Regional differences in Mandarin language

I’m considering taking an internship next fall in China that would last about ten months (teaching ESL in a secondary school, plus taking half-time credits through an American University). One of my primary goals in this endeavor is to make headway toward learning Mandarin at least to a conversational level (I have zero familiarity with the language and I’m aware that to do this in one year is difficult, if not impossible).

This program is located in Shenzhen, a city that is fairly near Hong Kong. The brochure says they speak Mandarin there, but I’m getting conflicting reports. I know Cantonese is spoken in Hong Kong, so I would assume that in such a nearby city there would at least be a strong Cantonese influence.

My question is, if I were to go about learning Mandarin, is the city or region in which I am learning going to be a major advantage or hindrance? If so, where would a city like Shenzhen measure up compared to other cities in China? Which areas are known for their “pure” Mandarin, or is there no such place?

Any advice would be much appreciated. Also any insight into the process, or warnings, advice, blessings, curses, etc. would be interesting. Thanks.

Shenzhen is the tower of Babel. The lingua franca of Shenzhen is Mandarin, but you can get away with speaking only Cantonese. Although it borders HK, the majority of Shenzhen residents are from outside of Guangdong province, and many of them are from the deep countryside. For what it’s worth, my Shanghaiese father in law barely spoke Mandarin 10 years ago, and then moved to Shenzhen and is now pretty good.

Cantonese is basically spoken only in Canton (Guangdong Province), Hong Kong and by the descendants of the original Chinese diaspora. In Hong Kong, one can get by speaking Mandarin or English.

Mandarin on the other hand will allow you to communicate throughout China, Taiwan, Singapore and other overseas Chinese communities.

So, unless you have strong personal reasons for learning Cantonese or plan on living in Hong Kong, the most practical and useful language will be Mandarin.

If you spend a couple hours a day, get a black haired dictionary that speaks minimal English, do not concentrate on learning characters, you’ll be able to pick up a fair amount of conversational Mandarin or Cantonese in a year. But you really have to be diligent about it.

If you want to be in a native Mandarin speaking environment, Taipei may be your best bet. Beijing and Northern China where they speak a form of Mandarin as the native language has some strong local accents. Most big cities in China have Mandarin language programs and most people under the age of 40 can speak Mandarin (although as a second language) with a pretty clear accent, although amonst themselves will speak the local dialect.

Having started learning Mandarin over 20 years ago, I would highly suggest concentrating exclusively on Mandarin. If you become fluent in Mandarin, you can communicate. If you learn a couple hundred words of Mandarin, Cantonese, Taiwanese and Shanghaiese instead of perfecting one tounge, then you’ll never get beyond the baby talk stage.

I did a course of evening classes in Mandarin and really enjoyed them. We learnt it via the “Pin Ying” (sp?) transliteration system. There are many sounds in Mandarin that are totally different to any in English. We used to start classes by saying them, I made my own phonetic interpretations of them to help remember: things like zzhrr, chzrrr, jhrrr and so on. Fun though it will be, you’re not in for an easy ride!

From my experience, and from speaking to others, I get the impression that more musically-minded people will have a better chance of learning Mandarin, because of the tonal system. It really is almost a “sung” language. When I try out my two or three remembered phrases in Chinese restaurants, they never have a clue what I’m saying, because my tones are all wrong. “He be cha ba” - “would you like a cup of tea?”

When I explain what it is, they say it back to me in Chinese. But my native-English speaking ears still automatically focus on consonants and vowels, not tones. I think I would need full immersion, maybe living with a Chinese family, to learn it properly.

Like you I am interesting in teaching ESL in China somewhere. If you do go, please post back about your experiences, and good luck.

The formal Putonga is based on the Beijing dialact, so it’s kinda funny to say they have a strong local accent :smiley:

If you don’t mind people treating you like dirt. They’re starting to wake up and smell the Ga Fey (don’t know the Mandarin/pinyin), but many people in HK still tend to look down on Mainlanders and discriminate against Mandarin-speaking compatriots. It might be different if you’re white and speak Mandarin - but then you’d stick to English anyway.

Go to Beijing, talk to the locals, then tell me whether or not there is a strong local accent. Seriously. And I don’t mean just a rrrrrrrr sound either. Sure, most locals can speak proper Mandarin, but most do not.

