Spicks & Specks

incorporating 'A Thousand Miles of Moonlight'

An interview about Chinese accents

How cross-cultural differences led to a conversation conducted totally at cross-purposes


24 March 2016 (most recent revision 29 March)

Kelly Higgins DevineOn 9 February 2016, Kelly Higgins-Devine, the afternoon presenter on 612 ABC (Australian Broadcasting Corporation) Brisbane, hosted a program about accents. The program can be heard here.

Kelly spoke to three different people. First up was Professor David Crystal, a prominent British linguist, who spoke in a very informative and entertaining manner about accents in the United Kingdom and, to some extent, Australia.

This was followed by an interview with Associate Professor Felicity Cox from Macquarie University, who held a very intelligent discussion about accents within Australia.

Xing JinFinally, in what appeared to be a nod at accents in foreign languages, Kelly held an interview with Xing Jin from the Confucius Institute at the University of Sydney.

What was most remarkable about the interview with Xing Jin was the fact that Kelly Higgins-Devine did not manage to elicit a single comment pertaining to the topic at hand -- "accents in Chinese" -- during the entire interview. That is a breathtaking achievement. Although the average Australian listener might have gleaned a few morsels of intelligible information from the interview, for the most part the two participants were speaking at cross-purposes from start to finish.

What could have turned a potentially interesting discussion into such a disastrous failure? That's what I want to delve into here.

I will reproduce the interview below, interspersed with my own notes pointing out where the problems lie. I know it will sound nitpicking, but fathoming a communication failure of this magnitude requires a fine-grained look at the assumptions and thinking that caused it to run off the rails in such a spectacular manner.

KHD: Spoken English has a multitude of accents. But what about other languages? The world’s most populous nation is China. So you’d imagine they’d have plenty of different ways of saying the same thing. Xing Gin is general manager of the Confucius Institute at the University of Sydney. Good afternoon.

We start off with an expression of polite interest in the language of the world's most populous nation. But signs of the upcoming fiasco are already visible. What do "accents" have to do with "plenty of different ways of saying the same thing"?

XJ: Good afternoon. Níng hǎo! Xīnnián hǎo!

Xing Jin, a true language teacher, begins with a simple New Years greeting to express her goodwill, arouse curiosity and interest in all those Australian listeners who don't know Chinese, and add a bit of authenticity.

KHD: Oh thank you! And was that “Good morning”? “Hello”?

Unfortunately Kelly knows so little Chinese that she has no idea what Xing Jin is talking about.

XJ: Oh, “Happy New Year”.

KHD: Of course! [Ah, yes] Well, tell us about accents in China. We know that there are many dialects, but are there accents as well?

The first question starts on a rather fuzzy note about "accent" and "dialect". Kelly has obviously heard about "dialects" in Chinese, which she uses as a lead-in to ask about accents.

Introducing the term "dialect" is like a red flag to a bull. Chinese have a very different concept of "dialect" from English speakers. For the Chinese, dialects are local spoken patois around the country. These are often incomprehensible to people from other parts of the country but are all traditionally regarded as "Chinese", no matter how different they are. In fact, the differences are so great that many Western linguists hold the view that many of the so-called Chinese "dialects" are not strictly speaking "dialects" at all; they are virtually separate languages. This is a far cry from the benign Australian conception that dialect is little more than speaking with a different accent using a bit of local vocabulary. It's clear that Kelly has failed to do even the most basic homework for interviewing a Chinese native speaker about accents. And unlike David Crystal, Xing Jin shows herself to have little more understanding than the man on the street when explaining accents in Chinese.

(Australians actually have a naive conception of "accent" and "dialect", namely that, to all intents and purposes, accent is dialect. The main reason is that Australians, by and large, do speak something akin to Standard English. There are, of course, colloquial turns of grammar that are regarded anywhere in the world as "substandard English" and peculiar expressions that are felt to be uniquely "Australian", but Australian English doesn't vary dramatically from most standard varieties of English. The greatest variation that Australians are familiar with is that of accent, which leads them to assume that dialect and accent are pretty much the same thing. This misconception is unlikely to be held by someone from a nation of stark dialect differences.)

