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What Kind of Chinese Do I Speak?

weather: mainly clear
outside: 13.4°C
mood: chipper
I did the "What Kind of American English Do You Speak?" quiz, but I think it's pretty pointless for me to post my results. Apparently, Canadian Vancouverites speak like they're from all over the continental USA.

But that, and a recent post in zhongwen asking for a Chinese dialogue companion with a certain accent, made me think of what kind of Chinese I speak.


I went to a Taiwanese-run Mandarin school for a year when I was five. The school was one of the first in a long string of education ventures of Dr. Cary Chien who is a family friend. I'm sure my teacher, Mrs. Gin, had a big influence over my accent whether I remember it or not.

I didn't speak again until highschool when I took Mandarin classes for credit. The teacher was from Beijing, I hated her and I hated the way she sounded. I tried very hard to not speak the way she did. I used to think her "tongue curl" was clowny and dumb.

Instead, I modelled my pronunciations after a girl in my class from Taiwan. I never did talk to her before we graduated, but I heard her when we got picked on to answer questions out loud in class. I thought she sounded very down-to-earth. Nothing was slurred, nothing was ambiguous, all the initials and finals were very definitive, clean and crisp. So I took to speaking like she did.

I would describe my Mandarin accent as Taiwan Academic or Southern China Coastal... like XiaMen, Fujian Province. Shanghai is about as far north as I've heard it. My parents have much more of a Beijing accent than I do.

I enunciate the difference between the z/zh, c/ch, s/sh as clearly as I can. Many in Taiwan don't make the distinction. I only mutter and blur it when I don't know which one it's supposed to be. But I don't roll my tongue nearly as much as Northern Mainlanders. I say "zhè lǐ" and not "zhèr" for "here". It's "hái zi" and not "hái'r" for "child". I say "bǐ jiào" and not "bí jiǎo" to express the comparative.

I also clearly distinguish in/ing, en/eng, an/ang. My userinfoHusband doesn't. He keeps mixing up 心 (xīn) and 星 (xīng). I think it's because my Mother-in-Law pronounces both approximately as "hseen", so the guys can't tell what's what. I don't know how much of that is her Hai-Lu KeJia background.


My Cantonese is between a Mainland/Guangzhou and Hong Kong Cantonese. My maternal grandfather spoke MeiXian KeJia (so I'm 1/8th Hakka), but my mother doesn't speak much Hakka. Some of the things I say are more Mainland, but even there, many terms that begin with the 'n' initial in formal pronunciation have become an 'l' initial colloquially.

I was taught to never compromise the 'ng'. "Bank" is "ngun hong" and not "un hon" (eew...); "beef" is "ngau yuk" and not "au yuk". But in my teens, I found myself sliding out of "ngo" for "I/me" and into just "o" sometimes. But I still insist it's a retracted 't∫' ("tsoi" for "vegetable") and not an aspirated 'ch' (more like "choy").

My mother has always been 媽媽 (ma-ma; which sounds like "Maman" in French) and my father, 爸爸 (ba-ba). They were never "Mommy" or "Daddy" in a Cantonese accent. My parents are not the Mommy and Daddy types. They are the Mother and Father types.

Sometime around age ten, my mother became "Mom" or "Maaaaaaaaaaaaa" when I was being loud, but never "Mum". My father became "Dad" only when I was speaking about him in the third person. 爸爸 encompasses "Daddy", "Dad" and "Father" to me.

I was, and still am, 嘉嘉 to them.

My brother was 弟弟 (which we pronounced "dee-dee") and he called me 家姊 ("ga-je") until his early teens, then we were on a first name basis in English.


I took French in all five years of Secondary school, from Grade 8 to 12. DO YOU KNOW HOW INCREDIBLY BLOODY DIFFICULT IT IS TO FIND SOMEONE TO TEACH FRENCH ON THE WEST COAST, EVEN WHEN IT'S ONE OF THE OFFICIAL BLOODY LANGUAGES OF YOUR BLOODY COUNTRY? For some retarded reason, they took French out of the public Elementary school curriculum. And my grade seemed to be something of a cut-off grade. The grade above me had to take French. I was all excited that maybe next year, I would finally start learning French. But they pulled it when we got there. >KO

I was talking to a co-worker way back when he was looking at enrolling his kids in Kindergarten. Apparently, it's the same kind of stupidness to try to get into a bilingual French/English school here. There is only ONE bilingual public Elementary school in Vancouver... in GREATER Vancouver... that I know of. Many of the English-only schools have a French Immersion program, but you have to happen to live in the school's catchment area. It's insane.

