What Linguistic Diversity Feels Like

We often think of “linguistic diversity” referring to the existence of minority languages in an area. But it can also refer to the varying dialects of a region, which in China would include topolects, AKA 方言. When you throw various forms of language together in a single geographical area, they don’t stay distinct; they bleed into each other in interesting ways.

Here are a few anecdotes about that, and what we’re potentially losing when a large region’s language becomes one shade of plain vanilla.

Beijing to Hangzhou

I learned the basics of Mandarin in Hangzhou, where not so many people speak “standard Chinese.” I had to constantly check dictionaries to make sure I was learning the proper pronunciation of new words, because the pinyin sounds “ch/sh/zh” were always being pronounced as “c/s/z”, as southern Chinese tend to do. This was annoying it times, but it didn’t bother me too much, because it was simply the way things were.

Fast forward a few years. I witnessed students of Mandarin visiting Hangzhou from Beijing, absolutely livid because no one in Hangzhou spoke “proper Chinese,” and they couldn’t understand anything. They were used to extremely standard Mandarin, with a bit of Beijing dialect for flavor, but not this.

The whole thing was amusing to me, because not only could I easily understand what they could not, but when I visited Beijing, the locals were so easy to understand that it was surreal, as if every word that came out of every Beijinger’s mouth was a recording from a textbook dialog.

(Note: Americans, when visiting the UK for the first time, may have a similar experience to these students of Chinese in Beijing.)

Fading Tolerance for the Nonstandard

When we had our second baby, we hired a yuesao (post-natal caregiver, 月嫂). We call her Zhang Ayi. Zhang Ayi is great, but she’s from Jiangsu, and she has an accent that can be hard for me to understand.

At first I was thinking, “my Chinese must be worse than I thought,” because after all these years in China, a little accent shouldn’t throw me off too much. It made me feel better, then, to know that my wife (a Shanghai native) also has trouble understanding Zhang Ayi, and fairly often. Zhang Ayi manages to speak in a way that sounds standard, but you just can’t understand it. (As a non-native speaker, it really makes me doubt my listening comprehension!) It’s a different flavor of “nonstandard” than I’m used to, but it affects even a native speaker’s comprehension.

The interesting thing is that my wife’s parents (one from Shanghai, one from Hubei) have no trouble understanding anything Zhang Ayi says. Their generation grew up in a China with wildly heterogenous Mandarin spoken (remember Mao’s Mandarin?), and they just have a much, much higher tolerance for strong accents. This tolerance is fading fast in the younger generations.


Mute Shanghainese

It’s been widely reported that Shanghainese (上海话) is dying. A lot of Shanghainese parents are taking great pains to use Shanghainese with their children to make sure that this cultural heritage does not die out.

The problem is that a dialect/topolect is not merely a family issue; it’s a community issue. And what’s happening with these families is that their children do indeed comprehend Shanghainese, and can usually say a few words and phrases, but they essentially do not speak it. Only standard Chinese is allowed in schools, and that makes it “weird” for Shanghainese kids to talk to each other in anything other than standard Chinese. Shanghainese does not feel necessary or useful to the children.

What’s even worse, even if a Shanghainese parent goes the extra mile and insists that only Shanghainese is spoken in the home, raising her own child to be 100% fluent in Shanghainese, her child will likely be the member of a society where no one else of his generation actually speaks Shanghainese. And one fluent speaker can’t keep Shanghainese going.

The Chinese Pronunciation Wiki

For years, I’ve had a few sections on Sinosplice for pronunciation:

(Notably absent: tone change rules)

I’ve also blogged about pronunciation many times, but I didn’t feel like a blog is the best way to organize all this information, and these days I’m putting most of my time into growing AllSet Learning rather than reorganizing Sinosplice.

The Chinese Grammar Wiki has turned out to be a hugely successful experiment, and in about three years has become the internet’s favorite reference for Chinese grammar issues online. Our work is by no means finished there; the Chinese Grammar Wiki continues to grow.

Chinese Pronunciation Wiki Screen Shot

But it’s now time to bring a bunch of scattered information together in the same way we did for grammar, but this time for pronunciation. We’ve started the Chinese Pronunciation Wiki, and it’s still in its early days, but the foundation is strong.

One of the key concepts behind the site which I believe is missing in many current courses and resources with regards to pronunciation is a clear idea of what to focus on, when. Remember: mastery of Chinese pronunciation is a long-term endeavor. Take it step by step.

We’re doing a soft launch of the site this week, and will do a more public launch next week. I’d love to get some early feedback.