XJ: Ah, yes. I may give you a little bit of overview about the Chinese language because it’s very confusing. So people often ask me, “Do you teach Mandarin? Do you teach Cantonese?” Now for the normal (???) Cantonese is not a written language, Cantonese is a dialect. So basically Chinese a family of closely related, but a bit different language. So this language are known as fāngyán, regional languages, so dialects of Chinese.

Xing Jin jumps right in to enlighten Kelly about the misconception of "dialect" that so many confused foreigners hold, especially the perennial question of Mandarin vs Cantonese.

She explains that 1) Cantonese is a "dialect" because it is a spoken, not a written language 2) Chinese is a family of closely related, but slightly different languages, and 3) Cantonese is what is known as a fāngyán or regional language, that is, a "dialect".

Xing Jin has clearly studied some linguistics -- she is no unschooled speaker for whom "dialects" are an undifferentiated mass of local languages -- but while the elements of a coherent explanation are there, her exposition is so succinct, not to say contradictory, that it is doubtful whether any listener could make sense of it. She introduces a criterion for defining dialect (a "spoken language" as opposed to a "written language") that most Australians are unlikely to understand; she offers the misleading statement that Chinese is a family of closely related languages that are just "a bit" different from each other; and she adds the additional characterisation that dialects are regional languages. She also introduces the Chinese word fāngyán in the pious hope that even Australian listeners who haven't understood her explanation so far will catch on once they hear the Chinese term.

In all this, Xing Jin loses sight of one key fact: the topic of discussion is not dialects but accents -- which are, of course, a key property of the spoken (but not written) language. Most tellingly, she fails to mention the Chinese word for "accent": kǒuyīn.

KHD: How many?

XJ: Let’s say the major variety of Chinese language there are about 13, but each dialect they have sub-dialects. So for example, one of the dialects I speak is Xiang dialect. I come from Hunan province, I speak Xiang as my first language. But in Xiang language they have lots of different sub-dialects.

It's encouraging that Xing Jin manages to come up with a concrete figure for this, as well as admit that there are "sub-dialects". She also refers to her own dialect as her "first language" (the term that a linguist would use), not her "first dialect".

KHD: I was going to ask, when people with a different dialect meet up, do they understand each other clearly?

Kelly pops the very sensible question of intelligibility.

XJ: That’s the problem. Because some dialects they have much more similarity, they are more or less similar. For example, the northern dialect, they are more similar, but for some people from southern dialect, especially from Minlan, from Xiang, they are very different. So what happened is, in China, in 1948, the People’s Republic of China government organised a language reform, then they called Mandarin, called the old Chinese language, call pǔtōnghuà. So basically they used that as a official language, is based on Beijing dialect. So most people in China and Taiwan, even your first language is not pǔtōnghuà or Mandarin, you can understand or speak pǔtōnghuà or Mandarin.

Having given a confusing definition of "dialect", Xing Jin postpones mention of the important fact that all Chinese learn Modern Standard Mandarin or pǔtōnghuà at school, in order to continue with her muddy explanation that some dialects are more similar than others. As a linguist she earlier called the "dialects" (or fāngyán) "regional languages"; here she quickly slips back into the habit of calling them "dialects", maintaining that "northern dialects" are more similar and "southern dialects" are more different. The linguist's concept that the "northern dialects" are essentially continuous with Mandarin, while the "southern dialects" are essentially different languages, seems to have been lost. (She does, however, repeat the term "first language"...)

As a representative of the Confucius Institute, Xing Jin puts in a plug for the "People's Republic of China" as having adopted a standard language back in 1948. In fact, the adoption of Mandarin as the national standard language long predates the People's Republic. It was originally adopted by the Kuomintang (KMT) or Nationalists decades earlier and called guóyǔ ('national language'). They still call it that in Taiwan and many parts of China, but Xing Jin rather ostentatiously uses the officially preferred name in China, pǔtōnghuà. It appears that Xing Jin is still trying to be a "teacher" rather than a scholar with something interesting to say. The fact that the whole discussion is supposed to be about "accents" is totally forgotten.

