tongue twister for experts. It’s a tough one to say but just takes some time to get familiar with it. If you really come to understand the meaning of what you’re saying, the pronunciation should end up coming to you naturally.
Though this is only a tongue twister, its meaning still rings true like many Chinese idioms.
|知道就说知道，||zhī dào jiù shuō zhī dào,||If you know, just say you know.|
|不知道就说不知道，||bù zhī dào jiù shuō bu zhī dào,||If you don’t know, just say you don’t know.|
|不要知道说不知道，||bù yào zhī dào shuō bu zhī dào,||You shouldn’t know and say you don’t know.|
|也不要不知道说知道，||yě bù yào bù zhī dào shuō zhī dào,||And you shouldn’t not know and say you do know.|
|你知道不知道？||nǐ zhī dào bù zhī dào?||You know?|
妈妈骑马。(Mā mā qí mǎ.): “Mother Rides a Horse”
The easy part about this tongue twister is that it features the consonant /m/. The tricky part is its focus on the different tones.
Make sure you have a solid grasp of the tones before you perform this one in front of others. Slip up, and you just might accidentally call your mother a horse!
|妈妈骑马。||Mā mā qí mǎ.||Mother rides a horse.|
|马慢，||Mǎ màn,||The horse is slow,|
|妈妈骂马。||mā mā mà mǎ.||mother scolds the horse.|
八百标兵 (Bābǎi biāobīng): “800 Soldiers”
This tongue twister is also known as “800 Pivot Men” or “800 Spearmen.” If you want to learn a tongue twister that includes more vocabulary words at higher levels, this would be a great one for you to take on.
|八百标兵奔北，炮兵并排北边跑||Bābǎi biāobīng bēn běi,
pàobīng bìngpái běibian pǎo
|Eight hundred spearmen rush towards north hill slope
Artillery soldiers abreast in rows run towards the north
|炮兵怕把标兵碰，标兵怕碰炮兵炮。||pàobīng pà bǎ biāobīng pèng,
biāobīng pà pèng pàobīng pào.
|Artillery soldiers afraid to bump into the spearmen
Whereas the spearmen are afraid to bump into the artillery’s bomb.
是十石狮子。(shì shí shí shīzi): “Ten Stone Lions”
This head-splitting tongue twister is taken from a longer poem by Zhao Yuanren. The poem only uses one syllable, following the rules of a poetic form that is only used in Mandarin Chinese.
After you’ve attempted “Four is Four, Forty is Forty,” give the first sentence of this tongue twister a try. If you really want to test your mettle, try to read the entire poem out loud.
|石室诗士施氏，嗜狮，誓食十狮。||Shí shì shī shì Shī Shì, shì shī, shì shí shí shī.||In a stone den there was a poet called Shi, who was a lion addict and resolved to eat ten lions.|
|氏时时适市视狮。||Shì shí shí shì shì shì shī.||He often went to the market to look for lions.|
|十时，适十狮适市。||Shí shí, shì shí shī shì shì.||At ten o’clock, ten lions had just arrived at the market.|
|是时，适施氏适市。||Shì shí, shì Shī Shì shì shì.||At that time, Shi had just arrived at the market.|
|氏视是十狮，恃矢势，使是十狮逝世。||Shì shì shì shí shī, shì shǐ shì, shǐ shì shí shī shì shì.||He saw the ten lions, and using his trusty arrows caused the ten lions to die.|
|氏拾是十狮尸，适石室。||Shì shí shì shí shī shī, shì shí shì.||He took the corpses of the ten lions to the stone den.|
|石室湿，氏使侍拭石室。||Shí shì shī, Shì shǐ shì shì shí shì.||The stone den was damp. He asked his servants to wipe it.|
|石室拭，氏始试食是十狮。||Shí shì shì, Shì shǐ shì shí shì shí shī.||After the stone den was wiped, he tried to eat the ten lions.|
|食时，始识是十狮尸，实十石狮尸。||Shí shí, shǐ shí shì shí shī shī, shí shí shí shī shī.||When he ate, he realized that these ten lions were in fact ten stone lion corpses.|
|试释是事。||Shì shì shì shì.||Try to explain this matter.|
If you get the feeling that “Ten Stone Lions” has something in common with “Four is Four, Forty is Forty,” then you’re on the right track. They both force you to practice the “shi” sound even though their meanings and characters are quite different.
Curious to hear how these tongue twisters sound when said by a native Chinese speaker? Jessie from Chinese with Jessie YouTube channel has a great video on these and a few other tongue twisters!
Listen to her pronunciation and practice with her!
Now that you have these five Chinese tongue twisters to practice, it’s up to you to master them. Take some time to go over them slowly at first before ramping up the speed.
If you’re learning Cantonese, you can also look for Cantonese tongue twisters.