A few notes on what we’ve got so far:

  • We aim to keep beginner explanations simple, without resorting to linguistic jargon. Full linguistic description for those who want it is part of the longer-term plan.
  • Many pages still need to be fleshed out, but for now, the pinyin chart, pinyin quick start guide, tone change rules, and erhua pages are already quite useful
  • I’m interested to hear what higher-level learners and native speakers think about our page on Chinese accents (which can be quite a hurdle for learners)
  • Images/illustrations are coming
  • I have tons of ideas for higher-level pronunciation topics, but we have to cover the basics first

Thank you for your support of the Chinese Pronunciation Wiki, everybody! There will be more news and an official announcement next week.

I’m in an Abusive Relationship with Shanghai

Sometimes I feel like I’m in an abusive relationship with Shanghai.

Sure, I love Shanghai, but there are times I wonder if we should be together. Like the times in the winter when I walk outside and I can smell the air (it smells kind of like gunpowder). Or this past winter, when I got a cold that lasted for two months (my worst colds usually last about a week), and my whole family got sick repeatedly (still not better yet).

But then the weather gets nice, and the sky turns blue again, and it’s easy to forget those offenses, or at least put them out of my mind. I remember what made me love Shanghai in the first place, and almost start to believe that cities can change. At least I can be happy now… spring is here. Best to just enjoy it while I can.

Pudong on a Nice Day

Being Bilingual Changes Children’s Perception

I recently read a fascinating article called How bilingualism affects children’s beliefs, which details some findings from researchers in developmental psychology at Concordia University in Montreal.

The idea behind the experiment is to see what qualities kids see as innate. Is the language that a person speaks innate, or is it learned? Is the sound that an animal makes innate, or is it learned?


The implications could be quite profound. I quote the final four paragraphs here:

“Both monolinguals and second language learners showed some errors in their thinking, but each group made different kinds of mistakes. Monolinguals were more likely to think that everything is innate, while bilinguals were more likely to think that everything is learned,” says Byers-Heinlein.

“Children’s systematic errors are really interesting to psychologists, because they help us understand the process of development. Our results provide a striking demonstration that everyday experience in one domain — language learning — can alter children’s beliefs about a wide range of domains, reducing children’s essentialist biases.”

The study has important social implications because adults who hold stronger essentialist beliefs are more likely to endorse stereotypes and prejudiced attitudes.

“Our finding that bilingualism reduces essentialist beliefs raises the possibility that early second language education could be used to promote the acceptance of human social and physical diversity,” says Byers-Heinlein.

I’ve often wondered what would happen to racism in the world if every child born was interracial. The next best thing? If every child is multilingual.

I hope more research is done in this field.

The long quest for a fuller explanation of 和 (he)


When I first started learning Chinese in 1998, I learned the word 和 (hé) as a way to express “and.” However, it was an “and” with limitations; it was not to be used to connect sentences or clauses. For example, none of these sentences could be expressed with :

  • Today we’re going to learn how to hold the pen and learn the stroke order for one character.
  • You get a new job, and and I’ll stop living in the treehouse.
  • He ran into the street and got hit by a garbage truck.

So the way I learned was as a way of connecting nouns and noun phrases. Not verbs. Different from English, but not too tough, right?

The only problem was that after moving to China in 2000, from time to time I would encounter examples of what were clearly verbs being linked by . It didn’t happen often, but often enough to bug me. Worst yet, although some Chinese teachers had told me to only use to connect nouns, others told me could be used to connect verbs too. This conflicting advice was frustrating, and in the end I decided to ignore the non-noun uses of because you don’t need to use for verbs; there are other ways to link verbs.

Fast forward to this year.

The Chinese Grammar Wiki has a beginner-level article on that until very recently stated that is used to connect nouns and noun phrases but not verbs. Then someone on Reddit politely called us out on it with a very good counter-example.

Now that I have a team of Chinese teachers at AllSet Learning, I can have one of my lead teachers properly research the issue. She didn’t find much, and did extensive examination of 和 in use in various corpora. Then we also discussed the issue with a group at a recent teacher training session.

The result is that we now have a new page on advanced uses of . It’s still good to start with the basic uses, but more advanced learners can jump into the other messy details.

The bad news is that the issue of when you can and can’t use with verbs is still quite murky. The wiki page needs more examples and more references. (If anyone knows of any research papers or books that touch on this issue, please share! See the Chinese Grammar Wiki page for more details.)

But the good news is that it’s really great to see the Chinese Grammar Wiki expanding in this way, through feedback and the dedication of AllSet Learning’s academic team. It’s not every day you get to see a free resource like this blossom, and it’s even more gratifying to be part of it.

Sad Newspaper Recycling Man

Way back in 2008 or so I used to ride the subway regularly to get to “the factory,” the original ChinesePod office. Every day as I got off the subway and exited the station, I’d see these “newspaper recycling people.” They were typically elderly, and they stood by the subway turnstiles, near the garbage cans, busily collecting the used newspapers of all the passengers that were already finished consuming their daily paper-based commute reading. The “newspaper recycling people” accumulated quite a stack of papers every morning.

