On Accents and Perceived Fluency

25 May 2007

I’ve known for a while that for the highest perceived fluency, a foreigner should aim for a Beijing accent. That’s what Dashan did, and I’ve witnessed many times that a Beijing accent just impresses Chinese people more (especially outside of Beijing). It never had any appeal for me, though.

What I have noticed, though, is that as one’s accent improves, it can move through various levels of perceived fluency, seemingly imitating some of Greater China’s regional accents. I’ve actually heard Chinese people make some of these comments, and I cobbled together this rough guide to what the various comments mean.

When they say you sound like a… they mean that…
老外
(foreigner)
your Chinese is bad.
外国人
(foreigner)
your Chinese is bad (but they tried just a little to be polite).
新疆人
(Xinjiang person)
your Chinese is functional, but your tones are a mess.
山东人
(Shandong person)
your Chinese is a bit better than a 新疆人’s.
四川人
(Sichuan person)
your Chinese is a bit better than a 山东人’s.
香港人
(Hong Kong person)
your Chinese is pretty good, but sounds a little funny.
南方人
(Southerner)
your Chinese is good, but some consonants are non-standard.
台湾人
(Taiwanese)
your Chinese not only sounds like a 南方人’s, but also a girl’s. (This is not so bad if you happen to be a girl.)
东北人
(Northeasterner)
your Chinese is good, but not quite up to 北京人 levels.
北京人
(Beijinger)
your Chinese is really amazing.

These impressions are sure to vary somewhat from region to region (and yes, they are unfair, subjective generalizations). Anything I missed?

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John Pasden

John is a Shanghai-based linguist and entrepreneur, founder of AllSet Learning.

Comments

  1. How bout this?

    You sound like a Beijinger = spit that damn water out of your mouth.

  2. oh one more…

    You sound like you’re from Fujian = 请说普通话

    (note: unbenounced to the person above, the other party is actually already speaking pu tong hua)

  3. My impression is that Chinese outside of Beijing feel that the Beijing speaking style sounds comical or melodramatic, like Beijing opera.

    My wife is from Beijing, and I strive for the Beijing accent. I recently told someone from Taiwan that I eat zhōu for breakfast, and I was firmly corrected as eating zōu. If I stand my ground, it turns into an uncomfortable “he speaks that way because he’s henpecked, not because he’s trying to speak properly.” It drives me crazy.

  4. All my local friends say that they think when foreigners speak, they sound like Xinjiang people.

    which is quite intersting, because no matter if you’re french, finnish, or american, they kind of have the same accent when speaking Chinese. For an example, finnish and french are from totally different language roots!

  5. chinotex Says: May 25, 2007 at 3:37 am

    Nothing lights up the eyes of a 上海人 like a big-nose saying “zay-hweih!”

  6. I’ve been told twice already I sound like a 山东人 🙂 Never knew it means I actually made progress beyond my wildest dreams !

  7. I’ve not spent a lot of time in various parts of China, but this part has me rather puzzled. Do people in various parts of China really prefer to hear an accent that differs from theirs, i.e. will people in for example Hangzhou really think your Chinese sounds better than theirs if you have a Beijing accent?

    Additionally, do they take into account whether you attach the -er sound to words into account when assessing your accent, i.e. will they prefer hearing wanr over wan, or dianr over dian?

  8. This didn’t happen so much to me in Japan, but when I was in China, many people, after hearing me speak oh so little, would go off like they thought I was fluent.
    I asked a friend about why it seemed to happen all the time and she told me it was because my pronunciation was good and sounded a bit Beijing-y.
    Fits the mold, but I gotta tell you, it kinda sucked. I have since ‘dumbed down’ by pronunciation a bit.

  9. You know, I got that “shandong person” thing a few times and now I don’t know if it’s because I learned in Yantai or because I just can’t pronounce things properly. Of course, I also got “ting bu dong” and “you sound just like Da Shan!” so I suppose it’s all relative.

  10. I just get the “you sound like a girl” thing… and it hurts worst from children… sniff.

  11. On the topic of Chinese accents, you might find this interesting:

    Chinese Local Accent Test – 方言考试

  12. Hi Meg
    What school did you learn Chinese in yantai.
    i’m from yantai ( wo shi yantai ren 烟台人),and used to be a mandarin teacher there .
    glad to know you !
    msn: wxgcathy@hotmail.com

  13. Maybe people outside of Sichuan aren’t too impressed if you speak Sichuanhua, but here they absolutely love it. A lot of people have told me that a long time ago Sichuanhua was the Putonghua of its day–whether or not that’s true I have no idea, because I’m lazy. But they are definitely quite proud of their dialect here, and if you also happen to point out the inferiority of Beijinghua, and the superiority of Sichuanhua, you’ll be their best friend forever.

