In order to become really fluent in a foreign language, it’s more than just a matter of learning vocabulary and grammar and stringing them together flawlessly. Some of the hardest aspects to master in order to sound truly native-like are intonation and accent. Usually there comes a point when, either through lack of effort or through linguistic inability, non-native speakers stop improving (look at Arnold Schwarzenegger). Linguists call this phenomenon fossilization. (The term fossilization is usually applied to grammar, but I think it can be used for the fine points of pronunciation as well.) It’s understandable that learners would eventually halt their progress in this area; there comes a point when the benefits of added native-like fluency just aren’t worth the effort the would require.

I think these questions of accent and intonation enter the mind of any person bent on mastery of a language. Exactly how good do I need to sound? Do I care if I’m always easily identifiable as an American (or just a foreigner) to native speakers? Does my accent affect listeners’ comprehension? Does my accent in their language sound bad to them, or is it charming? If I can reduce my accent with coaching, should I? How much money is that worth to me? And if I did go through coaching, how would I know when to be satisfied?

Although all these questions have occurred to me, I haven’t really answered them all. I work full-time now, and since I use Chinese on the job I’m kind of depending on that improving my fluency, including accent and intonation. I’ll admit I’m a bit of a perfectionist, so I’d like to reduce my accent in Chinese as much as possible, but I’m also kind of lazy, and I’m not yet ready to address the question of how much it’s all worth to me.

Students of Chinese have one big advantage when it comes to accent. Because Chinese speakers’ Mandarin is affected by an underlying extremely diverse linguistic hodgepodge of languages and dialects, the accents of the Chinese themselves vary widely. This works to a foreigner’s advantage because if he can get down the tones and the sounds of Mandarin, his accent can sometimes be mistaken for one of the native Chinese groups’ accents. For a student of Mandarin in Mainland China, the accent progression from jabbering fool to fluent goes something like this:

  1. Foreigner accent (not good)
  2. Xinjiang accent (better than the “foreigner accent” only because it’s “Chinese”)
  3. Hong Kong accent (getting better)
  4. Taiwanese accent (good Chinese, but funny)
  5. Southern China accent (fluent and authentic, but not ideal)
  6. Beijing accent (the Chinese standard)

I’ve had occasion to consider these matters of accent and intonation because it’s been a key issue recently at work as we continue to record the voices for the cartoon series we’re producing. The voice as Asta the pig has been praised by test audiences, cementing my role.

I know that foreigners who have worked for my company in the past have not been allowed to do the cartoon character voices because their Chinese wasn’t good enough; they sounded “like a foreigner.” I’m not vain enough to think that my recordings are indistinguishable from native speakers’, but I really wonder how much slack they’re cutting me. During recordings I have been getting some accent coaching; if my reading sounds strange to them I have to redo it as many times as is necessary to satisfy them. That may sound really aggravating (and it can be), but at the same time, this is free accent coaching I’m getting on the job! So I can’t complain.

There’s definitely a pattern. Whenever lines become very long and grammatically complicated, or involve a phrase or grammatical structure I’m not familiar with, I almost always need several takes. Short lines with easy content I can just breeze through, sometimes getting laughs from my audience with my impassioned pig voice.

Damn, my job is pretty cool. (Doesn’t anybody out there want it too??)


John Pasden

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


  1. The job sounds awesome. Unfortunately, like many probably, I lack the required confidence in my Chinese skills.

    Your website rocks, man. I’ve been in China for about a year and a half now and am trying to start a blog… inspired by you and your many fellow bloggers, my humble beginnings are at METANOIAC!

  2. I’d put Taiwanese accent ahead of Southern China accent, just because of the fact that in Taiwan, Mandarin is the native language of a good many people, at least the majority of ÍâÊ¡ÈË, whereas in Southern China, Mandarin is primarily a second, though quite familiar language.

  3. What a career goal: come to China and be a pig!

  4. Prince Roy,

    Which Southern accent are you talking about? If you mean Guangdong, I’d lump it with Hong Kong. If you mean the Zhejiang/Shanghai area, I think you’ve got it wrong. Mandarin is unquestionably a native language for them; it’s a first language by definition. They are fully bilingual. It’s just not the same Mandarin as Beijing’s.

    I put the southern Chinese accent ahead of the Taiwanese accent because the Southern Chinese accent is at least fluent mainland Mandarin, so sounds less foreign than Taiwanese Mandarin.

