My mandarin accent

25 Jul

As I settled into the taxi to head to the famous pineapple cake store in Taipei, I started talking to my taxi driver in mandarin.  We talked about where I am from and why I was in Taipei, but suddenly he asked me if I had studied Chinese in mainland China.

It took me back, but when I answered in the affirmative, he indicated that he could tell from my accent.

Similarly when I told my Taiwanese colleagues that I went to visit Taipei 101, I used the “mainland Chinese” way of counting (yao ling yao instead of yi ling yi).  The number “one” has two different pronunciations and I chose the wrong one for Taiwan.  They laughed and said my terms were the same as the “mainlanders” and corrected me.

This started me thinking – many moons ago before I moved to China I volunteered at the Chinese Mutual Aid Society in Chicago.  There, before I made the plunge to mainland China, I took half a dozen lessons from a teacher there who had taught English in Taiwan for a couple of years.  We didn’t accomplish much more than the greeting words and the numbers, but I found it useful when I first hit the ground.

One evening as a group of us teachers were waiting to catch the subway after a night of classes, I was talking with a local teacher trying to show off my numbers.  I said “Line 2 (二号线)” and she laughed.  She said that my pronunciation of the number 2 was very Taiwanese!  Then she corrected me gently with the correct pronunciation.

I have come full circle.

In Taiwan, I noticed that the number two was different from mainland China – and I could hear the difference, but now, I can’t replicate it without feeling strange.  I also noticed other words and phrases that are just a little different – it seems to me that the Taiwanese phrases are more polite.  For example, “Good Morning!”  In Shanghai we say, 早 !(Zao) But in Taiwan they say, 早安!(Zao an) It feels less abrupt and more traditional, just like they use traditional characters, the language is different.

Language changes with time – there is no static way to capture a language.  New terms and words are constantly coming and going – slang changes and becomes standard and my mandarin is starting to get to the point where I can pick up those differences.  It’s not just my accent, but my ability to recognize and absorb and mirror back those changes.  Taiwan was a good lesson for that.

Do you have an accent?

23 Responses to “My mandarin accent”

  1. abc in shanghai July 25, 2013 at 10:37 am #

    it is these small little nuances that make this language a mystery to most. i guess it would be the same for goodnight as well … wan an, right?

    • gkm2011 July 25, 2013 at 8:22 pm #

      Wan an is actually used in Shanghai as well, though only among friends and family so I didn’t notice a difference there. Just good morning!

  2. Every Day Adventures in Asia July 25, 2013 at 10:47 am #

    I just was asked last night how I have such a “good” Hindi accent with a hint of Punjabi in how certain words are pronounced. When I share that I lived in Delhi and learned Hindi there plus in Landour (near Mussourie), there was an “ahah!” response. The terms I’ve used have shifted between what is typical in N India versus the kind of Hindi spoken here in Mumbai.

    With French, I rarely speak these days and in India, it is most likely to be someone from France. Having studied there for a couple months, can shift to closer to that accent – though now with rather garbled grammer and atrocious vocabulary as Hindi words keep popping into my head where French used to reside.

    Which is what made a recent trip to Canada so delightful! In the Green Room at the Winnipeg Folk Festival, several of the musicians were from Quebec. Ahhhh…. It brought back my years there! And while I knew what was being said and could appreciate the difference in accent, found it a bit more challenging to slip back into that way of speaking.

    Can completely appreciate your Taiwanese influenced beginnings being overlain with such strong Shanghai sounds and words – brilliant that your recent trip reminded you of the distinction!

    • gkm2011 July 25, 2013 at 8:24 pm #

      Being able to eavesdrop when you are not supposed to is an elicit pleasure. Picking up nuances of a place in your language another. Thanks for the great story!

  3. pollyheath July 25, 2013 at 10:58 am #

    I had no idea about those nuances, though I guess it doesn’t surprise me. Thankfully the Soviet Union made Russian so totally universal that accents are the same almost everywhere.

    • gkm2011 July 25, 2013 at 8:25 pm #

      Really? That surprises me that there is little differentiation in such a big geographic area. Interesting.

