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An interview about Chinese accents

How cross-cultural differences led to a conversation conducted totally at cross-purposes

24 March 2016 (most recent revision 29 March)

Kelly Higgins DevineOn 9 February 2016, Kelly Higgins-Devine, the afternoon presenter on 612 ABC (Australian Broadcasting Corporation) Brisbane, hosted a program about accents. The program can be heard here.

Kelly spoke to three different people. First up was Professor David Crystal, a prominent British linguist, who spoke in a very informative and entertaining manner about accents in the United Kingdom and, to some extent, Australia.

This was followed by an interview with Associate Professor Felicity Cox from Macquarie University, who held a very intelligent discussion about accents within Australia.

Xing JinFinally, in what appeared to be a nod at accents in foreign languages, Kelly held an interview with Xing Jin from the Confucius Institute at the University of Sydney.

What was most remarkable about the interview with Xing Jin was the fact that Kelly Higgins-Devine did not manage to elicit a single comment pertaining to the topic at hand -- "accents in Chinese" -- during the entire interview. That is a breathtaking achievement. Although the average Australian listener might have gleaned a few morsels of intelligible information from the interview, for the most part the two participants were speaking at cross-purposes from start to finish.

What could have turned a potentially interesting discussion into such a disastrous failure? That's what I want to delve into here.

I will reproduce the interview below, interspersed with my own notes pointing out where the problems lie. I know it will sound nitpicking, but fathoming a communication failure of this magnitude requires a fine-grained look at the assumptions and thinking that caused it to run off the rails in such a spectacular manner.

KHD: Spoken English has a multitude of accents. But what about other languages? The world’s most populous nation is China. So you’d imagine they’d have plenty of different ways of saying the same thing. Xing Gin is general manager of the Confucius Institute at the University of Sydney. Good afternoon.

XJ: Good afternoon. Níng hǎo! Xīnnián hǎo!

KHD: Oh thank you! And was that “Good morning”? “Hello”?

XJ: Oh, “Happy New Year”.

KHD: Of course! [Ah, yes] Well, tell us about accents in China. We know that there are many dialects, but are there accents as well?

XJ: Ah, yes. I may give you a little bit of overview about the Chinese language because it’s very confusing. So people often ask me, “Do you teach Mandarin? Do you teach Cantonese?” Now for the normal (???) Cantonese is not a written language, Cantonese is a dialect. So basically Chinese a family of closely related, but a bit different language. So this language are known as fāngyán, regional languages, so dialects of Chinese.

KHD: How many?

XJ: Let’s say the major variety of Chinese language there are about 13, but each dialect they have sub-dialects. So for example, one of the dialects I speak is Xiang dialect. I come from Hunan province, I speak Xiang as my first language. But in Xiang language they have lots of different sub-dialects.

KHD: I was going to ask, when people with a different dialect meet up, do they understand each other clearly?

XJ: That’s the problem. Because some dialects they have much more similarity, they are more or less similar. For example, the northern dialect, they are more similar, but for some people from southern dialect, especially from Minlan, from Xiang, they are very different. So what happened is, in China, in 1948, the People’s Republic of China government organised a language reform, then they called Mandarin, called the old Chinese language, call pǔtōnghuà. So basically they used that as a official language, is based on Beijing dialect. So most people in China and Taiwan, even your first language is not pǔtōnghuà or Mandarin, you can understand or speak pǔtōnghuà or Mandarin.

KHD: We’ve been talking about world influences this afternoon as well, and how opening up different areas to Internet or those sort of things might influence dialect. Is that happening in younger generations in China, that the accents are changing somehow?

XJ: I think the accents hasn’t changed much but the vocabulary and grammar have been changed. We have seen so many new vocabulary came into the Chinese language. For example, people use the English sounds, “sofa”, lots of new things, so they’re from the English. Also people start to make up words to reflect the new technology area digital language. So that’s changing, the language is changing. But the core grammar sentence structure still stays.

KHD: ABC local radio Queensland, talking about accents this afternoon. My guest is Xing Jin, general manager of the Confucius Institute at the University of Sydney. So within the dialects that you have in China, is there a difference in the accent as well, or is the, or are the accents fairly stable within provinces?

XJ: All variety of Chinese are tonal language. This means, each syllable can have a number of different meanings depending on the intonation with which it is pronounced. For example, Mandarin has four tones, or sometimes people say five tones, they have one soft tone; Cantonese has nine tones; Taiwanese has seven tones.

KHD: That sounds very, very challenging to me.

XJ: That’s right, that’s right. But some of dialects, as I mentioned before, they are more similar. Some of them are very different.