There is a large French cultural organization (Alliance Française) in Vancouver that offers Saturday morning French classes for children and adults, but my Saturdays were already taken up by Chinese school. =P

Anyway, I owe my French all to Jane Z. (French 8), Walter H. (French 9) and Fiorella H. (French 11 and 12). I loved learning with Walter H. He demanded accuracy to a very fine fine granularity, which is something I appreciate very much. He would bring the class to a screeching halt to correct things and wouldn't let it go until he was confident that it would stick. That, ladies and gentlemen, is teaching.

I had Walter C. for French 10. He taught Spanish as well, so his accent was very southern and sometimes, his pronunciation was plain wrong. I tended to stay away from some of the pronunciations he made. Sometime during French 11 (or 12?), there was a new girl in the class who had moved to Vancouver from Ontario or somewhere with a very Quebec French influence. She sounded different and I could hear it. Not bad-different, more like interesting-different.

We're taught Parisian French on the West Coast of Canada, which is the accent from the northern region of France. I pronounce "toute de suite" as a Frenchified "toot sweet" and not "toot-de swee-de" as they would in southern France, near Spain. And "oui" is "wee" and not "way", like they would say in Quebec.

I tried very hard to shake off my English accent and focus on what sounds and feels French when I was speaking. I did my best to make "nuit" ("nwee", meaning "night") different from "nouille" ("noo-wee" meaning "noodle"). I hated hearing classmates making them the same and I was near aghast when I heard it from a teacher. =P

"Car" is "la voiture" and not "le car". There were a pile of these differences between French French and Quebec French that were mentioned in class, but that I don't remember now.

So, if you've made it this far =D describe the accent and regionalisms of some non-English languages that you speak. =)


( 25 comments — Leave a comment )
Apr. 27th, 2005 06:52 am (UTC)
i took two years of gaelic with native speakers, from ALL over ireland, so our class had a patchwork "vancouver" dialect going. I was told, and I found the northern gaelic dialect/accent easier to understand, and pronounce, and did so apparently well.

I couldn't give examples, but I remember the northern speakers were more....clear and elegant and pronounced.

Apr. 27th, 2005 06:57 am (UTC)
Phone post! Phone post! =D
Apr. 27th, 2005 07:04 am (UTC)
Ohh very cool!
Apr. 27th, 2005 07:39 am (UTC)
Oh, funny. What little Irish I speak -- uh, what very little Irish I speak -- is heavily influenced by my father, who's from Donegal, near the border with Derry, and by the time I spent in Ireland, most of it in Donegal in the region of the Gaoth Dobhair/Gweedore gaeltacht.

Given the level of my Irish, though, the closest I come to regionalisms is "caide mar ata thu" instead of "conas ata thu."
Apr. 27th, 2005 07:05 am (UTC)
I speak pig latin with a distinct western accent. Ok, maybe not. Heheh. I desperately want to learn more languages, especially japanese. I took 3 years of French in school but that was a long time ago and it has gotten quite rusty.
Apr. 27th, 2005 07:15 am (UTC)
I loved French, I did really well, but I didn't have time in my schedule to take it in University.

I think the Canadian French curriculum, at least on the West coast, teaches Parisian French pronunciations. As opposed to Québécois French.
Apr. 27th, 2005 08:37 am (UTC)
Yeah we had to learn both although the focus was mostly on Parisian French. Overall I think it is a gorgeous language though. I really need to brush up on my French before I forget everything!
Apr. 27th, 2005 07:15 am (UTC)
I have a total 东北 accent, all the way. My favorite expression is a really nasal, incredulous '啥呀?', otherwise I think '贼好' is a pretty 东北 thing to say as well. Anyway, a friend I made in Beijing that's from Changchun thought it was cute that I spoke like she did but was a foreigner; I took that as a compliment. ;) I personally think it's a little bit clearer than Beijing accent, though it's still full of 儿's. bokane will probably have some thoughts on this that I wouldn't be able to articulate.