  14. Someone thought I was from Xinjiang. Does that count?

  15. Great post, as always. Isn’t “Beijing-hua” most like say a really over the top old-school Boston or New York accent/dialect in the States? Love the Taiwanese bit, ha.

  16. Any Chinese who says Hong Kong people’s English is good probably hasn’t been to Hong Kong! It’s terrible mandarin!

  17. To my knowledge, young Taiwanese speak too fast Mandarin, which might cause understanding obstacles for most Mainland Chinese. But the elder 外省人, They speak 国语 not any worse than 东北人 do.

  18. hi,John!How about Shanghaiese?You didn’t mention it!

  19. I used to do the Beijing “ar-ar-ar” thing because I learned it in college, but when I got to Shenzhen, I found that a lot of people couldn’t understand it. I had to start saying “yi dian” and stuff like that. I even had college students who swore up and down that “hao war” was wrong, and that “hao wan” was the REAL Chinese way to say it.

  20. Oh — when talking on the phone I’ve been asked a couple times if I’m Korean. I don’t know what that would mean. Maybe that my Chinese sounds okay, but a little strange.

  21. lol
    Hongkongese: your Chinese is pretty good, but sounds a little funny.

    Some of HK people sound different intentionally and that keeps them proud of being different from mainland people. (my personal observation)

  22. This in my view is more like real Beijinghua

  23. On the phone they tell me i sound like a Chinese, but a 外地人, without saying where from exactly. In person I get taken for a Chinese often ( to my displease sometimes) but it works well enough in the markets. I am Bulgarian actually and have absolutely nothing to do with Chinese, genetically speaking. 🙂

  24. In regards to all the Xinjiang comments, as an Altaic language, Uighur (the language spoken in Xinjiang) is probably linguistically more similar to English than it is to Mandarin. This combined with the fact that most people in Xinjiang (outside of Urumqi) can barely speak Mandarin anyway, probably accounts for the fact that many Chinese compare lao wai Chinese sounds like Xinjiang Chinese. Along this same line of thinking, I met several Uighurs in Kashgar who spoke English, and noticed that their English pronunciation was much, much better than the average Han Chinese who speaks good English. This is probably also attributed to the fact that their native language is linguistically closer to English than Mandarin is.

    As a side note, I should mention that when I say “Xinjiang ren” I am referring to Uighurs. Iterestingly enough, I noticed that the Han people in Urumqi by in large speak excellent CCTV style pu tong hua.

  25. Here in Fuzhou, the pu tong hua is about as unstandard as anywhere (excluding regions with high non-Han populations). Here’s how it works…first there is no “h.” “sh” becomes “s,” “zh” becomes “z,” and “ch” becomes “c.” Also all “r’s” are pronounced as “l’s. This is because Fuzhou hua, like most southern dialects, has no raised tongue. Thus when Fuzhou people speak pu tong hua, this habbit carries over.

    To make matters even more complicated, “n” and “l” are seemingly intergangeable at arbitraty times, as are “f” and “h.” I have actually heard the following phrase 我喜欢福州 pronounced “wo xi fuan hu zou” and 你会不会说福州话 as “ni fei bu fei suo hu zou fa”

    Rather than say my Mandarin is “good,” people often say it is “standard,” probably not necessarily because it is really so standard, but because I do differenciate my consonants. Generally speaking, if you speak standard Mandarin but without the R’s (i.e. 那里 instead of 那儿, 这边 or 这里 instead of 这儿, and 一点 instead of 一点儿) people will think you sound educated and cultured. Nobody (Chinese included) really strives to speak Mandarin with a Fuzhou accent. But if you speak with a Beijing accent (over emphasizing the R’s) people will look at you like you’re overdoing it a little.

  26. “Oh — when talking on the phone I’ve been asked a couple times if I’m Korean. I don’t know what that would mean. Maybe that my Chinese sounds okay, but a little strange.”

    The Korean language is non-tonal and its sentence intonation is less varied than English. The standard Seoul dialect sounds rather flat. I had no trouble picking out Koreans speaking Chinese because of their pronunciation.