In fact, Xing Jin herself actually gives a wonderful example of an accented pronunciation: she refers to Minnan (Mǐnnán), a dialect of Fujian province, in pure Hunanese style as Minlan (Mǐnlán). People from Hunan have a well-known difficulty pronouncing n at the start of syllables; they regularly convert n to l when speaking Mandarin. It's a pity that Xing Jin failed to mention this, because it's the closest we get in the interview to an actual regional accent.

KHD: We’ve been talking about world influences this afternoon as well, and how opening up different areas to Internet or those sort of things might influence dialect. Is that happening in younger generations in China, that the accents are changing somehow?

This question is vaguely framed. "World influences" on the "dialect" (that is, "accent") of younger generations via a largely visual medium like the Internet seems rather moot.

XJ: I think the accents hasn’t changed much but the vocabulary and grammar have been changed. We have seen so many new vocabulary came into the Chinese language. For example, people use the English sounds, “sofa”, lots of new things, so they’re from the English. Also people start to make up words to reflect the new technology area digital language. So that’s changing, the language is changing. But the core grammar sentence structure still stays.

Xing Jin doesn't address the issue of accent, turning instead to changes in grammar and vocabulary, particularly vocabulary. Her specific example, "sofa" (shāfā in Chinese -- she lets slip a little sh before she says "sofa"), entered Chinese at least half a century before the Internet came into being. It's simply a stock example of Chinese borrowing from English. Again, Xing Jin is delivering a well-rehearsed lecture instead of answering the question.

KHD: ABC local radio Queensland, talking about accents this afternoon. My guest is Xing Jin, general manager of the Confucius Institute at the University of Sydney. So within the dialects that you have in China, is there a difference in the accent as well, or is the, or are the accents fairly stable within provinces?

This question could actually have put the discussion back on track. Kelly is asking whether there are accent differences within "dialects" (or languages, as we should perhaps be calling them). This is a rich area for discussion. Xing Jin could have referred to the noticeable accent differences within the loosely defined Mandarin-related dialects of north China. This is a favourite within China -- for instance, the distinctive accents of people from Shandong province or Shanxi province, or the even more widely-remarked features of Dongbei speech in the region once known as Manchuria. She could also have discussed the distinctive accents of people from the south of China, like herself, who essentially master Mandarin as a foreign language and carry over many features of their native "dialect" in the process. For instance, southern speakers regularly lose the distinction between /s/ and /sh/ when speaking Mandarin. A discussion of the rather different accent (still a southern-style accent) of Taiwanese speakers of Mandarin could also have been introduced.

XJ: All variety of Chinese are tonal language. This means, each syllable can have a number of different meanings depending on the intonation with which it is pronounced. For example, Mandarin has four tones, or sometimes people say five tones, they have one soft tone; Cantonese has nine tones; Taiwanese has seven tones.

Xing Jin completely misses the point and continues with her standard lesson, this time introducing the concept of tone in the different "dialects" of China. All of the "dialects" she cites are to all intents and purposes, as we have noted, different languages. Abruptly introducing tones serves to throw the conversation onto a new and familiar tangent, the difficulty of tones. Not a lot of what she says has much to do with accent.

KHD: That sounds very, very challenging to me.

XJ: That’s right, that’s right. But some of dialects, as I mentioned before, they are more similar. Some of them are very different.

This means little to the naive English speaker who wants to learn something about Chinese accents. You have to be Chinese to know what she's talking about.

KHD: Ok, so, that means the accent is, can be different as well depending on the amount of tones that people have within that language?

Kelly asks whether accents might differ depending on the number of tones within each language. Not an unreasonable followup considering the runaround she's been given so far, but the reference to "the amount of tones within that language" is a bit confused. Possibly she is suggesting that the different tone systems in Cantonese and Taiwanese influence their accent when speaking Mandarin, although this is not very clear. We are still floundering in a kind of no-man's land between "dialect" and "separate language".

Xing Jin could, of course, have mentioned that speakers of southern "dialects" don't generally use what she calls the "soft tone" when speaking Mandarin, which gives their pronunciation a very different feel from that of northern "dialect" speakers. But she doesn't.

XJ: That’s right, depend on region. …

KHD: I was just wondering with the tonal language, then, and people being able to say different words that might sound the same except for where the tone is different. Is that different with accent, or is that changed by accent, or not?

