Rapid-Fire Mandarin

Or “how not to speak Mandarin”.

In our studies, we all do some things we’re not proud of. Reading Sailor Moon Fist of the North Star, taking English language breaks (well, I wanted to hear how it sounded before it was translated!), etc. No, the biggest mistake I’ve made was getting into the habit of “rapid-fire Mandarin” where, through some tragic series of events, I’ve learned ‘speaking faster meant getting understood better”. Let me explain.

Before, I would speak slowly, which often lead to a lot of misunderstanding, mostly because I was still in the very early stages of learning (ignorance was also bliss, because with a more limited vocabulary, I could only say so much yet was quite clear about that. Now I know too much but can’t express it all. Ack!). Then, I found, speaking faster seemed like it was easier for people to understand me. I don’t know how or why this occurred. I’m also not the only one to notice this, either, as I have had other classmates come to the same conclusion.

This conclusion is wrong. So very. Very. Wrong.

No, instead you come off sounding like you’re trying to gun down their ears with your broken tones and un-retroflexed shi, zhi, and r’s and, god bless the native speakers, they just try to figure it out. In fact, it has actually lead me to MORE misunderstandings than when I spoke slower in my younger more innocent days.

So, a piece of advice and something to try and remember when you speak–much as I have to–keep it slow. It doesn’t have to be 56.6k1 slow, but at least try and keep it at a nice comfortable speed. In addition, try and keep it even (as best as you can). Slow and even. If you speak like you’re on your 6th cup of coffee of the last 15 minutes, then that’s too fast. Go for more “the morphine is starting to kick in now” speeds.

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1Am I the only one disturbed that people have actually uploaded videos on Youtube JUST for the old dial-up sounds?

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7 thoughts on “Rapid-Fire Mandarin

  1. Interesting. I was reading something about learning Japanese the other day (can’t remember where it was now), and the guy was talking about the same thing. I think when you first start out, it sounds like everyone is talking fast because you don’t understand it. When you get better, you still have that lingering feeling that you don’t talk fast enough, so you try to talk fast because it feels right. Then suddenly one day you’re talking too fast and nobody understands you, and you have to slow down. Seems to be a common thing, I think.

    • Exactly! And I remember someone saying that speaking faster helps you get past the issue of tones, by meshing them all together–making it sound more “natural”. That’s very much not the case, too. Slow and steady. I certainly need to practice, though!

  2. Ah, that’s interesting too! I hear that all the time. I think it’s a case of the learner confusing his own ability to hear the tones clearly with the speaker’s ability to produce them accurately. If they have the impression that tones get meshed all together in fast native speech, then I think they’re just not hearing the language clearly enough. That does not mean, however, that the tones actually are meshed together. If they recorded the speaker and actually analyzed the tones, I believe they’d find the tones are right on, every time.

    I think that it partly also stems from an expectation for the tonal range to be broader than it is in real life. We foreigners all get taught this absurd “standard” with these big sweeping third tones, uncomfortably high first tones, etc. Nobody talks like that in real life. In actual fact, Taiwanese people speak within a pretty limited pitch range when speaking normally. This may be perceived as tones being meshed together.

    The problem is compounded by the fact that Taiwanese people are taught that this “standard” is something to aspire to, which causes two things to happen: 1) they think of their own accent as inferior to some disembodied standard, and 2) they tend to over-praise foreigners for their language-center-approved “標準” accent containing huge tonal contours and overly exaggerated retroflexes. Never mind that apart from these two very conspicuous markers of “standard” speech, the learner’s Chinese is actually crap (generally). These markers (which incidentally can also both serve as markers of a northern mainland accent) are the ones that get noticed, perceived as superior to the native speaker’s own pronunciation due to social conditioning, and therefore praised.

    On the bus last night I heard this 3 or 4 year old girl speaking with the most beautiful, clear, untampered with Taiwanese accent. Really bright, witty, full of personality etc., she had everyone on the bus cracking up, and no hint of a notion that there was anything wrong with the way she talked. It’s unfortunate that when she goes to school she’ll likely be taught to be self-conscious of her “non-standard” accent, and resort to the sort of over-corrections that lead to utterances like “méichuò” (沒錯) and “shìshíshì yuán” (44元).

    Anyway, back on topic. As I eluded to, the problem is even further compounded by the teachers themselves. There are teachers at MTC (and my impression is that the problem is even more rampant at ICLP) who actually instill it into their students’ heads that they shouldn’t pay attention to how Taiwanese people speak, because it’s “wrong”. Just talk like they do in the textbooks, and you’ll speak “correct” Mandarin, they say (and I’m talking about usage too, not just pronunciation). Then the students get frustrated because they can’t understand native speakers and vice versa. A girl in my class has asked this question several times: “Taiwanese people always say X, but my previous teacher said that’s wrong, that Y is the correct/standard way to say it.” My teacher usually responds with “Well, Y may be the standard, but X is fine too, and maybe even better because that’s how people actually say it.” I’ve known some to go as far as being cocky about how their Chinese is “better” than Taiwanese people’s, and go around correcting native speakers. “X才是標準的中文”, which I find incredibly arrogant, rude, and obtuse.

    Anyway, that’s my post-length comment on the subject.

    • Sorry for the late reply! Somehow your comment got spammed and I was out of the country for a few days.

      I wouldn’t mind seeing that in a post! Very interesting read. Well, it’s just like the supposed “standardization” of American English in cram schools. I was told to tone down my (slight) Jersey accent because it was creating “bad habits”. I was tempted to ask just what the heck “standard” English was anyway, and if it’s based on the KK phonetic system, no wonder everyone gets it wrong.

      At any rate, I think it is impossible to set a standard, and in doing so, you limit how much you can actually understand of a language. If I follow the “standard” in schools like the MTC, I wouldn’t understand what people say here. In the end, what is most important is speaking clearly; knowing how tones work; how Chinese sounds, no matter where you are.

      Thanks for the comment!

  3. I had to force myself to talk slower when I was try correct what my teacher called “fossilized pronunciation errors”. I think that it worked. I remember that I had to concentrate a lot and speak slower so that my tutor would not correct me.

    • Interesting! So did you only speak slower, or did you do other things to try and focus on correcting your pronunciation errors?

      • Well, I think that when I first started learning Chinese, I had developed some slight pronunciation errors that no one around me tried to correct because they were pretty minor. For example, I would slip up in the differences between zhu and ju. In order to catch them, I deliberately spoke slower, and also tried to sound like one of the really slow speeches that Chinese PRC officials give (well, maybe not that slow!)

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