A not quite so sexy foreign accent

I didn’t start studying Mandarin until I was 19 years-old. Even then, I didn’t really start studying until I was about 22 years-old, so I never had any silly dreams of speaking just like a native speaker. Now, more than ten years later, I know exactly which phonemes and syntactic structures I struggle with and have come to accept those as just being the defining part of my accent.

And so it has struck me as quite odd that three different people here in the Northeast have told me that I sound like a southern Chinese person when I speak Chinese. I’ve spoken to people on the telephone, and when we meet they express shock that I’m not Chinese.

What’s really interesting, though, is that Chinese people who often speak with foreigners can tell immediately that I’m a foreigner. They start to notice the different pronunciation, intonation, etc. that are unique to non-native speakers of Mandarin whereas people who don’t speak with foreigners probably just assume that it’s some accent from another part of the country.

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Sneezing amnesiacs

Over at Language Log there’s a post about the phenomenon of native Chinese speakers forgetting how to write Chinese characters that has garnered the usual attention and controversy of Victor Mair’s posts. Like most of his posts about Chinese, they’re targetted to a non-specialist audience and even an audience that cannot speak Chinese. Of course, that doesn’t stop commenters from arguing with the author and other commenters.

And like most of Mair’s posts, this one is not at all controversial or even particularly newsworthy for people who speak Chinese. Some questioned his use of anecdotal evidence (and that of the linked article), but setting aside the fact that it’s a blog post and not a more formal article, e.g. Sino-Platonic papers, this is a well-known (among Chinese) and lamented phenomenon (among fuddy duddies). People DO write less and type more. And because many people use pinyin input – where you type in roman letters and choose from a list of characters – they do find it more difficult to actually write out characters.

However, there is an input method called Wubi that ascribes strokes (horizontal, vertical, hook, etc. etc.) to individual keys on the keyboard. Here’s a picture of a template to teach the method:

Wubi template

with a closeup of a few keys:

In China, the most popular cellphones among the older generations are those which have handwriting recognition. This, no doubt, is partly due to middle-aged and up people not being able to see such tiny script (and their fingers getting fatter with age), and I imagine it’s also because many of these people did not learn Mandarin in school so a pinyin input would be very difficult for them. I’ve actually seen this quite a few times with people trying to decide if something is spelled with a q or a ch in pinyin.

The question that springs to mind then is whether there is a generational difference in ability to write out characters by long hand or if there is any correlation between using a pinyin or Wubi IME.

Some characters, though, like the 嚏 ti in 喷嚏 penti ‘sneeze’, is so difficult that – at least from my random sampling – there is no difference. I asked 10 recent high school graduates who had just taken the Gaokao (think S.A.T. on PCP) with an average score of 600 (1500 on SAT) and none were able to write it correctly. I then asked 10 professionals and none were able to write it. This inability to write a simple word like sneeze is one example of the reasons that Mair and others think that the Chinese writing system should change.