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Pronunciation Matters

Speak standard Chinese and be careful with regional dialects


Pronunciation Matters

Speak standard Chinese and be careful with regional dialects


If you learned Chinese in the U.S., England, Australia, or whatever country as a foreign language, you probably learned Chinese pronunciation the academic way, following standard pronunciation in tapes or from a teacher. On arriving in China however, you may realize that many Chinese do not speak the way you studied. If you are blunt enough to ask them to speak “Mandarin Chinese”, they can all be a bit offended and bewildered: “But I am speaking Mandarin!”

As Olle Linge points out in Hacking Chinese, sometimes, “students who learn Chinese in parts of China where standard Mandarin is not used, often wonder why they should use the standard when other people around them don’t.”

If we exclude Taiwanese Chinese, people in Hong Kong, if they speak Mandarin at all, speak Mandarin with a heavy Cantonese accent that is often seen as “incorrect.” Even on the Chinese Mainland, people from different provinces speak Mandarin with a hint of their own dialect. Despite these regional differences and wherever you find yourself in China, Linge asserts that keeping to standardized pronunciation is essential. He provides five reasons as to why Chinese learners should not stray on the path of regional Mandarin:

“1. The purpose of language is communication and thus, dropping distinctions between different sounds is a bad idea, because it means that people you speak with have fewer clues as to what you’re trying to say. Natives can do it because they don’t make mistakes with tones, grammar and vocabulary. You do, so you’d better  keep your z/zh, c/ch and s/sh distinct. You don’t need to overdo it, of course, but avoid merging them completely.

2. Standardised pronunciation is (more) universal and learning it means that you will be able to communicate with people who speak other dialects and come from different parts of China (or other parts of the world entirely). If you learn regionally accented Mandarin, this will be harder…

3. Chinese people are used to native speakers with a dialect, but not to your own way of speaking. As mentioned above, if you manage to sound exactly like someone from place X, you would be fine, but you’re more likely to end up with your own version of the dialect, a mix of your native language, general strangeness because you’re a foreigner, added to the target dialect. People are not used to hearing this and will find it difficult to understand before they adjust. Help them understand you by keeping things as standard as possible.

4. If you ever want to use Chinese officially someday, a standardized pronunciation is often required. I know that most people don’t learn Chinese to become teachers, but if you ever find yourself in a situation where you want to use the Mandarin you have fought so hard to learn, it’s most likely that a standardised pronunciation will be beneficial. This is important for any profession where speaking is part of your job. If you learn to speak properly, you might also find it easier to acquire said job.

5. Standardised Chinese sounds more educated than regional variants. This is perhaps regrettable, but like in all languages, some dialects simply sounds dumber than others. If you don’t care about this at all, then go ahead, but you should be aware that you might be judged by your dialect. Of course, this can go the other direction, too, i.e. that people think you’re supercilious because you keep insisting on speaking like someone from the capital. When in Rome, do as the Romans do.”

The Chinese that is taught in foreign countries is, as one might call it, standardized Mandarin. This type of pronunciation has a distinctive northern accent, some textbooks would even include the “-er” sound, a typical suffix in northern dialects such as Beijinghua and Dongbeihua. However, the idea of “accent” is subjective. Northerners would claim that the Mandarin spoken in the north is the standard, whereas southerners claim Northerners’ Mandarin as having a heavy northern accent.

The most distinctive differences are the pronunciation of “sh”, “-ing”, “x”, “ch”, “zh”, and so on, yet the differences between northern Mandarin and southern Mandarin goes much further. I’m from the south, and was once in a taxi with a friend from Dongbei; I tried to chat to the driver, and he wanted to know if I was Korean, Japanese or Chinese. He couldn’t fully understand me. My friend had to rephrased my words to the driver. To his northern ear, my southern accent lacked clarity.

My friend pointed out the problem was more than just accent: southerners and northerners structure their sentences differently, and their common vocabulary is different as well (such as with Chongqinghua). As the driver was focused on driving, he only caught certain words and interpreted my speech in terms of his “northern grammar.” He has created an entirely different sentence to what I had said, based on his own commonly used sentence structure

All this can pose serious problems for language learners. One would need to become highly familiar with the sentence structuring habits of locals, to have any chance of imitating their language correctly

So, keep in mind, using the standard Mandarin does matter. If you didn’t grow-up using a regional dialect as your first or second language, it is going to be difficult to pull off.


Image courtesy of UNESCO.