Hacking Chinese

A better way of learning Mandarin

Understanding regionally accented Mandarin

Chinese Dialects (source: wikipedia)

Many people who don’t study Chinese think of the language as being as homogeneous as English (after all, American and British English are very similar). Why would dialects in Chinese be any different?

Well, the first problem is the word dialect. If we’re comparing Mandarin and Cantonese, these are dialects in the sense that they belong to the same language family as is the case for German and Swedish, rather than in the sense that Cockney is a dialect of English.

The word for dialect in Chinese is 方言, and the dialect typically influences the way people speak Mandarin. This is usually called regional accents, so we have people from Taiwan, Shanghai, Hong Kong and so on, all with their different ways of speaking Mandarin. This accented Mandarin should not be confused with Taiwanese, Shanghai dialect or Cantonese, though.

Very few people speak perfectly standard Mandarin, just as very few people in Britain speak perfect RP at home. Thus, when we speak with Chinese people, we have to be able to understand what people say to us, regardless of where they come from.

At first, this looks like a daunting task, because even slight differences in sounds might make you unable to understand anything of what’s being said. Anyone who has arrived in a new place with a new accent will surely know what I’m talking about.

I remember a few confused situations, all taking place during my first year in Taiwan, but the examples I bring up here are mostly relevant for the southern part of Mainland China as well. Do you have any examples of your own? Please leave a comment!

Tea, happiness and familial bliss?

I was out walking late at night and wanted to have some green milk tea. None of the stands selling tea were open, so I headed over to a convenience store (ubiquitous in Taiwan). I placed the tea on the counter and handed over the money and was about to turn around and leave when the clerk suddenly asked:

yào jiā lè ma?

My brain couldn’t parse this. I shook my head in confusion. The guy looked at me compassionately and said it again, more slowly this time. He could probably see the vocabulary lists scrolling in my brain. Do you want to add happiness? Do you want a happy home? No, sorry, I don’t understand. Then, eureka! He was asking:

yào jiā rè ma? (要加热吗/要加熱嗎)

I.e. if I wanted him to heat the tea for me! He just pronounced /r/ as /l/. Beginner mistake, I should have figured this one out, but I didn’t.

There is no něng, or is there?

The next example left me even more perplexed. I was waiting for the bus with a friend and she asked me:

nǐ bú huì něng ma?

This particular friend usually speaks very good Chinese (or at least, I’ve heard other people say so), so I didn’t expect anything fishy. But still, I was pretty sure that there is no neng3 syllable in Mandarin, or if there is, I definitely didn’t know about it. She repeated the question several times, but it was only when she hugged herself as if freezing that I realised that she was asking me if I was feeling cold or not:

nǐ bú huì lěng ma? (你不会冷吗/你不會冷嗎)

This time, /l/ had turned into /n/. Check Albert’s blog for another prime example of l/n confusion.

How’s your humu?

The last example comes from a radio program. I’ve forgotten what it was about now, but there was a guy talking for about 20 minutes about his “hùmǔ”. I had no idea what a “hùmǔ” was, but I thought that I would find out if I just listened carefully enough. After a while, I figured out that it had to be family related. Then, suddenly I realised that he had been talking about his parents all the time, he just pronounced 父母 as “hùmǔ”, switch f/h.

Learning to understand regionally accented Mandarin

So, where do these examples leave us? It’s obvious that we have to make considerably adjustments to our mental maps of the Chinese language when we start to speak with people who aren’t teachers or news broadcasters. As usual, this is first and foremost a question of attitude. This is my opinion in a nutshell:

If you don’t understand what someone is saying to you, it’s your fault

This sounds simple enough, but I’ve heard so many people rage and rant about how people from such and such a place can’t pronounce certain sounds or speak Mandarin which is completely unintelligible. This might indeed be true, but that’s that’s not the problem. Will the phenomenon go away if enough foreigners complain online? No, of course it won’t. So deal with it. This is the way the world works and it’s up to you to handle it. Fuming about it won’t help.

Instead, start liking regionally accented Mandarin. Make a conscious effort to think “charming” and “interesting” instead of “weird” and “stupid”. A shift in attitude can do wonders. Sure, it might be more easily said than done, but it’s definitely possible. Perhaps you won’t end up loving how people from Chongqing, but it will help you understand.

