Tuesday, May 30, 2006

China Stories Pt. 4: Thepeopletalkfast

In most places, the Chinese language that is taught is the "standard" Mandarin dialect. It is the most widely spoken; it is the official language, both in the PRC and in Taiwan*. It is the dialect that connects a country that has countless hundreds of dialects. Some dialects, such as Cantonese, are spoken by tens of millions of people. Others are vanishing, spoken by a scant few dozen people in remote areas.

Local dialects can vary wildly, even over short distances. In some places, a person could go just a few towns over, and not understand the local language. Imagine going from Washington to New York, and not being able to communicate with a taxi driver. Okay, bad example. But you get the idea.

I was learning the accent most common to northeast China, considered by many to be the "standard" accent. "Standard" was good in this case. Being told that your accent was "very standard" was high praise. Ideally, we would all sound like the evening news anchors on China Central Television.

But the average Beijinger's accent is not quite so standard. First of all, they speak very quickly, much more quickly than any of my language teachers ever had. And the Beijing accent in particular involves adding an "err" sound to the end of many words. So "mian tiao" became "mian tiaor." It was as though we'd gone from studying Peter Jennings to talking to Larry the Cable Guy.

With time and practice, I was able to understand the Beijing accent pretty well. Those "err's" even began to appear in my speech. I grew to love the way it sounds.

It's funny, even now, I can be sitting in a restaurant, and forty feet behind me, over my shoulder, I can pick that distinctive Beijing accent out of a crowd.

*In the PRC they call it "Putonghua;" in Taiwan, it's "Guoyu." But it's essentially the same.


At 2:51 PM, Anonymous Whinger said...

I'm just filled with admiration for you for learning the language and actually travelling to use it.

It's just so cool.


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