  5. Kikko Man Says: August 6, 2004 at 10:57 pm

    Mandarin… as you may know, means manchuren which means the “standard” Beijing accent is from the manchus which were not technicaly a “Chinese” people. Mandarin only became the “queens English” of China after the reformers of the first part of the 20th century decided on it. Even during the Qing dynasty, court officials, Mandarins, often didn’t even speak it. Mandarin and Putonghua are new and even though achieving their “perfect” accent might be a great accomplishment, especially for a foreigner, it does not really mean achieving Chinese language accent perfection. Many Chinese argue that a non-accented Chinese, not beijinghua or shanghaihua or nanfanghua, is what real Chinese should be. Also, classicaly, southern Chinese might be closer to the real Chinese of the past since Cantonese, the people and the language, are displaced from the invasions of the Tang dynsaty and hence they are called tangren. A town in Guangxi, called Yulin is considered by Chinese linguists to be one of the purist forms of classic Chinese left.

  6. You have it all bass ackwards Kikkoman. Mandarin, the english term, derives from the original Chinese term 满大人 . This was the speech used by Qing bureaucrats and officials (满大人). However, Mandarin is not the language of the nominally tungustic speaking Jurchens. The Manchu Language itself began to atrophy after the Qing empire was established. Qing bureaucrats most certainly did use Mandarin, however, the use of Manchu(an important distinction you failed to realize is that the two are different languages) eventually fell out of favour. Mandarin itself is not a “new” language as you erroneously imply, evidence of its use can be traced to the latter Yuan period. However, it was only after the Republican Revolution was Beijing vincinity Mandarin standardized as the official national language.

  7. Yes, calling the Chinese language Mandarin dated way before Qing Dynasty and had to do with neither the Manchu rulers nor their language. The word mandarin has the meaning of imperical officials or bureaucrats and relates to the Greek word mantra. When Capitalized it refers to the Chinese official language and could have been a translation to the phrase Guan Hua.

  8. Oops, I meant imperial officials.

    John I suggest that you go all the way with that Mandarin accent and then also do the same with Cantonese, and Shanghainese, and then the Taiwan accent. You’d be on your way to greatness.

    Do you not know that Taiwan accent (faked) is the number one in mainland China now? So much so that the government had to issue an official directive banning TV anchors from using it.

  9. i thought “mandarin” comes from the portuguese/spanish “mandar” – to command. the word mandarin would have then entered into common speech through pidgin english in the 19th century, before the Opium War and the opening of China beyond Canton.

    Then again, I could be wrong.

    (my source would be “God’s Chinese Son” a historical look at the Taipang).

  10. I don’t think that list makes much sense as a ‘progression.’ If you’re a student who lives in the north, you’re going to go from foreigner straight to Beijing/northern accent.

    I’ve heard about the Taiwanese accent being all the rage in the mainland. Is it just dropping the ‘zh’ for ‘z’ and the ‘sh for ‘s’? Or do they use Taiwanese colloquialisms like 我跟你講 and 機車?

    Also, since I’ve never lived in a 外省人-heavy area, I rarely hear what is considered a proper Taiwanese accent.

  11. John, could you do a post on stereotypes about Chinese from different provinces?

  12. Habib, you maybe right. The dictionary does say that the term Mandarin is derived from the Portugese term Mandarim (I’m assuming mandar was adapted from Mandarim) which in turn was adopted from a Malay term. However, it is equally possible that the Malay term is originally from the Chinese, Man Da Ren.

    Also to add to this word origin discussion, correct me if anyone knows that I’m wrong here, but the word mandarin (the orange) is also derived from the original Man Da Ren. Due to the colour of mandarin oranges being similar to that of the redish orange embroidery and brocade on the robes of Qing bureaucrats.

  13. I believe that the accent that is closest to Mandarin is the Harbin (哈尔滨) accent.

  14. Da Xiangchang Says: August 7, 2004 at 11:47 pm

    Personally, I think if your accent is halfway decent and your grammar perfect, you don’t really have to worry about having a “native” accent. But then again, I’m not for linguistic perfection either. 😉 I mean, Schwarzenegger talks like a retard half the time, but he took that stupid accent of his and made himself the biggest movie star in the world and then the governor of California. Even native-born people sometimes mangle grammar. George Bush is an hilariously imperfect speaker, with his “they misunderestimated me” or “is our children learning”. Of course, all these examples are from English, but I’d think it’s probably the same with Mandarin. That is, to paraphrase every whore since Babylon, it’s not what you have, it’s how you use it!

