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sorry for such a foolish question

i have no idea about mandarin, but i saw it in the list and i thought, i've always liked china, why not? i've run into a roadblock. a different character is being used for the same sound! 名 and 明 make the same sound "ming" so why two different characters?

April 14, 2018



Absolutely not a stupid question. And this is one of the things that requires the largest leap for learners coming from other languages. Here's some of the statistics:

There are two kinds of sounds in Modern Putonghua, the type of Chinese they are teaching here: Initials, that begin a syllable, and finals, that end it. Though it is possible to have a syllable with no initial, and thus "begin" with a final, you can't have a syllable end with an initial.

There are 21 initials: (B, P, M, F) (D, T, N, L) (G, K, H) (J, Q, X) (ZH, CH, SH, R) (Z, C, S) There is actually a pretty wide variety of finals (analogous to vowels in English) but only certain ones go with certain initials, which is why I wrote them in parenthetical groups. There are families of initials that take the same kinds of finals. (Note, this lacks Y and W, because those are simply glides for syllables that only contain finals.)

The result is that though pinyin seems to have a pretty large "alphabet" the actual options are pretty narrow. In the end, there are only 372 possible combinations of initials and finals, of which something like 50 are almost never used. There are some special rules with finals that can come into play, and five possible tonal variations (four tones + toneless), and some syllables don't have a full range of tones. So the total number of possible distinct syllables you could conceivably have in Chinese is around 1,600 - or at least, that's the number I hear most frequently. Compare this to English, which has an estimated 15,000 distinct syllables in common use.

Add to that the fact that Chinese words have no more than two syllables, and many have just one. In English, we have something like a million words, but we can make them as long as we want to keep differentiating them. In Chinese there are 50,000 characters, and about 370,000 distinct words. This means that you are absolutely going to get a lot of overlap.

This explains why pronunciation is such a serious issue in Chinese. In Chinese, even native speakers often struggle to understand people with different accents. Careless pronunciation can result in a lot of confusion, and you will have to train your ear up to differentiate between fine shades of pronunciation, especially when it comes to tones.

The good news is that this eventually works, and I think Duolingo does a pretty good job of drilling you on connecting sounds with characters, as well as exercises forcing you to identify the different tones among words with the same initial and final. If you are struggling with differentiating two words that are homonyms, start thinking about the contexts in which you will encounter the word.

For example, 名 refers to a name, and it can also be a count word used to describe a person, as well as describing reputation or fame. In general, 名 is used to describe things that indicate how we know or identify people. 明 on the other hand means "bright" (it's made up of the moon and sun together) and it can also be used to signify understanding (as in your mind is illuminated) used to indicate the following day (the time when it gets bright after it gets dark tonight) and it could refer to the Ming Dynasty. There are very few sentences where you'd see these two overlap, but that's not the only value in this exercise - mapping out contexts for words is a great way to memorize them, and can really help you to learn, because you don't just "remember" the character, you also remember how it is used, which is what really enables you to speak.


What a helpful explanation! Many thanks.


They are different words that sound the same. It's like "way" and "weigh."

名 = "name" 明 = "bright"


Excellent question. It’s because those two characters have different meanings even though they sound the same.

Think about some English words that are like this:

Blue and blew!

Blue is a colour while blew is the past tense of the word “blow”. Some languages like Chinese and English have this phenomenon. They are called “homophones”. They sound the same but they are written differently and have different meanings.

Hope this simple explanation is enough for you.

On top of this, there are other problems you will enounter. Like heteronyms. In Chinese , the character 行 can be pronounced as “háng” or “xíng”. These are heteronyms. English also has heteronyms. Read and read (one is present tense read, the other one is past tense read and it sounds like “red”). Record (verb, the e sounds like email) and record (noun, the e sounds like elephant). The duolingo TTS often has problems recognizing heteronyms when it comes to English. So, a lot of the English learners end up learning the wrong pronunciation for words with specific meanings. I’m not sure if the duolingo TTS has problems with other languages in terms of heteronyms.


Wow,that is kinda interesting question,for learners like me and u.I was bit confused too,but now i can check it out here.Thanks

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