    I suspect the other party asked if you were Korean because you sounded reasonably fluent yet your tones were not natural. Chinese perceive their fellow Asians as being more fluent in Chinese than Western nationals living in China, and Koreans and Japanese themselves seem to share this perception. Like other Chinese-speaking Westerners, I was almost always praised while my Korean friends were not. A Korean visitor to my workplace praised my boss in English for speaking Chinese. When I pointed out to the man that he, too, could speak Chinese well, the Korean man looked a little embarrassed.

  27. I got the impression while I was there that Mandarin in the Dongbei area was kind of like how English is spoken in, say, Western Washington: sort of the default, unaccented style of the language. I also got the impression that the Beijing accent is sort of analogous to Boston or New York accents: old school, almost traditional and nostalgic, but definitely non-standard.

    Of course, when someone says you speak like a Beijingren they’re probably referring to Beijing newscasters and not Beijing taxi drivers. I guess it’s a class thing!

  28. where do you fall? =)

    i’ve always thought lao wai just
    meant foreigner. wouldn’t you be
    lao wai no matter how good your
    mandarin became?

    my mom doesn’t refer to accents,
    she calls me “blind” for not being able
    to read or write. i’m just about “deaf”
    too with my spoken proficiency and
    understanding. boo.

  29. Ben your description of fuzhou chinese sounds a lot like what taiwanese call “taiwan guoyu” or the chinese spoken by taiwanese in the countryside (separate from taiwanese.) Which makes sense, given the relationship between Taiwan and Fujian.

    Also, I find it amusing how many westerners who live/work/study in mainland China have an absurdly smug attitude towards Taiwan and like to put it down as “non-standard” or feminine every chance they get.

  30. dezza,

    Any Chinese who says Hong Kong people’s English is good probably hasn’t been to Hong Kong! It’s terrible mandarin!

    I think it’s likely that they’re basing their impressions of HK residents’ Mandarin on the Mandarin of the HK stars which frequently make it into the news on the mainland.

  31. cyn,

    where do you fall? =)

    i’ve always thought lao wai just
    meant foreigner. wouldn’t you be
    lao wai no matter how good your
    mandarin became?

    I’m not sure where I fall… I used to get told I sounded like a HKer fairly often, but not so much anymore. I think people have trouble placing me because I don’t sound like a local, but my speech also doesn’t have some of the most readily identifiable distinguishing features of foreigner Mandarin. Still, I think Chinese people with experience talking to foreigners can identify me as a foreigner because I definitely still have an accent.

    And yes… laowai 4ever!

  32. JR,

    Also, I find it amusing how many westerners who live/work/study in mainland China have an absurdly smug attitude towards Taiwan and like to put it down as “non-standard” or feminine every chance they get.

    I think you’re reading a little too much into that. We foreigners in the mainland say the Taiwanese accent sounds girly because that’s what the mainlanders tell us, again and again. It’s that simple.

  33. I think when people outside the Mandarin speaking area comment on somebody sounds like a Beijinger, they probably mean to say that they dont have an accent. Beijingers, when speak without much Beijing accent, can sound very close to the standard ‘putonghua’- like newscasters. Strong Beijing accents, however, uh, dont sound very pretty at all.
    Also, Mandarin in Taiwan just sounds a little different than putonghua (some people might say, a little ‘girly’), but in general, people in Taiwan speak much better Mandarin than people in southern China, who simply cant pronounce some sounds right.

  34. Lantian Says: May 26, 2007 at 11:01 pm

    I think your list is just about perfect. 🙂

    If I ever want to be rude I slip into 儿话….. what’s that say about China’s prestige accent?

  35. So I speak Chinese like a girly man??

    Any guesses as to where did the perception that Taiwanese people sound girly come from? Could it be that the Taiwanese people that people in China hear are mostly the girl pop groups or other cute-cute young women in the entertainment business? Or is it that Taiwanese generally use more of those single syllable endings (modal particles?) on sentences, like lo!, oh!, la! le!, ma!, etc. than other Chinese-speakers?

  36. @Scott,
    Mood particle is merely a part of that, in most Chinese dialects you hear people saying them a lot as well. I think the problem (perhaps not a problem at all, couldn’t find an appropriate word, sorry) lies in the tones! Taiwanese use highly exaggerated 4 tones than us do, and some of them, in a sentence for example, are purposely prolonged, thus makes the speech sound dramatic and girly.