Some practical advice

In short, there are a few things we can do:

  1. Diversify your listening practice
  2. Experience the accents and learn from that
    1.1  Travel around China to immerse yourself in certain accents
    1.2  Watch TV programs/shows with normal people in them
    1.3  Talk to new people/strangers
  3. Read about the characteristics of these accents
  4. Mimic dialects in order to understand them better

Of course, these aren’t mutually exclusive, so I would suggest talking with lots of people and looking up their various dialects.

It’s mostly about getting used to it

As is the case with listening ability in general, learning to understand regionally accented Mandarin is mostly about getting used to it. After you’ve heard people who switch sound A for sound B talk for a while, you’ll get used to it. Of course, there are many, many A and B, so you need lots of practise, but the principle remains the same. The important thing to understand, though, is that regionally accented Mandarin isn’t that hard to understand once you learn some systematic changes. It might sound like a different language, but provided that your listening ability is okay in general, once you break the code, comprehension will increase very quickly.

Over the years, I’ve gone from thinking that regionally accented Mandarin is dangerous, bad and incomprehensible to thinking that it’s quite charming, good and not that hard once I actually try to learn. I think this journey could have been completed much, much faster if the thoughts in this article would have been available to me when I first arrived in Taiwan.

Addendum: I’m mostly talking about pronunciation here, but it should be noted that there are also differences in vocabulary and grammar. However, a vast majority of the language remains the same, so in my opinion, pronunciation is a much bigger problem than vocabulary and/or grammar.

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  1. Olle Linge says:

    These 12 comments were retrieved manually after a server crash:

    Harland: How about adding “tolerate that horrible Beijing accent” to the list? It can be quite jarring to hear it, especially when you live in “the real China”. 儿 is for talking about kids and that’s all.

    February 19th, 2012 at 11:09

    Sara Jaaksola: Excellent post! Most of your examples sound familiar to me because I live in Guangzhou. I remember when a clothing shop assistant said “you yen” when she meant “you ren” (there’s someone in the fitting room already). I also used to have a teacher who couldn’t tell the difference between n and l. And in the beginning I couldn’t say if my boyfriend (his native language is a sub-dialect of Cantonese) was saying “e” (hungry) or “re” (hot).I think after two years I’m quite used to the way people speak here in Guangzhou. What really puts me of when I meet a person with a strong erhua, adding “r” after almost every word. I had a teacher like this before and it was really hard to understand him.

    There also one difficulty here in the south. Sometimes it’s really hard to say if it’s 4 yuan (si) or 10 yuan (shi), also number 7 might be tricky to recognize. Some Cantonese people tend to pronounce all different S-sounds in the same way, it’s all si si si.

    February 19th, 2012 at 14:15

    WPH: I am from Taipei now live in Sweden. I do recognize the difference between N. and S. Taiwan Mixing up “N” and “L” are indeed very common. Many people also mix up ㄕ v.s. ㄙ and ㄔv.s. ㄘ. The Taiwanese – dialect does not seem to have many words with retroflex initials ( 捲舌音 ㄓZH ㄔCH ㄕSH ㄖ), but more dental sibilant initials (ㄗZ ㄘC ㄙS). Therefore, when the Taiwanese-dialect speakers speak Mandarin, such Taiwanese accent 台灣國語 is very noticeable. Sometimes I wonder if 台灣國語 is actual a ‘natural’ way for language development. I have observed my daughter and wonder about this for a long time. We live in Sweden so I am the only one teaching my kids Chinese here. I have taught my daughter the formal way of pronouncing words since she’s a baby. But still, between 1~3yo, her pronunciation sounded 台灣國語. She just didn’t say ㄓㄔㄕㄖ. When she is older, she’s better with 捲舌音.As a Swedish-language learner, I thought there are also regional differences among Skåne, Stockholm, Gotland, Småland… I thought words starting with “SK” and words ending with “R” are most noticeable. But so far, I don’t think the regional difference confuses most Swedish-language learner. I wonder why is that. Perhaps the teachers have explained in the classroom? Perhaps the words do not alternate the meaning because of the pronunciation?

    The comment from Harland about Beijing accent is also interesting. When I lived in USA and had friends from various part of China, this Beijing access with “儿” was also commented by many other Chinese friends (ex-Beijing). “No we don’t say “儿” like that”. The Chinese language used in Malaysia, Singapore, Vietnam also have many influences by it’s local languages, Fukianese and Kantonses, and thus have special accent.