  4. searchingforsubstance July 25, 2013 at 12:02 pm #

    i was a little confused in understanding your post. do you mean your colleagues are taiwanese people speaking mandarin? not taiwanese speaking taiwanese, is that right? when you were in taiwan were you speaking mandarin or taiwanese?

    • gkm2011 July 25, 2013 at 8:30 pm #

      I was speaking mandarin in Taiwan as were my colleagues. Taiwanese is not spoken that much in Taipei in the workplace because people from all over Taiwan move there and the dialects across the country are quite different.

  5. ladyofthecakes July 25, 2013 at 4:10 pm #

    Interesting! The little Mandarin I learned way back was very Beijing… tsai narrrrrrrrrrrrrrr, lol 😉
    I’m very curious about South America these days, I want to test out my Spanish there and enjoy the differences now that I can appreciate them. I have to watch it, though… in Peninsular Spanish, no sentence is complete with out the words arse, cunt and fuck. Everybody speaks that way, even on TV. They don’t do this in Latin America. I don’t much either, but the odd ‘joder’ does slip in…

    • gkm2011 July 25, 2013 at 8:31 pm #

      Better be careful in that case! The different Spanish accents can be crazy. I remember Chile especially with the growl…

      • ladyofthecakes July 25, 2013 at 8:50 pm #

        Everybody always comments on the incredible delivery speed of Chilean Spanish…I think I’ll practice some more before exposing my eardrums to that 😉

  6. expatlingo July 25, 2013 at 8:33 pm #

    Really interesting post! I have a slight Cantonese accent when speaking Mandarin because I spent so much time talking with the Cantonese Ayi who helped watch my daughter when I was working while we lived in Zhuhai. Like saying ‘ho’ for ‘hen’ (very) or ‘ye’ for ‘re’ (hot).

    • gkm2011 July 25, 2013 at 8:36 pm #

      My Chinese colleagues will comment on Hong Kong people speaking mandarin and if the accent is too strong may laugh a little, but still pretty impressive!

  7. An interesting post! I didn’t know you actually speak Chinese in China. Haha…

    That’s true – Taiwanese accent is “softer” and more polite. Even people there are “softer”, if you know what I mean. Well, I’m married to one. Hehe…

    Have fun with the language!

    • gkm2011 July 26, 2013 at 7:21 am #

      I have good Taiwanese friends in Shanghai who are super friendly. I didn’t realize that many of the traits they demonstrate are standard for Taiwan until this year and my two visits. It is an intriguing culture, so similar to China but smoothed out, more polite.

  8. Expat Eye July 27, 2013 at 2:44 pm #

    I think I always just sound like an Irish person doing an accent. 😉

    • gkm2011 July 27, 2013 at 4:23 pm #

      Country of origin does impact accents too! I should have mentioned that.

  9. Rude Boy Abroad October 17, 2013 at 5:28 pm #

    I speak Japanese in the dialect of the Kansai region. People generally find it varying measures of either impressive or hilarious.

    • gkm2011 October 17, 2013 at 5:43 pm #

      It is funny how a dialect can “place” you and connect or disconnect you from others. Thanks for stopping by.

  10. Eileen黃愛玲 April 20, 2014 at 9:29 pm #

    How I speak Mandarin – locals in Shanghai know I’ve learned it from Taiwan. xD My husband’s accent is unmistakably Taiwanese. When he talks, people would ask him, “Are you from Taiwan?” 🙂

    • gkm2011 April 20, 2014 at 9:36 pm #

      It’s amazing how blunt people can be sometimes – I find myself being pretty forgiving with accents because I know mine will never be perfect – but others don’t share that quality!


  1. “How come you don’t have an accent in Hindi?” « Every day adventures in Asia (mostly) - September 21, 2013

    […] This post was prompted by a friend’s post “My Mandarin Accent“ sharing her Taiwanese influenced beginnings replaced by Shanghai sounds and words. And how […]

  2. The 9th quarter review | 中国 Jumble - October 17, 2013

    […] My mandarin accent – where I thought back to how I got my mandarin accent prompted by a taxi driver in Taipei, Taiwan […]

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