I also do this thing where I make a click-noise and a sharp breath in when I'm expressing something negative or aggravating right before I say something. I have no idea where the hell that came from, only that I don't do it in English but I do in Mandarin.

I enunciate the difference between the z/zh, c/ch, s/sh as clearly as I can...I also clearly distinguish in/ing, en/eng, an/ang.

I could hug you for this, haha.
Apr. 27th, 2005 07:17 am (UTC)
it's still full of 儿's

Hahaha, yes. It's Speak Like A Pirate Day EVERYDAY in Beijing. =D =D
Apr. 27th, 2005 07:19 am (UTC)
this is very interesting! it also cleared up some of the questions I had, like pronounciation of "zh" as "z" that I often hear.

I wish I could describe the accent and regionalisms of my Russian, but, aside from rare use of Uzbek words (my native language which I don't speak at all) I can't think of anything =)

Accents of Moscovites and St. Petersburgers (which are quite different) do sound weird to me, though =) -- to the degree that I often think that people deliberately fake it. Only to find out later that it is really the way they talk ;)
Apr. 27th, 2005 07:47 am (UTC)
Well, listening to my spoken Chinese, I'd peg myself as having an American accent. I've been trying to eliminate it, but I've still got broader vowels than I should. Oddly, Chinese people don't pick up on this over the phone, but I figure that's mostly because the majority of Chinese people speak pretty crappy Mandarin.

My pronunciation's definitely Northern/Northeastern. I've been trying to close in on a Beijing accent - what can I say; I love the erization - but I've still got a fair amount of Dongbei regionalisms, like 啥 for 什么, 旮旯 for 到处, 媳妇儿 for 妻子, 屁颠儿屁颠儿的 for 高高兴兴的, etc. Oh, and I'm fond of saying "傻里吧叽" for some reason; I think I picked it up from radio plays overheard in Harbin taxis.

One thing that I always found really funny in China was foreigners who'd learned Chinese from their girlfriends, and consequently sounded like, well, their girlfriends. The best example of this comes from my friend Roddy: he once saw a foreign guy get into an argument with a Beijing cab driver, slam the car door, and shout "你真讨厌!"
I seem to have avoided such a fate, at least as far as I can tell. Anyway, my goal is to sound like 姜文 in a couple years.
Apr. 27th, 2005 07:49 am (UTC)
Oh. And my summer project for myself is going to be to pick up at least a first-year level competency in Cantonese, but there don't seem to be any decent sources for it. (Pimsleur et. al. can go screw.) I've had Zhao Yuanren/Yuan Ren Chao's "Cantonese Primer" recommended to me, but it's out of print. Any thoughts?
Apr. 27th, 2005 02:55 pm (UTC)
Hmm... I don't know about actually learning Cantonese, but for pronunciation, I always go to this Chinese Syllabary site. You stick in the character and it gives you the WAV.

There are a number of folks in guangdong who might have some learning resources.
Apr. 27th, 2005 04:51 pm (UTC)
One thing that I always found really funny in China was foreigners who'd learned Chinese from their girlfriends, and consequently sounded like, well, their girlfriends.

I had that for a while with Japanese; there were a bunch of Japanese at my school at the time when I was learning the language, but I hung around the girls more than the guys, and consequently picked up some 'girl-Japanese' before I knew that girls and guys spoke differently.
Apr. 27th, 2005 09:36 am (UTC)
describe the accent and regionalisms of some non-English languages that you speak.

I speak Ruhrdeutsch!
Apr. 27th, 2005 03:57 pm (UTC)
Huh... fascinating. =)
Apr. 27th, 2005 02:37 pm (UTC)
describe the accent and regionalisms of some non-English languages that you speak. =)

Oh man, most of the time, I speak Cantonese in the way that you hate! :D
Apr. 27th, 2005 03:53 pm (UTC)
Hee =) I have friends who speak that way. I succeed in not throttling them... mostly =D =D
Apr. 27th, 2005 07:16 pm (UTC)
Note to self: speak English if you ever meet Bride!
Apr. 27th, 2005 04:49 pm (UTC)
Philip's German
describe the accent and regionalisms of some non-English languages that you speak.