  37. Hmm. It seems most of my comment got stripped away above. What I wanted to say is that I don’t think Da Shan speaks beijing dialect at all. In my view he speaks standard mandarin with a few “er” endings threw in here and there. The video I linked to above is more what real Beijinghua sounds like.

  38. Scott: I think it’s the lo, la, ma thing, mostly.
    But it’s just true, the Taiwanese do speak like mainland girls (or the other way around, of course). Here in Taiwan, that’s just how people speak, it’s normal guoyu, but when that normal guoyu comes to the mainland it’s girly putonghua.

  39. I read somewhere (wish I could remember where) that the Suzhou accent is the most beautiful. Any idea where I could listen to some of it and decide for myself?

  40. Phoebe,

    Could it be you’re referring to the age-old Chinese cliche that Suzhou and Hangzhou girls are the most beautiful in China? (This dates from the time that Hangzhou was the capital and Suzhou a popular place to retire for rich officials.)

    My last teacher of Chinese is a Suzhouren and she claims Suzhouhua is absolutely not a ‘good’ dialect to emulate as it is a bit of a mongrel between Wu (Shanghaihua) and Beifanghua. She herself does speak a very crisp and well-articulated putonghua though.

  41. 音弗丽娅 Says: May 31, 2007 at 5:41 am

    When I was in Beijing, I got you sound like a 南方人, and I was like for real? Because 我是东北人, my spoken Chinese sounds nothing like southerners. Perhaps it was because my chinese has gotten worse over the years, so maybe I was using stranger terms and bad grammar or something. But just listen to me talk, I sound nothing like a 南方人!

  42. 音弗丽娅 Says: May 31, 2007 at 5:48 am

    I forgot to ask, is the Beijing dialect really considered standard 普通话? I ask this is because, the people on TV, the newscasters, etc, they speak supposedly standard 普通话. But these people really doesn’t sound much like a 老北京. Chances are you can’t really tell where that person is from from the way he/she speaks, even if that person is a 老北京. Because I remember watching 朱军 the other day on CCTV4, and he spoke in his local dialect (he’s from 陕西), and I was like wow, I would’ve never guessed.

  43. People in Taiwan have told me that I have a “mainland accent”, and I tell them that the mainland is a big place and there is no one “mainland accent”. I guess many people here can’t distinguish or don’t bother distinguishing between different regional mainland accents. Or maybe anyone who tries to 卷舌 sounds non-Taiwanese and therefore mainland-ish.

  44. Beijing hua is definitely not standard pu tong hua. Pu tong hua is an artificial language, based on the Beijing dialect. The longer I am in China the more I realize how few people speak standard Mandarin, and by “standard” I mean the CCTV accent. Generally speaking, the only group of people who by in large speak standard Mandarin are northerners who are highly educated. Take a cab ride in Beijing, and you will hear Beijing hua. Go hang out on the Tsinghua campus for a couple hours and you will hear standard Mandarin.

  45. But sounding like a Taiwanese is much more pleasant than sounding like a Northeasterner.

  46. Ben, I think the just coined the term CCTV accent. Hmm CCTV话?

  47. Emma, as a doujiang slurping youtiao chewing Northeasterner I must respectfully disagree.

  48. Richard Says: June 15, 2007 at 7:56 am

    Sounding like any southerner is much more pleasant than sounding like a Northeasterner or beijingren (outside of Heilongjiang, where they speak the most unaccented putonghua).

    BTW, Suzhou-hua was known as the most pleasant language back in the day. The saying was that it was more pleasant to hear two Suzhou-ren fight than to hear 2 Ningbo-ren speak romantically (my family’s from Ningbo).

    Also, that girly Taiwanese accent is a relatively recent phenomenon. People in my generation in Taiwan speak that way (accenting their tones so that it sounds like they are talking with a perpetual girly pout), but no one in my parents’ generation spoke guoyu that way.

  49. If sounding sophisticated equals sounding “girly”, then I don’t know what else to say.

  50. Richard Says: June 18, 2007 at 6:31 pm

    ??? Who said that it sounded sophisticated?

  51. I think it depends on region or sex. For women, only northern people think Beijing accent sounds best, otherwise we would say Suzhou or Hangzhou accent is best for ladies.

    For men, I think it matters less. Honestly, who closes their eyes and listens to men speak?

    Maybe a woman should answer.

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