  15. Kikko Man Says: August 8, 2004 at 11:03 am

    Oh well… that got shot to helll. guess I should stick to the cooking.

  16. Wayne,

    Yeah, you’re right; my list has a southern bias. Leave out #5 if you live in the north. I think you might also be less influenced by Taiwanese speech patterns if you live in the north.

    I don’t think the s/sh z/zh thing is the main feature of the Taiwanese accent, because other southerners often do the same thing, but they don’t sound at all Taiwanese. I think it’s more defined by adding certain sentence final particles (哦, 咯), using 好 as intensifier instead of 很, that kind of thing. I’ve also noticed certain tone changes in the Taiwanese accent (e.g. fàguó for 法国, and something like guǐ for 贵). But I think mostly it’s just an overall intonation pattern that’s hard to define.

    I’m no expert, but that’s what I’ve gathered.

  17. Micah,

    Sorry, I don’t think I’d be qualified to write such a list.

    It also sounds like the kind of thing that would be nitpicked to pieces by readers, which would not be very enjoyable fruits of the labor…

  18. Just a couple of observatins. In the 1960s Japanese dialects were much more apparent than they are today. During that time, a Fukuoka accent was pronounced and significantly different from the national accent. My wife and I visited Fukuoka recently and did not hear any Hakata language at all, just the national accent. The spread of a national accent is especially advanced by the technology of cinema, radio, and television. Even in the US, which does not have a designated offical national accent, is significantly affected by the unofficial mid-Western accent sponsered by the national TV syndicates. In countries where there is a government sponsered official accent, the technology helps promote and establish that accent nation-wide very quickly, whithin one or two generations even.

    If what you call Southern China is Sunan, Shangai, and Zhejiang, I would think that designating it as Eastern China would be a better choice, leaving Southern China to Fujian and Guangdong.

    I once read in a book, the title and author I now forget, where the author was studying in China Chinese, this would be in the 1980’s. He was told by several of his Chinese buddies that his Chinese sounded as if he were Shangdongese. He took that as a compliment that his accent was inproving until he discovered, at least at that time, that Shangdong people had the worst accent of any Chinese.

  19. John, have you contacted any American univerities with a Chinese language program? (At least UF) They might have some graduates that would be interested in working your kind of job.

  20. Is Beijing really considered the best accent?

    The retroflex everything! it seems like they talk with marbles in their mouths. Beijinghua is definitly not ideal mandarin.

  21. John, some of the Taiwanese accent actually comes from GuoMing Dang (pre-1949) era. I know this because my grandma, who’s college-educated before 1949, also calls Fa4guo2 instead of fa3guo2, exactly like the Taiwanese. It’s so funny they’ve kept it for so long but we changed it completely. Some of the new tranlated terms are even more interesting. They like to translate the original meaning literally, while we, the mainland, tends to be more creative. For example, space shuttle is 太空梭in Taiwan, but 宇宙飞船in the mainland. Hongkong is the worst, they just take the sound and make a new, meaningless word. Like 的士 for taxi,波for ball. It’s terrible.

  22. I was out to buy mineral water the other night and asked for “yi ping kuangquan shui”. The girl at the corner store drew a blank, but finally made the connection, “Ahhh, yi piar kuangquan shuiirrr”.

    I’d never before heard anyone add the er-hua sound to the word water.

  23. There’s nothing weirder than a westerner who speaks with a heavy Beijing accent – Dashan style. I don’t have a great deal of Chinese vocab but the well used bits I do speak are all in a fluent foreigner accent that my wife describes as “characterful”.

    And as any Chinese will tell you, the only thing worse than a foreigner spekaing Chinese is a Cantonese murdering the language. They should be banned from even trying to speak putonghua.

  24. xiao long Says: August 11, 2004 at 11:31 pm

    The comment about about the foreigner’s accent sounding “Shandongese” was from Alive in the bitter sea by Fox Butterfield. I love that book, mostly because in it, he’s so modest about his Chinese abilities. He studied Chinese for 15 years before he wrote the book, got a PhD in Chinese, etc, yet he’s always downplaying his abilities and poking fun at his linguistic problems. I really tao yan those authors (Peter Hessler, etc.) who spend half of their time writing about how smart they are and how good their Chinese is instead of writing about China.

    Butterfield’s point was that he was overjoyed that party officials thought he was a Shandongren when they answered the phone, because even though they thought his Mandarin was crappy, at least it wasn’t patently obvious he was a foreigner.