A white guy in Hong Kong actually gets some respect from the locals if he speaks mandarin. Of course, you get a lot more respect if you speak Cantonese.

Still, if you learn Mandarin, you can basically use it everywhere.

I’ll tell you what really freaks people out here, if you’re white. Reading some Chinese and pronouncing it in Cantonese. I can only do it with a few hundred characters - place names, company names, addresses, people’s names, etc. Secretaries and people love it. Of course, a little knowledge is a dangerous thing.

I never went to Shenzhen, (I didn’t need a mistress, an eye-job, or bootleg VCDs) so I can only speak in generalizations. If you’re going to study ahead of time, if there’s any way you can I would suggest learning to speak with more of a Southern accent, or at least get used to hearing it; basically, by default, you will learn standard/Beijing Mandarin, that is, lots of “rrrr.” When speaking to Southerners it can get confusing if you’ve only heard Beijing Mandarin from an instructor; I’ve had trouble distinguishing between their 4’s and 10’s more than once. (Some of those people need to practice “4 is 4, 10 is 10, 14 is 14, 40 is 40” more) And the fact is, accents and sloppy pronunciation are out of control; I once asked for an album three times (perfect tones) before writing it down and having something incomprehensible spit back at me when it was read back to me. Young university types and teachers are going to speak clearly and properly, but when you’re talking to cab drivers and shopkeepers, it’s a crap-shoot, and one you’ll probably lose. I’ve seriously had people tell me a price, and I wouldn’t even know they had said a number if they hadn’t pointed at the number after I looked blank. And my Mandarin is getting pretty decent, so it’s not all my fault. What I’m trying to say is: expect a lot of frustration, and try to at least get some passing introduction to Southern accents. Try watching Taiwanese movies if all else fails.

If you’re going to go to down to Hong Kong, from what I’ve heard from my non-Cantonese-studying cronies Mandarin is basically a bust there for pracitcal use. You’re better off just being a loudmouthed tourist there most of the time, humiliating though it might be. I don’t know if they use simplified or traditional characters in Shenzhen (I imagine there’s probably a lot of mixing) but you’ll want to practice both if you plan to do much border hopping.

Hemlock: yes, they are easily impressed by crackers speaking Cantonese. I remember I once said “excuse me please” getting of the MTR and a girl almost peed herself. Unfortunately, in HK there’s so much movement and pressure that I get really nervous talking to people and screw up or mumble.

I can’t agree with China Guy’s advice to not worry about characters. Everyone’s different, but I value reading more than speaking, and I’ve seen people hindered by ignoring characters. If you know characters, you know how they fit together, and you can guess the meaning of new words when you heard them if you know the characters that make them up. If you just rotely memorized sounds, your head is full of gibberish. I would advise you to not worry too much about writing characters, though, as it’s not something you’ll need to do very often. At some point, though, you have to break away from the “write it until I remember what it means” pattern and start reading. You learn much better when you read things in context and see how they’re actually used rather than just doing exercises in a book. I suggest trying to read comic books when you get up to a decent level.

Dang, China bambina just deleted my thoughtful post so you will have to read this instead.

Space V, just to clarify, for someone that’s going to China for a year and wants to reach conversational fluency pretty quickly and is not a Chinese language student, then it makes a lot of sense to me to focus almost exclusively on the spoken language. Learn only a few of the basic characters like man, woman, directions, numerals, toilet, etc. Put the limited language study time into vacabulary and speaking.

Now if you really want to learn Chinese, then it is imperative to learn the characters. It depends on what your goals are, but it sounds like Diletante wants to enjoy his time in China, but his goal is not to become a Chinese language scholar. So, I would stand by this recomendation. You had a good point that if at all possible, take a class from someone that teaches a neutral pronunciation instead of the Northern Chinese rrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr sound. I stand by my recomendations that Diletante focuses almost exclusively on speaking, learns pinyin (the Mainland China romanization system), only studies Mandarin, and gets a black haired dictionary.