    I have no intention to promote which way (TW or CN, Beijeing or Taipei) is the best to learn Chinese. It’s learners’ own choice. But it is very interesting for me to meet Chinese native speakers from various background and open up my knowledge. Now I found your blog. It is even more interesting to re-learn my own language, from foreigner’s view, in a structural and more analytical way.

    BTW, There is a website that has a collection of phrasis used in TW and CN. Hope you find it interesting too. http://chinese-linguipedia.org/clk/diff/list.do

    February 19th, 2012 at 23:14

    Niki: This is truly interesting post for me, a Mandarin native speaker. Sometimes I cannot understand Mandarin with accent either. In my family, we use Hakka and Mandarin simultaneously. I found that sometimes my Mandarin is mixed up with my Hakka accent which makes my Mandarin out of the right tune.

    February 20th, 2012 at 12:20

    Harland: Oh, and just today I saw one of the guanjia’s at work doing some typing test program. She was using Pinyin for some strange reason, maybe she’s not very good with computers. I watched as she tried to type 客户 as “ke fu” and she never got the right character. I had to correct her.Chinese really does suck as a language…as I get more fluent I realize native speakers have tons of problems.

    February 20th, 2012 at 13:21

    maozhou: @Harland
    Where is the ‘real china’? I think most Mainlanders would be annoyed at such a patronizing comment from a ‘laowai’. Like it or not so called Standard Chinese is based on the Beijing Dialect. Its not a matter of tolerating it, it is a fact of life.

    February 21st, 2012 at 04:48

    vermillon: I think I’m quite accent-biased, but I don’t think it’s an arbitrary bias. The degree of standard-ness of a speaker is strongly correlated with their level of education and socio-economical situation, anywhere in any country. Then it’s up to the learner to decide what kind of person they want to communicate with or listen to, obviously, and if they want to communicate perfectly with shopkeepers, then I’d say “go for it”.To nuance what I’ve just said, I think we should not confuse it with a China/Taiwan problem, which would be like saying which of British or American English is standard. Each of them has its “general accent” and that’s indeed something you need to adapt, but these are broad changes that one can easily adapt to.

    Finally, the fact that Niki says he can’t understand some other people shows, imho, that it’s not “our fault” if we don’t understand. That’d be the same if I claimed that it’s not my fault if Chinese people can’t understand my speech just because I have my own accent and way of pronouncing things in a non-standard way (I’m particularly thinking of “blurring tones altogether” compared to “blur z/zh, c/ch etc”).

    February 22nd, 2012 at 11:15

    Olle Linge: Hi everybody and thanks for sharing your thoughts, it’s always interesting to see how other people think. I don’t have much to add, but I want to highlight to things:

    1) The website WPH shared is really useful for anyone interested in weeding out differences between usage in Taiwan and on the Mainland

    2) I want to point out that I said “it’s your fault” because this attitude is helpful when learning, not because it’s necessarily true (if taken to extremes, you could argue that it’s your fault that you can’t speak all the languages on earth, which is obviously daft), the point is that if you blame others, your shifting focus to something over which you have no power whatsoever

    February 22nd, 2012 at 13:40

    vermillon: Agree on that last point, though of course, it can also be healthy to know when to say “it’s not my fault”, to focus more on something else. Learning is supposed to be “fun” they say, and guilt is usually not very fun.You can see learning (to recognize, or even speak!) different accents, and that can be fun if that’s the person’s interest. Personally it’s clearly not one of mine, so I prefer to consider it’s not my fault and focus on other things I’m more interested it. “zen”

    February 24th, 2012 at 13:01

    @vermillon One thing I do is to try to remember my three children and what it was like when they began to speak. They didn’t worry about being correct or grammatical. They wanted to get the idea across and if they said something really wrong or embarrassing they thought it was funny and just laughed.So I try NOT to worry so much and just copy the accents and structures that I hear. The Chinese are infinitely patient with foreigners if they are sincerely trying and will gently point you in the right direction. I take every opportunity to chat with strangers and people on the street.

    I have honestly never had a bad experience and have learned much of the local dialect. Not just Putonghua but Beijing Hua and a lot of great “lao Beijing” slang. The grimmest most unfriendly people break in to a grin and begin to chatter away if I greet them like a ‘lao Beijinger”. It comes in handy when you are trying to get a taxi driver to drive you to Shunyi at 4:30pm on a Friday!

