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Home Living in China Foreigners in China Foreigners in China 老外看中国:你们的方言实在是太多了
Foreigners in China

To Talk the Talk in China, You Have to Know Where You Are

  By Megan Panther

  During the first semester I taught in China (Fall of 2003), an American friend and I took advantage of a three-day weekend by heading north to Beijing. We arrived excited and exhausted from the 12-hour train trip (we wrongly assumed that our standing-room-only tickets wouldn't be too uncomfortable), only to realize that we could hardly understand the conversations swirling around us in the nation's capitol. Even minor interactions, such as asking for directions or ordering food, were confusing and at first, all I could pick out of the Beijingers' rapid sentences was a predominate "rrr" sound.

When we gave a taxi driver directions to the hostel we planned to stay in, our best attempts at Chinese were met with blank stares ... until we learned the secret. All we had to do to communicate was add an "rrr" sound at the end of most of our words. We were amazed at how quickly the driver understood the word for gate, "men," when we pronounced it as "mer."

  Of course, I've since learned that the Beijing accent is a lot more complicated than simply adding an "r" at the end of random words, but many words do end with the heavy "rrr" sound. I've been here nearly a month now, and the Beijing dialect is becoming increasingly comprehensible. In fact, as I have now learned, the Beijing language, Beijinghua, is very standard, quite similar to the main Chinese dialect, Mandarin.

  The written language is fairly standard throughout China, with characters possessing the same meanings and different pronunciations in different parts of the country. But, as many readers probably already know, the Chinese spoken language is made up of a wide range of regional dialects, many incomprehensible to each other. When Chinese travel to different parts of the country, they frequently have difficulty communicating with people who only speak the local dialects. After returning to the States last year, I was extremely disappointed to discover that I couldn't understand the Chinese spoken in most Chinese restaurants or on the street in Chinatown. Many Chinese in the United States speak southern Chinese dialects, most often Cantonese (China's second most common dialect, spoken in southern China and Hong Kong) or Fujianhua, a dialect spoken on China's east coast.

  My students in Wuhan often tried to baffle their roommates by speaking to each other in local dialects, attempting to guess the meanings of different sounds are words. One student told me that her roommate's local dialect sounded as foreign to her as French or German.

  China's official, language, Mandarin, is becoming more common in all parts of China. It is used in schools, from kindergartens to universities, all across China. Additionally, all college freshmen are required to pass an exam in standard Mandarin. Students from southern and eastern China often worry a great deal about the exam, preparing for months in advance in order to pass the difficult oral portion of the test. Certain marks are required on the exam in order to be considered for certain occupations such as television broadcasters, teachers, and other professional careers whose communication skills are of great importance.

  Fortunately, the Wuhan dialect wasn't extremely different from standard Mandarin, so I haven't had too much trouble communicating here in Beijing. I'm in class 24 hours a week, but my real classroom is Beijing. My interactions in restaurants, in shops, on busses, in taxis, and on the street are beginning to wash away my Wuhan accent and are gradually installing the "rrr" sound that so intimidated me during my first trip here.

  Megan Panther, a 1999 GHS graduate, is a graduate student at the University of Chicago doing language study and research in Beijing for one year.

  Megan Panther(美国)/文 陈宜泽/编译











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