This is a better formulation and a valid question. Do local accents show tone variation? And indeed, a good example is Shandong dialect (a northern "dialect"), which tends to "swap" tones compared with Beijing Mandarin. Where Beijing Mandarin says meaning 'I', Shandongnese says . Where Beijing Mandarin says shān meaning 'mountain', Shandongnese says shǎn. (At least that is how I remember it.) This is a valid and clear example of tone differing according to the accent.

XJ: For example, as I mentioned before, one syllable can have up to 20-30 different meanings, so you need to have the context to understand the words, understand the meaning. It’s a bit different with the English accent, whether you come from northern England, from the south England or London. You are much more similar. [Yep] So you can understand with the accent. But with Chinese it’s more like dialect. If I say “How do you do?”, in pǔtōnghuà I say “Níng hǎo, nǐ hǎo”. Shanghainese we say “Nóng hǎo”. My Xiang dialect we say “Ni hao”. Can you see,“Níng hǎo, nǐ hǎo, ni hao, nóng hǎo”, Cantonese is “Néi hǒ”. So very different.

This answer is a little confused and hard to understand. There are not that many syllables in Chinese that have 20-30 meanings. Xing Jin appears to be ignoring the role of tone. For example, she would appear to regard liang as a syllable with many different meanings, when, in fact, tone plays an essential role in disambiguating meaning. In Standard Mandarin (pǔtōnghuà), liáng means 'cool'; liàng means 'light (as in brightness)', and liǎng means 'two' -- note the tone markings. Even in dialects, like Shandongnese, where the tones sound completely wacky, there is internal consistency in the use of tones to distinguish different syllables.

There are, of course, cases where the same syllable with identical tone has more than one meaning. This is exactly the same as homophones in English and naturally requires context. For instance, the English sentences 'the colour is too light' and 'the hammer is too light' help us disambiguate two meanings of 'light'. The same applies to homophones in Chinese. (There is the further issue that Chinese syllables, contrary to common perceptions, are not necessarily single words, but we won't go into that here.)

Xing Jin then suddenly backtracks on what she has said so far because she realises that "accent" in English and "dialect" in Chinese are totally different concepts. In her words: 'You are much more similar. So you can understand with the accent. But with Chinese it’s more like dialect.' In other words, she recognises that her little lecture on dialect has nothing to do with the topic at hand. Unfortunately, given that Australians don't necessarily appreciate the difference between "accent" and "dialect", this doesn't actually clarify a lot.

More confusingly, the fairly elementary examples of dialect difference that Xing Jin then provides seem designed to demonstrate not wildly different dialects but rather slightly different accents: Níng hǎo, nǐ hǎo, ni hao, and néi hǒ. She could actually have found much better examples to show the stark differences among Chinese "dialects" than this.

Xing Jin herself again unconsciously produces one of the few examples of accent found in the whole discussion. Since she is from Hunan, she has trouble pronouncing n at the end of syllables in Mandarin. The greeting she gives should, in standard Mandarin, be pronounced nín hǎo. She pronounces it níng hǎo under the influence of her own Xiang speech.

KHD: So what are the challenges, then, for you to learn English, which is, of course, not a tonal language?

Kelly resorts to the old standby: "How difficult is it for you to learn English?"

XJ: Actually, I found English is compared to Cantonese and Shanghainese actually is easy to learn. [Good!] Because you have the Roman alphabet, so you have some principle how you pronounce the word. So you can learn the principle. That’s one of the reason in 1948 the People’s Republic of China government organised the language reform. They replaced the old zhùyīn alphabet with the Roman alphabet. In this way they used the same alphabet symbol that other country also use. So now when we teach Chinese to foreigners, to Westerners, we use the ABCD as a pronunciation system. So much more easy for everyone, even for Chinese people.

Xing Jin ignores the question about tone. Instead she brings in the extraneous element of script: using an alphabetic script makes it easier to learn English than Cantonese or Shanghainese! This is true. English spelling, despite being notoriously inconsistent and difficult, gives a better guide to pronunciation than Chinese characters do for Chinese "dialects". Chinese literally have to play it by ear when learning other "dialects" because Chinese characters give virtually no help in learning pronunciation. That is one reason why Chinese speakers learning other "dialects" often have such poor pronunciation in those "dialects".

