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My first language is Cantonese. I learned Mandarin as a second language. Native speakers of Mandarin often understand me with no major issues. Of course, they recognize the Southern accents right away. Sometimes, I have trouble understanding people from Northern regions (example: Beijing). Other than the "learned" retroflex constants (zh, ch, sh, r) produced by native Cantonese speakers, what are the other characteristics that I should aware to understand better?

Sorry to over-generalize the regions and their accents. Please feel free to point out characteristics in speech between different sub-regions.

Note that I'm not asking about terminology difference between different dialect/regional speech. This topic can be covered in a separate question.

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Does this question answers yours? I feel like it's almost a duplicate. :P It seems accents were not treated there, so I guess you're fine. –  Alenanno Jan 31 '12 at 9:50
    
@Alenanno The question that your pointed out is close, but not quite. There are many, many languages in Southern China. Even within Guangdong there are many. For example, Toishan was once a popular dialect/language spoken in North America's Chinatown. In Northern China there are many languages that have their own characteristics. For instance, some of Hakka's patterns don't exist in Mandarin. I don't like to over-generalize (Mandarin VS Cantonese) but here I need a starting point. –  lacampane11a Jan 31 '12 at 14:44
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If you're looking for specific characteristics of particular accents, there are a couple I have noticed that have been fairly reliable.

I'm usually able to tell whether someone is from Shanghai (or a nearby Wu-dialect area) based on the way they pronounce the word 能 (néng). Instead of the standard [nəŋ], they often say [nəɲ]. Note the [ɲ] (a palatal nasal sound) rather than [ŋ] (a velar nasal sound). You can hear the differences on the Wikipedia pages that I linked. If you happen to listen to ChinesePod, you may notice that Jenny typically pronounces 能 this way. The reason for this particular pronunciation is because in Shanghainese and other Wu dialects, [ŋ] and [ɲ] are allophones of the same consonant and [ɲ] always occurs after the vowel /ə/.

Tianjin folks sometimes pronounce initial w- as [ʋ] (a labiodental approximate sound that sounds somewhat like [v]). There was some discussion of this sound on a post in the Beijing Sounds blog. I don't necessarily know the real explanation for this, but this sound did exist in Late Middle Chinese (ca. 1200 AD) and is transcribed by linguists as mv- (see note 2 under the table in this link). All the mv- sounds merged with w- and Mandarin and m- in Cantonese (e.g., 未 is wèi in Mandarin and mei in Cantonese), but it might be that in the Tianjin dialect w- merged with mv- and both came to be pronounced as [ʋ] (this is purely my speculation though).

If we go to more general dialectical characteristics, you can often find free variation of initial n- and l- consonants in the south, particularly in Cantonese-speaking regions. There is also free variation of h- and f- around south-central China (i.e., Hunan region). The latter probably has something to do with the fact that many /x/ and /ɣ/ sounds in Middle Chinese shifted to /x/ or /f/ (which correspond to pinyin h- and f-, respectively) in various modern dialects.

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Thanks for sharing your knowledge on Wu-dialect and historical context. I've learned something new about m, mv and w. (Yes, the m-w interchange is quite apparent.) And also h, f and n. –  lacampane11a Feb 2 '12 at 15:49
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Not sure if this is what you mean, but a friend (native speaker) said that Northern regions tend to 捲舌 "roll their tongue" more than Southern regions.

I speak mandarin with a Taiwan accent (minimal 捲舌) and have been asked once if I came from Guangzhou - I'm assuming of my lack of 捲舌 was associated with a southern China accent.

Also, from my recent visit to Shanghai and Beijing, I noticed that in Beijing, people seemed to speak with slightly more variations in pitch and faster. While in Shanghai, people seemed to speak in a more monotone/flat manner, and also a bit slower (maybe I found it easier to understand since they didn't 捲舌 as much).

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Yes, lack of 捲舌 is an obvious characteristic. For people who speak Cantonese all their lives and don't learn Mandarin or English (not me), 捲舌 took a while to learn. By the way, thanks for pointing out the speed - I'll keep this in mind. –  lacampane11a Feb 2 '12 at 15:37
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