I don’t ride the subway as much these days, but I noticed recently that these “newspaper recycling people” are still there, but they’re a lot less busy than before. They collect far fewer newspapers these days. I snapped a photo of one, tucking his meager bounty into his bag:

Sad Newspaper Recycling Man

Who needs a newspaper when you have the (censored) sum of the world’s knowledge and entertainment in the palm of your hand? Hopefully these enterprising older people can find a new way to make a few extra kuai.

“Correction Brother” is Hilarious

Over the CNY holiday a video of a Shandong guy trying to make a phone call with his in-vehicle voice dial went viral, and it is hilarious:

The guy has an accent, so his tones are a little off, but you can definitely make out the number he’s trying to dial with the help of the subtitles.

The part that reads “X死,” while not polite, is actually not obscene; it’s a Shandong slang term “xie 死” which means the same as “打死” (beat someone to death).

Anyway, this guy has been nicknamed 纠正哥, “Correction Brother,” because he keeps trying to “correct” the system’s misunderstanding of his voice commands.

After the video went viral, he was later interviewed by a reporter:

New information learned from this video:

  1. The band-aid on 纠正哥‘s head is because his friend (owner of the number that keeps getting repeated in the first video) cracked him over the head with his phone when he started getting non-stop phone calls after the original video went viral.

  2. The friend gave the number and the phone to 纠正哥, which is why he has it, and you can see it getting non-stop calls at the end of the interview video.

  3. 纠正哥 got mad because the interviewer guessed he was 45 years old, but he’s only 33.

Thanks to John Guise for bringing this video to my attention, and to Yu Cui for alerting me to the follow-up video and providing Shandong insider knowledge!

Linking Breaking Bad to Better Caul Saul through Chinese

Breaking Bad was an awesome drama. Better Call Saul is looking like it’s shaping up to be another great story. But if you’re not already familiar with both series, it’s far from obvious that the two are connected based on their titles alone. Not so with Chinese!

The Chinese titles of the two series are:

Breaking Bad, Better Call Saul: Chinese Names

And in plain text:

  • Breaking Bad 绝命毒师 (Juémìng Dúshī)
  • Better Call Saul 绝命律师 (Juémìng Lǜshī)

The two differ by exactly one character!

绝命 (not a common word at all) according to my dictionary means “to kill oneself” (but here, while not entirely clear, must mean something like “at the end of one’s rope”), and 毒师 (also not at all a common word) would be something like “drug master” (which you could translate as “drug lord,” but “drug lord” is more commonly expressed in Mandarin as 毒枭). The word 毒师 was likely chosen because it’s similar to 老师, and Walter White begins the series as a chemistry teacher. Meanwhile, 律师 is actually a common word meaning “lawyer,” however. It seems to be just a fortuitous coincidence that the new series name can play off the old series name so neatly.

Now, you could definitely argue that neither is a good translation of the original English series title, but both “Breaking Bad” and “Better Caul Saul” would be extremely hard to translate well into Chinese. It does seem that keeping consistency of translation to link the two is a nice little added benefit when you can’t very faithfully translate the original titles anyway.

Chinese New Year Trumps All Holidays

This Wednesday, February 17, is Ash Wednesday, the Catholic holy day that kicks off Lent. In an interesting turn of events, the church in China made this announcement recently:

Please also note that China Dioceses grant a dispensation from Fast & Abstinence on Feb. 18 this year because it is the eve of Chinese New Year. We are encouraged to offer acts of charity and other sacrifices instead on Ash Wednesday.

CNY Trumps Ash Wed

So when a holiday of firecracker-exploding, gut-busting Chinese merriment clashes with a holiday of fasting and quiet reflection, the Chinese holiday is ceded the victory. (Well, on its home turf, anyway.)

I noticed that this past Saturday, Valentine’s Day, there was far fewer promotions, flowers, and chocolates to be seen around Shanghai, compared with last year. I imagine it was because so many people were already preoccupied with trying to get home for the holiday, and most companies didn’t see the point into putting too many resources into selling to an audience that was paying little attention. (Hey, China has a backup Valentine’s Day anyway, so no big deal.)

Chinese New Year trumps all holidays.

Happy Year of the Sheep!

Chinese New Year Wishes by Dialect

Happy Chinese New Year by Android CaiShen

Photo by Yang and Yun on Flickr

China Simplified‘s blog has a great post on variations of Chinese New Year wishes, all in different regional dialects (AKA fangyan): Spring Festival wishes from around China.

The post has embedded audio for 15 different greetings, covering fangyan from places like Henan, Sichuan, Shandong, Guangdong, Guizhou, Tianjin, Zhejiang and other places.

If you’ve every enjoyed Phonemica, you’ll enjoy this (and it will bring a smile to your Chinese friends’ faces as well).

Happy Chinese New Year! (It’s still 6 days away…)

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