This has very little to do with the intrinsic linguistic difficulty of Chinese "dialects", and a lot to do with the fact that Chinese don't take the differences among "dialects" seriously enough to use the Roman alphabet to represent their pronunciation. Since they are regarded as "Chinese", Chinese characters are considered to be more than adequate.

Xing Jin again seizes the opportunity to praise the government of the People's Republic of China for introducing the Roman alphabet. Of course, the People's Republic of China were not the only ones to adopt a system of writing sounds using the Roman alphabet; this is just self-promotion. Her bosses in China will be more impressed than her Australian listeners.

Many Australians beginning Chinese are unlikely to have ever heard of the old zhùyīn system that Xing Jin mentions, let alone a broad audience of ABC listeners. Zhùyīn is not another name for Chinese characters; it was an excellent modern system for representing the pronunciation of (Mandarin) Chinese that was developed in the early 20th century. Its main disadvantage vis-à-vis Roman letters was that it can't be used for languages other than Mandarin, whereas Roman letters are used right around the world. Zhùyīn is, however, still used in Taiwan.

KHD: Well, it’s been great talking with you Xing Jin. Thank you very much.

XJ: Thank you.

There are several reasons for the almost total failure of communication in this interview.

Much of the blame must lie with the interviewer. The motivation for the interview appears to have been a vague openness to and curiosity about Chinese, but without any real interest in China and certainly no interest in doing the work needed to guarantee a meaningful interview. Before tackling an interview about a linguistic culture as foreign as that of China's, Kelly Higgins-Devine really should have done a little more preparation. When speaking with David Crystal, Kelly showed herself familiar with various minutiae of English dialect, such as the large difference between neighbouring dialects like Sunderland and Newcastle. But she appears to have very little knowledge about Chinese at all, with the result that the onus for doing a good interview was thrown onto the interviewee. There is plenty on the Internet that she could could have looked up, e.g. here, here, here, and here, and that's just from the first two pages of Google results.

It certainly doesn't help that Kelly takes Australian perceptions that "dialect" and "accent" are roughly equivalent into an interview about Chinese. Had she done a little homework, she would not have been flummoxed by the puzzling reaction to her use of the word "dialect" and might have been aware of the controversy that the issue of dialect vs language has caused. Many Chinese strongly disagree with Western proposals to call the different varieties of Chinese "languages" rather than "dialects". With this knowledge, Kelly might have steered away from using the word "dialect" altogether.

More fundamentally, the ABC should have taken greater care in their choice of person to interview. Both David Crystal and Felicity Fox are noted specialists in their fields, English and Australian accents respectively. David Crystal enjoys something of a stellar status as a populariser of linguistics. It is unfair to expect the general manager of the local Confucius Institute, which is mostly involved in language teaching, cultural activities, and furthering the soft power ambitions of the Chinese government, to be able to give a strong telephone interview on a complex issue like Chinese accents.

Xing Jin has a background in cross-cultural relations, having spent many years working in audience development for the Sydney Symphony Orchestra. But unlike David Crystal, who had penetrating insights to share (for example, the observation that accent is a mark of identity), Xing Jin could do no more than recycle Chinese popular perceptions about language and dialect, leavened with a little knowledge of linguistics. Since Chinese popular perceptions on dialect are quite different from those of English, it is disappointing, if not surprising, that Xing Jin was unable to give a more sophisticated or coherent explanation of the areas that she covered.

Of course, some of the blame also lies with Xing Jin. The greatest problem was caused by her failure to grasp that the interviewer was asking about accents (kǒuyīn), not dialects (fāngyán). This is what sent the entire interview completely off course. This misapprehension was not helped by other problems: Xing Jin's eagerness to plough ahead and helpfully "set foreigners right" about Chinese, to provide favourable publicity for the government of China, and to cite for the supposed benefit of listeners Chinese words like fāngyán, pǔtōnghuà, and zhùyīn. Xing Jin is clearly more comfortable as a "teacher" introducing basic Chinese thinking to students in a classroom, or perhaps as a grass-roots cultural facilitator, than as a specialist commentator on linguistic issues.

In the end it's a pity that this golden opportunity for cross-cultural communication turned out so poorly.


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