Speak­ing Man­darin or di­alect for bet­ter life

China Daily (Hong Kong) - - PAGE TWO - Yuan Zhou

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

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