    I have some American friends in China who spent all of their time perfecting their accents and very little time expanding their vocabulary and actually using the Chinese that they know. Chinese people seem to view good pronunciation as “good Chinese,” so, eager to be praised, my friends focused on pronunciation alone and got nowhere. Don’t fall into this trap! I think when Americans hear ESL speakers, they focus more on the speaker’s vocabulary, grammar and mode of expression far more than the accent when evaluating whether or not the person speaks “good English” In China, the reverse seems to be true.

    zong er yan zhi, IMHO, pronunciation IS very important, especially in Chinese, but being able to use what you know is far more important.

  25. This post is getting pretty old and I do not know if anyone is reading it anymore, but Xiao Long’s comments are very apt. But the combination of good accent and diction and having a good vocabulary and knowing how to communicate well using decent grammar is a powerful combination. One time a secretary told me that she had went do a certain venue to do charitable work, that is she helped set up a display or something of that nature. When she arrived there the guy in charge was doing something behind some racks of books and she could not see him, so she said she was there and asked for some directions, he responded. After a while he came from behind the racks and she saw he was not Chinese at all, but an American. From her first encounter, not seeing him, she thought he was Chinese. Although she was surprised by his ability, she decided to put him to the test and she spitted out in extremely rapid cadence chinese, he responded. She was impressed. Another occasion, I was watching TV, we had NHK on (the Japanese channel, this is in the US). My wife was in the back doing laundry or something, but listening. She came into the room and let out a “Ohhh!” I asked what is wrong. She responded that the speaker is a foreigner, not Japanese at all, but without seeing him she assumed he was Japanese from his speaking. How accurrate our pronunciation is should be an individual goal. My own thoughts, though, since I do not think I have the ability to achieve native perfection, is to get to the point where I can say something and the other party will be able to understand me the first time, so that I do not have to continually repeat myself. I am always unbelievably happy when I say something (usefull, I hope) and the other party responds in such a fashion that it appears they understood me clearyly.

  26. Catching up on my blog reading from the States.

    I think one of the reasons people often mistake foreigners for Chinese, accent-wise, is that most Chinese people also have fairly heavy accents in Mandarin, and that there’s any number of tone changes, vowel changes, and straight-up mispronunciations committed by even native speakers. The tricky part is when you try to model your accent to a specific one; I’ve been told by people in Harbin that I’d acquired a Beijing accent, but I’d have no chance at all of fooling any actual Beijingren.


  27. Mark Houston Says: December 6, 2004 at 12:05 am

    I have been writing a book for the past 4 years taking a historical and anthropological view of all things Chinese, especially traditional Chinese medicine, which I have practised for 24 years. Living in Hong Kong for the past 40 years I have spent decades studying the Chinese people themselves and how they are do different in stature, facial morphology and language. May I offer everyone some comments:

    1. The word Chinese is not derived from Chin Shi Huang, but from the Turk/Persian word for porcelain, which is Cinni. As the Arabs/ Persians and Turks acted as the middle man traders along the silk road for the people of the middle kingdom during the Mongol Empire, the European traders used the Arab/Persian/Turk word for porcelain to describe where their dinner plates and tea cups were coming from. The word Chinese, therefore, means: the people who make porcelain. This association of the Chinese people with their industrial products is no different to that of the period of the Roman Empire, when the Chinese were know as the Seres, which means the people who make silk, where (si) is silk. You will find the Seres territory identified on old Roman and Persian maps, many of which are available of the web.

    With regard to the origins of the word Mandarin. The people who would become the Manchu were known as the Nuchen Tartars of north east China. The capital of the Nuchen Empire was Makden, present day Shenyang. The Nuchen people did not have a written language and as such in 1599 the king arranged for a Tibetan Lama to create a written language, which was taken from syriac/turk script similar to Mongolian. During the Ching Empire, all government documents were printed in both Chinese and Mandarin (Manchu Script)

    When the Manchu people came to power in China, and in particular Peking, Man Da Ren become the official language. Even though 75% of the Chinese people lived in north China, the population of Beijing was very small, logically since Beijing was so close to the Great Wall, which is so close to the enemy.

    The only people believed to speak Manchu dialect in China today are the Sibe, Xibo or Sibo people (about 28,000). Sibe, which represents the name of the dominant tribe of the Nuchen people is still spoken today in some parts of Manchuria and Xinjiang, although after 100 years there has been some evolution and as such change to the oral and written use of the language.