As an aside, if you speak fluent Mandarin, you can get around HK no problem. It helps if you’re a white guy instead of a Mainlander. In all my years working in HK, every place I worked at the local staff all practiced their Mandarin with me. It was a mixed blessing as the Hong Kongese have this really nasty accent like fingernails on a chalkboard. Mandarin joke follows:

Tian bu pa (do not fear heaven)
Di bu pa (do not fear hell)
Jiu pa Xianggang ren (only fear Hong Kongese)
Shou putonghua (speaking Mandarin)

Ask the Chinese Language Guy covered all of this and more in a 5 page thread that was lost during the troubles.

Well, different learning styles for different people, I guess. But given how few unique sounds Chinese has, I find it very, very difficult to remember a word I can’t read. I’ve seen students who had incredible trouble with basics like “sik” (Cantonese) meaning “to know how,” “color” and “eat.” AFAIK, speaking words you can’t read is like trying to read pinyin. But if you know the characters, in my experience, it’s not such a big stumbling block. But then, that’s all from the perspective of someone who’s studied for a bit, so of course “YMMV.” It probably depends on someone’s personal learning/thinking style.

I still don’t know about Mandarin in Hong Kong, everyone else I’ve talked to seemed to think that was a no-go for the most part. The key is that you were talking to co-workers, who I would presume would be moderately educated types. For street-level transactions, the reports I’ve heard haven’t been good. A lot (or most) people might be able to speak Mandarin on some level, but even for me (and definitely for a beginner) listening to someone with a horrible accent is about the same as never having learned anything, though they can usually understand you.

I’ve been visiting Hong Kong for 20 years, and have always been a fluent Mandarin speaker there. I’ve always gotten around in Hong Kong speaking Mandarin. Mandarin classes have been part of the school cirriculum for the past 10-15 years. I’m not saying every one speaks Mandarin, but you can get around HK and conduct all levels of business by speaking only Mandarin. In many cases, much easier than if one only speaks English. The Mandarin level of the Hong Kongese has improved dramatically even in the past 10 years.

That said, HK is not a great place to learn Mandarin because of the local accent and that the primary language is Cantonese.

Again, if you speak Mandarin well, then seriously you can be understood just about anywhere that there are Chinese people.

I’m not qualified to judge Hongkongers’ Mandarin, but everything I’ve heard would suggest:

  • As China Guy says, Mandarin is the Chinese lingua franca
  • If you have a white face in Hong Kong, most people will insist on trying to stick with English when speaking with you, if only to prove they’re capable of doing it. Sort of a “face” thing - they resent the implication that their English is sub par.

Thanks for all the info guys, I really appreciate it. I’m very anxious about doing this. I’ve lived in Spain and Italy for a few months each and was able to cope with that fairly easily, but I already had an intermediate familiarity with the languages there and I just see this as a much bigger cultural gap anyway. A few more questions while we’re on the subject:

What’s the climate like towards Americans in China? (This is a pretty big question in and of itself, I understand). What kind of social opportunities are there (I mean how easy or difficult is it to meet people, men and women). I know when I lived in Florence, the people were friendly, but they didn’t seem to be interested in making friends with Americans, probably cause it was such a touristy town that they were sick of us. But in Spain, I was in a University town and it was very easy to meet new people. I’m wondering because my job while there will be to teach at a secondary school, so I won’t be meeting a lot of people my age at work (I’m 24).

Any good books (or other sources) to recommend for those unfamiliar with the culture and what kind of problems I might expect to run into?

Oh, and what’s a black haired dictionary?


A black haired dictionary would be a SO that is Chinese, does wonders for your conversatinal ability and state of mind.

Chinese in China tend to really like Americans. They may have a problem with the American government, but rarely personify that to an individual American.

I don’t have any good book recommendations. Most tend to be pretty old. If someone that knows about China has seen the latest Lonely Planet, please let give your thoughts. I say that because earlier versions were written by two guys that disliked China, didn’t speak Chinese, had no background, and were sick of the country after a few months. I’m hoping that the current version no longer has this bias. The guidebook I wrote is 15 years old, out of print, and covers a whole different era.

As for social opportunities. You will have no shortage of people that want to practice English with you. Shenzhen is also widely believed to be the hooker capital of China. Shenzhen is also full of Chinese yuppies working for HK and multinational companies that have relocated across the border from Hong Kong or perform various back office functions for Hong Kong. Shenzhen basically has people from all walks of Chinese life and from all around China.