    I have also through this approach met some very interesting and prominent people who by their accent and dress would not appear at all highly educated or connected. I’ve learned not to judge a book by its cover or accent.

    February 26th, 2012 at 07:08

    maozhou: @Sara Jaaksola How true! I’ve also noticed that from my Sichuan friends who in addition pronounce my mingzi Zhou as more like dzhou! One of my favorite sports is to go to the silk market or yashow in Beijing and chat with the sales people and try to guess their home province.

    February 26th, 2012 at 07:12

    Selly: When I started lessons with my current Chinese teacher in late August of last year, I was shocked to find out that I couldn’t understand her at all. Up until then I’d been living a very sheltered live in terms of wonders of regional dialects Mandarin has to offer. My first teacher was from Northern China but she lived in Beijing for a long time and speaks perfect standard Mandarin with the pronunciation just as it should be or so she kept reminding me whenever I messed up my pronunciation which happened (still does) at least 12 times a lesson. My teacher shared some funny stories with regards to different regional dialects but I mostly laughed them off, thinking I wouldn’t have to deal with them for a good while. But then, like I said, I changed teachers and during our first lesson I spent about three hours panicking over the fact that I had a teacher, from the very south of China, whom I couldn’t understand. I think she sensed it for she spoke really really slowly and accentuated every word. Nada, still didn’t get her. We got there eventually and now we have our own little inside jokes which are mostly related to my standard mandarin going downhill to a lovely lazy Taiwanese accent and I actually find it quite difficult to speak standard Mandarin now. I have been thoroughly southernised. The funny thing is that since most of my friends are from Southern China they are worried that I don’t understand Northern Chinese when we go to a restaurant, etc. it is a whole load of fun to surprise them by chatting away to the waiter while they are idly wondering why on earth I understand the accent. Dialects are wonderful things really, they make for amazing misunderstandings sometimes and are the cause of much laughter, at least among me and my friends.

    February 27th, 2012 at 20:16

  2. stoney says:

    This article is excellent. I encounter people from many different regions and I have been trying to understand differences in pronunciation. This is a difficult subject to discuss for several reasons. I have not studied Chinese language for a long time. Some speakers do not have as much exposure to Chinese speakers from different regions. Different regions use different terms to communicate about parts of language. I will try and spend some time on the web site http://chinese-linguipedia.org that WPH shared

  3. Cher says:

    Thanks a lot for this article! I appreciated the examples, and I’m looking forward to hearing more of the variations when I live in Taiwan this year.

  4. John L says:

    I too can’t stand Beijing and Northern accents in China, they do way too much tongue rolling and add ‘er’ on the end of everything. The best sounding accents are Fujian, Taiwan, and I guess newscaster Mandarin, they flow smoothly and aren’t harsh.

  5. BRYAN says:

    If you think about how an accent of a language becomes the prestige accent and regarded as standard, they are often an accent not from the capital. For example, the General American accent (or sometimes called NPR accent) for US, which is from the Mid-West, rather than the accent from Hollywood or New York. RP for British English, a southern accent spoken by the educated, and not an accent from London. In French, the accent of the Tours area, which is considered the best, the most beautiful. Also accent from the the Toulouse area is considered the most sexy.

    I think it’d be more healthy to think of Mandarin like how the Spanish is spoken in Spain. While the locals speaks Basque, Catalan, Galician, or Occitan, while everyone speaks and understands Spanish. Don’t most Taiwanese people speak both Mandarin and Hokkein / Hakka and switching them back and forth ?

    I can’t say which accent is the best. But one certainly hears mandarin spoken more often (well, to be honest, yelled out by Chinese tourists) all over the world. I always think a language is part of the country’s culture. I once talked to a young student from China and he was telling me how nice China has become. I had to stop him — a country whose pollution’s level is literally off the chart. A country whose citizens often have to go outside the country to buy baby’s formula because they don’t trust its food supply. I can go on… What’s there to learn and to admire ?

    1. Slea says:

      You started talking about accents and then went on spreading hatred. No one needs you to continue your rant about everything bad in China. As if your country was so perfect.

  6. Adam Stout says:

    A resource I’ve found to help with understanding regional dialects is “A Bite of China” (舌尖上的中国). It’s a beautifully produced series on foods which covers all regions of China. You can find it on YouTube.