    Personally, I believe that Mandarin is the language of the Manchu/Ching Empire Court, and that it was the common Chinese people who aspired to speak the language of the Emperor, not the Emperor to speak the language of the common people. It is more than likely, therefore, that Beijing Hua slowly grew out of a vogue period early during the Ching Empire when the middle class worked to find favour with high officials.

    Man Da Ren, may not be the term used by the Ching Court to describe the official government language, but the term used by the common people to describe the language of the foreign Manchu government official, who they were forced to deal with.

  28. interesting experience and those are some great questions you asked for foreign people who are tring to learn chinese!

  29. Mandarin chinese has a contagious accent.
    It’s hard to break once aquired.

  30. Ironically, the word ‘mandarin’ is derived from the Portuguese mandar which means to command and which in turn is derived from the Sanskrit and not Greek word that is ‘mantra’ meaning of higher-order- invoking sounds or colloquially ‘ to rule or command’ . Similarly, in Tamil ( another major Indian language in India’s IT south) ‘mandar’ means foreman and in Malay in Malaysia and Indonesia ‘mentri’ or minister is also cognate within this root.

  31. another thing on the taiwanese accent is they don’t use neutral tones. i haven’t graduated yet (chinese major), but i’ll actually be going to taiwan in late december for a few weeks, so i’ll post some more on it when i get back. my professors are mostly northerners so i’ve been trying hard to get rid of those damn “r”s and whatnot, i just think based on tv/movies and such, taiwanese just sounds better. to quote a taiwanese classmate, after brieflly talking about mao, the “r”, and peking opera, “dude, i don’t think anything good EVER came out of beijing…”

  32. “to quote a taiwanese classmate, after brieflly talking about mao, the “r”, and peking opera, “dude, i don’t think anything good EVER came out of beijing…”

    sorry, but this strikes me as unusually silly. In the first place, regardless of your feelings about Mao, he didn’t come ‘out of Beijing’. And yeah, Beijing, what a dump, nothing ever goes on there: dumplings, thriving indie scene for music, art, film, literature, who needs ’em? I don’t know, have you spent any significant amount of time in either Beijing or Taiwan? Both places are pretty superb in my book.

  33. John,

    Is it true that people who speak Beijing-accented mandarin tend to sometimes replace the ‘w’ sound with a ‘v’ sound? I’ve read that in a forum somewhere, and am wondering if you know anything more about it – Thanks!

  34. Spencer,

    I have very little firsthand experience with that trend, but yes, it is true. I’m pretty sure it’s more of a female thing. We actually talked about it in several of my linguistics classes in grad school.

  35. I was born and brought up in Beijing, I’d always thought that I’ve no accent, just standard mandarin with a bit of “r”s here and there. I only realised it a couple of months ago..that one thing I can’t avoid is that I do tend to replace a lot of “w”s with “v”s …such as in “wan an”…I always say “van an”, I’m really surprised that there are foreigners who notice it because none of my Beijing friends is aware of it.

    By the way, when it comes to Beijing accent, you guys always think Beijing tuhua = Beijing hua = Beijing accent. I definitely don’t consider Beijingtuhua attractive at all, I think it is one of the worst Chinese accents and is only spoken by the working-class or poorly educated people in Beijing.
    The better-educated Beijing people though, I think they speak the most perfect mandarin and it should be considered the real beijing hua, it is just standard mandarin with a little “r”s every now and then, people from outside of Beijing usually can’t tell where these people are from when they speak.

  36. If anyone who wants to improve their Chinese accents, just simply follow the actual pronunciation guidelines. It’s a bad idea to copy or mimic commoners accent because the chances are, they are not perfect. As a matter of fact, non of the southern and northern accents are close to the standard. Although, I would say Taiwanese mandarin accent ranks first in my book because they actually do follow the pronunciation guidelines and they are very pleasant to listen to for both the locals and foreigners.

    I watch a lot of T.V shows in Chinese leisurely and also to improve my Chinese and I have noticed that Chinese from mainland pronounced a lot of the grouped words intonation incorrectly and this is not the case for Taiwanese people.

    Anyway, my comment about different Chinese accents:

    Beijing accent – worst of all accents, they sound like out of tuned working class peasants with things stuck in their mouth trying to sing. DEFINITELY NOT STANDARD CHINESE!

    Northern accent – they just sound weird although I have also noticed there are different Northern accents and some can be pleasant to listen to and some are quiet close to the standard.

    Southern accent – fairly pleasant to listen and very close to the standard. However I find people with Shanghainese and Hong Kong mandarin accent a bit annoying for some reason and it’s definitely close to the standard.

    Taiwan accent – my favorite …….

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