The problem with accents or the lack thereof

When we learn Mandarin or English or any other language, there is always a lot of emphasis put on accents. But is that really important?

When we learn Mandarin — or what I like to call standard Chinese — there is always a lot of emphasis put on accents, with a Beijing twang seen as the most desirable. When people from other cultures learn English we are often hard on them about their accents, too. But is it fair? And is it important?

I know from experience that speaking Mandarin without an accent is almost impossible, for foreigners and for Chinese from around this huge country whose first language is a regional dialect, often completely different to Putonghua.

A couple of years ago I took part in a big Chinese language competition called "Chinese Bridge," and I remember numerous competitors being brought to tears by the strict judges who would ask: “Is your Chinese teacher from the south? Change teachers!”

Every single official audiobook that comes with Mandarin-learning materials comes with Beijing pronunciation, heavily featuring the infamous “er” that those from the north are known for.

When I use that in Shanghai I’m often told to stop it — “this isn’t Beijing!” my Chinese friends will often say.

And then magic happened.

The first time someone told me that my Chinese was “standard,” I thought they were saying it was average, OK, plain. But I soon realized that having your Mandarin called biaozhun is practically the biggest compliment you will ever receive. (Keep in mind that Chinese people tend to be very complimentary about foreigners speaking Chinese, whether their skill is genuinely good or truly abysmal.)

One time I was on the train with a Chinese friend chatting away when a woman approached me and told me, right in front of my friend, that I need to make more northern Chinese friends so that the “bad influence” of southerners speaking Mandarin wouldn’t rub off on my Chinese. It’s a serious business, this accent thing!

And when the tables are turned, it’s just as intense, if not more so.

When “foreigners” learn English, native English speakers often judge them and their English language skills based solely on their accents.

A Chinese person living in New Zealand, for example, might speak perfect, grammatically correct and completely accurate English, but if anything they say has the slightest Chinese twang they might be scolded and told to “go and learn English.”

And it’s not just native English speakers who are harsh on learners of the language — other Chinese people can be just as mean.

Recently a commercial was released on the Chinese mainland by fashion house Dior. Three Chinese actresses were featured — Zhao Liying, Angelababy and Carina Lau.

The ad required them to say the English line: “And you? What would you do for love?”

All three were widely panned online for their “Chinglish” accents. “This English is really awkward — it doesn’t matter if your everyday English sucks, but you just had one line! Be more professional and practice!” one heated comment read.

Chinese learners of English tend to aspire to two accents: British (whatever that is, since there are many) and American (there are also many.) Native English-speaking teachers from other countries — Australia, Ireland, New Zealand — often change their accents when they teach in China.

Are accents really that important, though? I think it depends on the situation. If someone is being paid for what they say, for example those actresses in the Dior ad, then I think there isn’t much of an excuse for speaking badly. Having said that, I didn’t think their English accents were terrible, and I think fake accents sound much worse.

But in everyday life, I think being understood is all that is important.

Unfortunately, for students of Mandarin, part of the Chinese “accent” that so many foreigners get wrong is messing up the tones, which we all know are very important — the same word in a different tone is a different meaning. In fact, when Chinese people imitate foreigners speaking Chinese, they often speak without tones. It’s hilarious.

This is an aspect of Chinese languages that can’t be ignored, so a lot of time is needed to get it right.

In terms of English, though, pronunciation isn’t anywhere near as important, so being understood should be the key.

In terms of Chinese people, in a country where international experience is coveted as a means of standing out from the rest, accents will continue to be a marker of education and worth, whether that’s when speaking Mandarin, English, or any other language.

So maybe, at least in terms of foreigners learning Chinese and Chinese learning English, convincing accents will continue to be highly valuable, at least for the time being.

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