Speaking Mandarin or dialect for better life
On one sunny afternoon many winters ago, in an alley entrance near a hotel where I stayed for a business trip to Beijing, I watched children jumping rope and was mesmerized by their rhymes in beautiful Mandarin.
While I heard their chants, I lamented my tenuous hold on standard Mandarin that was slipping farther away. At that time I had worked overseas with a conscientious effort to dull the edge of my accent that I had acquired after years of living in the city before I left.
My Mandarin has never sounded like a Beijing native’s because I didn’t grow up in the city where it originated. Yet I could see mock- ery on the faces of Mandarin speakers outside the Chinese mainland who parodied the northern Chinese lilt by adding an “r” to the end of a syllable, when they spoke to me.
I’d found it difficult to speak with an “o”, “lah” or “meh”, like them. But I toned down with a drawl, and blurred the sounds like “si” and “shi”.
It hurt me to think why expatriates who were native English speakers didn’t have to try to speak like a local while abroad.
But I consoled myself by the fact that it was relatively easier than learning Chinese dialects that were often unintelligible to each other, like Shanghainese and Cantonese.
My father spoke the dialect of the Hubei provincial capital and my mother spoke Shanghainese. When I was little, my mother made a point of speaking Shang- hainese to me, while my father spoke either in his native dialect or a provincial dialect of where they worked.
When I went to college in Shanghai, I tried to master its dialect, a symbol of status for local residents. It made my uncles and aunts scratch their heads when they couldn’t present their tongue-tied nephew to neighbors and friends.
The bigger motivation, though, was that Shanghainese rich in vowels and consonants was more helpful than most other dialects to learn English. It dawned upon me that English is a harsh mistress and my dominant native dialect should be ditched due to its negative transfer to the learning of a foreign language.
My daily battle for impeccable Shanghainese was taken over by another one for Mandarin after I started work. Soon English demanded ever more efforts as my other medium of work and thoughts. I’ve since been torn between the two and there is little time left for anything else.
I’ve followed the current debate on the preservation of Chinese dialects that tends to emphasize their cultural and sentimental values rather than the more pressing economic motivations for learning a language, like better reward and life.
My Beijing-born son doesn’t knows his dad could speak the kind of Mandarin in films made overseas. I’ve repaired it since my return. With the rise of China, probably more people will emulate standard Mandarin, the vocal equivalent of the international business card.
Contact the writer at yuanzhou@ chinadaily.com.cn