KHD: Ok, so, that means the accent is, can be different as well depending on the amount of tones that people have within that language?

XJ: That’s right, depend on region. …

KHD: I was just wondering with the tonal language, then, and people being able to say different words that might sound the same except for where the tone is different. Is that different with accent, or is that changed by accent, or not?

XJ: For example, as I mentioned before, one syllable can have up to 20-30 different meanings, so you need to have the context to understand the words, understand the meaning. It’s a bit different with the English accent, whether you come from northern England, from the south England or London. You are much more similar. [Yep] So you can understand with the accent. But with Chinese it’s more like dialect. If I say “How do you do?”, in pǔtōnghuà I say “Níng hǎo, nǐ hǎo”. Shanghainese we say “Nóng hǎo”. My Xiang dialect we say “Ni hao”. Can you see,“Níng hǎo, nǐ hǎo, ni hao, nóng hǎo”, Cantonese is “Néi hǒ”. So very different.

KHD: So what are the challenges, then, for you to learn English, which is, of course, not a tonal language?

XJ: Actually, I found English is compared to Cantonese and Shanghainese actually is easy to learn. [Good!] Because you have the Roman alphabet, so you have some principle how you pronounce the word. So you can learn the principle. That’s one of the reason in 1948 the People’s Republic of China government organised the language reform. They replaced the old zhùyīn alphabet with the Roman alphabet. In this way they used the same alphabet symbol that other country also use. So now when we teach Chinese to foreigners, to Westerners, we use the ABCD as a pronunciation system. So much more easy for everyone, even for Chinese people.

KHD: Well, it’s been great talking with you Xing Jin. Thank you very much.

XJ: Thank you.

There are several reasons for the almost total failure of communication in this interview.

Much of the blame must lie with the interviewer. The motivation for the interview appears to have been a vague openness to and curiosity about Chinese, but without any real interest in China and certainly no interest in doing the work needed to guarantee a meaningful interview. Before tackling an interview about a linguistic culture as foreign as that of China's, Kelly Higgins-Devine really should have done a little more preparation. When speaking with David Crystal, Kelly showed herself familiar with various minutiae of English dialect, such as the large difference between neighbouring dialects like Sunderland and Newcastle. But she appears to have very little knowledge about Chinese at all, with the result that the onus for doing a good interview was thrown onto the interviewee. There is plenty on the Internet that she could could have looked up, e.g. here, here, here, and here, and that's just from the first two pages of Google results.

It certainly doesn't help that Kelly takes Australian perceptions that "dialect" and "accent" are roughly equivalent into an interview about Chinese. Had she done a little homework, she would not have been flummoxed by the puzzling reaction to her use of the word "dialect" and might have been aware of the controversy that the issue of dialect vs language has caused. Many Chinese strongly disagree with Western proposals to call the different varieties of Chinese "languages" rather than "dialects". With this knowledge, Kelly might have steered away from using the word "dialect" altogether.

More fundamentally, the ABC should have taken greater care in their choice of person to interview. Both David Crystal and Felicity Fox are noted specialists in their fields, English and Australian accents respectively. David Crystal enjoys something of a stellar status as a populariser of linguistics. It is unfair to expect the general manager of the local Confucius Institute, which is mostly involved in language teaching, cultural activities, and furthering the soft power ambitions of the Chinese government, to be able to give a strong telephone interview on a complex issue like Chinese accents.

Xing Jin has a background in cross-cultural relations, having spent many years working in audience development for the Sydney Symphony Orchestra. But unlike David Crystal, who had penetrating insights to share (for example, the observation that accent is a mark of identity), Xing Jin could do no more than recycle Chinese popular perceptions about language and dialect, leavened with a little knowledge of linguistics. Since Chinese popular perceptions on dialect are quite different from those of English, it is disappointing, if not surprising, that Xing Jin was unable to give a more sophisticated or coherent explanation of the areas that she covered.

Of course, some of the blame also lies with Xing Jin. The greatest problem was caused by her failure to grasp that the interviewer was asking about accents (kǒuyīn), not dialects (fāngyán). This is what sent the entire interview completely off course. This misapprehension was not helped by other problems: Xing Jin's eagerness to plough ahead and helpfully "set foreigners right" about Chinese, to provide favourable publicity for the government of China, and to cite for the supposed benefit of listeners Chinese words like fāngyán, pǔtōnghuà, and zhùyīn. Xing Jin is clearly more comfortable as a "teacher" introducing basic Chinese thinking to students in a classroom, or perhaps as a grass-roots cultural facilitator, than as a specialist commentator on linguistic issues.

In the end it's a pity that this golden opportunity for cross-cultural communication turned out so poorly.


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