  7. Peter says:

    I think that map is not very accurate or correct. Because I live in Chongqing and the dialect that is being spoken in Chongqing as well as in Sichuan is nowhere near mandarin or like standard mandarin. I would class the sichuan/chongqing dialect as its own dialect and not mandarin because even Chinese people visiting this city has real troubles to understand the locals. Old people here can’t even speak mandarin, even some young people has huge troubles to speak standard putonghua.

  8. Nick says:

    I work as a medical interpreter in the US. Passing all the tests in order to become a certified interpreter takes time but it can be done. Learning all the medical vocab also takes time but can be done. The most difficult part of interpreting (besides all the non-Chinese related communication stuff) is the regional accents. Even the nationally certified native Chinese speaking interpreters have lots of trouble understanding people when they speak a dialect or with a heavy accent. The only way to combat this in my experience is to listen a lot to these dialects and accents. Hujian = Fujian, li = ni, etc.

    1. Olle Linge says:

      Indeed! I think we can perhaps find some solace in the fact that native speakers also have problems with this, as you say. That doesn’t make the situation less problematic, but at least it’s not your fault. 🙂

  9. Larry Lynch says:

    Great article Olle! My Wu-accented Mandarin examples are “sh” converted to “s” (Sanghai for Shanghai, “say” for shéi 谁) and “zh” to “z” (Hangzou for Hangzhou). The most unusual things I’’ve heard on Chinese language CDs (and even in Pleco) are “Ying-yong” for Yīngyǔ, chee-yung for qǐng 请), and “vey” for “wei” (w to v transition) as in 为什么 – these are apparently northern variations.

  10. Scott Young says:

    Great piece.

    You should do one with common variations on Mandarin for different regions. I think it’s often surprising for a beginner that f/h n/l sh/s get replaced, but it would be interesting to know which changes correspond to which regions!

  11. Nathan says:

    Here in southern Jiangsu I often meet people from northern Jiangsu who don’t distinguish (even switch) sh/s. So when my tones early on weren’t so good someone saying shi4 was actually saying 四, but I heard it as 十 (and vice versa)

    1. Olle Linge says:

      Yeah, I remember sometimes having problems with the difference between “tenth floor” and “fourth floor” in elevators because of this.

  12. Ian says:

    A valuable insight into Chinese Mandarin. I have bee slowly learning buts as I travel, but I have been caught out with regional variation. I’d learned that a pinyin ‘c’ on its own is pronounced as a ‘t’ so ‘can’ would sound more like ‘tan’. (rough approximation). But in lots of places the ‘ch’ still sounds like ‘ch’ as in ‘chew’. That was fine and I was going with it, until I got to Chengdu and was asking for taxi’s and orange juice. chuzuche and chengzhi. I got blinks of incomprehension in reply. Fairly quickly I found out that they change their ch sound to a ‘t’ sound as well. Taxi sounded more like (excuse my phonetics) too-zoo-ter. Indeed they pronounced Chengdu as more like Tengdu. I think this interpretation is fairly widespread in that part of China.
    The other thing that I take away from this is most native Mandarin speakers in their home-towns have pretty tight front-end filters on their language. I mean, in English, I have been exposed to and can understand English with heavy Scot, Indian or deep-south American inflections, all fairly well, despite these huge variations. In China it seems that I only have to be 2 or 3% off the local norm and they don’t have a clue what I’m trying to say. (and I don’t think they’re faking it) I put it down to the locals not getting around much and not hearing anything but local dialect for most of their lives. Just another layer of difficulty for a wannabe Chinese communicator.
    Still, I can get my revenge upon Chinese tourists visiting Australia by replying in rhyming slang… Maybe they just think I’m a Merchant Banker.

  13. Felix says:

    I also love the fact that there’s variation in a language, and I hope people keep having these different accents and their own ways of pronunciation. But still, it doesn’t hurt as a native speaker to sometimes get your shit together when a language learner doesn’t understand you.
    I’m meeting many learners of my native language, and because I also have a heavy accent, I make an effort to speak more standardized (depending on their level ofc).

    1. Olle Linge says:

      Yes, I would do the same (although my accent in Swedish is so mild that most people can’t tell where I’m from for sure). However, I still think we don’t really have a right to demand than someone does this, even though I agree that adjusting to help a foreigner is the right think to do. Some people might not be able to, though, or may not be aware of the problem.

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