I speak northern colloquial German.

Northern Germany traditionally spoke Plattdeutsch (Low German), so when High German came up through literature, they basically had to learn it as a second language since their local dialect was so far removed that they couldn't fake it or adopt a compromise mid-way thing. Now that Plattdeutsch is essentially dead (most speakers are pretty old, I'd say) and people speak only standard German, their pronunciation is in most respects pretty close to the standard -- due to this book-learning effect. (Some say that the best standard German is spoken in Hanover, for example).

My speech isn't completely standard; however, it's so close to standard that I've never bothered learning 'proper' standard German. The most prominent regionalism in pronunciation is probably pronouncing morpheme-final -g as /x/ (which can be [x] or [ç] depending on the environment); this is accepted in standard German only in the ending -ig [Iç], but I say things such as [vEç] for "weg", [ve:ç] for "Weg", and [flu:xtsOYç] for "Flugzeug". This means that my pronunciation of "airfield" sounds like "swearing place" (Flugplatz = Fluchplatz, in my pronunciation).

I also pronounce long 'ä' and long 'e' identically; prescriptively, long 'ä' is [E:] while long 'e' is [e:], but I merge them both into [e:]. Hence, 'Räder' (wheels) and 'Reeder' (shipowners) sound the same in my speech.

I also have a couple of other nonstandard vowel lengths, e.g. in "Erde", which I always thought was [E@d@] but am told is "properly" [e:@d@] with long-e rather than short-e in the first syllable, or "Tag" which can be either [ta:k] or [tax] -- the second, nonstandard, variant with short vowel and final [x] rather than standard long vowel and [k].

There are also a few regionalisms in my vocabulary (e.g. northernisms such as 'Feudel' for a cloth to pick up water with, what you'd use a mop for otherwise, as well as Hamburgisms from Plattdeutsch such as 'suutsche' for slowly or 'plietsch' for clever), but not that many, I think.

Oh, and I use the perfect much more than the imperfect, but I'm not sure whether that's a regionalism; I think that might simply be colloquial usage in many parts of German.
Apr. 27th, 2005 06:11 pm (UTC)
I can converse with my 3 year old cousins in Cantonese, but have to revert to English when talking to their parents. :/ And as such, the intonation is so terrible, even I can hear it's off.

I never called my mother MaMa but my father is still Baba to this day. I also call my aunts and uncles who are siblings of my parents by the Chinese terms (my favorite aunt is Ee-Ee, my mother's younger sister). Those are the only Chinese terms I use on a regular basis.

Robin is starting to pick up a few words for food items... for instance, he will ask for laht-tziew-yow (sp??) at restaurants, which always cracks me up. He gets the intonation completely wrong, and I'm sure the waiters are kerflustered that he would ask for the hot sauce with the oil specifically.
May. 2nd, 2005 03:28 pm (UTC)
when i was in Germany, and spoke German... everyone assumed I was French - apparently I speak German with a French accent. I can sort of understand that, i DEFINIETLY don't have the typical american accent; and i tend to soften my 'ch's
May. 2nd, 2005 03:43 pm (UTC)
I think I tend to do that too. French was my first European foreign language, so if I don't know how to pronounce something, I'll use the French with Italian exceptions =D
May. 12th, 2005 03:28 pm (UTC)
"suite [...]sweet"

The way I learnt it and according to what my dictionary says, the "u" in "suite" is not a [w] but a different sound that is more like French "u" because it is also rounded. This is consistant with what I hear and I hate people (also Germans) not keeping this sound distinct from [w]. :) I think only "ou" is [w] in French (as in "oui").

""nuit" ("nwee", meaning "night") different from "nouille"

For the "u" in nuit, see above. My dictionary gives [nuj] for "nouille", so that would be one syllable.
May. 12th, 2005 04:24 pm (UTC)
Yes, I realize that. The phonemes don't exist in English, so that's my best I can do with the English alphabet that will get the closest approximation from an Anglophone.

If I wrote "nuj", an Anglophone would say "nudge", which is completely wrong.
( 25 comments — Leave a comment )


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