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Often when I hear Asians speaking English, it is quite easy to tell if it is their first or second language. Their pronunciation of certain words and sounds such as the hard r's and hard and soft t's usually gives it away. So, my question is, is that how we, foreign Mandarin speakers, sound to native Mandarin speakers? I know that Chinese depends a lot on pronouncing the tones of every word correctly. Yet, when I speak Mandarin to my family, they still praise and understand me even though I know that I am getting certain tones wrong. To clarify, do foreign Mandarin speakers sound as bad speaking Mandarin as foreign English speakers do speaking English?

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  • 天不怕地不怕,就怕廣東人說普通話 So, when considering "foreign Mandarin speakers", you need to include native Cantonese speakers who actually mangled up Mandarin as much if not more than others. Try this -- youtu.be/rgldxnQeO3w :) Jan 26 at 12:49
  • @Wayne I think the original (or better) version is 天不怕,地不怕,就怕老廣說官話.
    – joehua
    Jan 27 at 0:46
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I started this off as a comment but it was getting a bit longwinded so I'll just convert it to an answer.

This question is a bit subjective but I think there is a fair way to look at it.

Foreign Mandarin speakers are easy to sound much worse than most other speakers of second languages.

This is mainly due to what you alluded to in your question: tones. The majority of world languages are atonal - which makes acquisition of a tonal language, especially for adult learners, extremely difficult. If you listen to Korean's speak Mandarin you are very likely to hear tones that haven't even been invented yet in Chinese.

There are also certain initials and finals that some learners seem to perpetually struggle with. 学 /x-ue/ seems to be a particularly big one for Westerners who like to read it: /sh-ui/. Japanese speakers especially struggle with /-an/ at the end of words, often switching it to /-uan/. While most learners are just simply baffled by: /-üe/. And many learners mix up /-o/ and /-ou/.

Most speakers just aren't given the benefit of the doubt. I've seen decent speakers make simple mistakes, that may have been easily overlooked in other languages, met with rapid condescendence. Assuming that the speakers would rather just prefer to speak their native language, i.e.: switching to English; or putting on a "foreign accent" to match the speaker.

Aside from the actual nuts and bolts of the language there are lines of thought that just don't match up. For instance, I've also seen Westerners, person B, have this kind of intercourse:

A: 我昨天吃了麦当劳
B: 怎么样?
A: 什么怎样?
B: 吃麦当劳呗

This kind of non-linear thinking, often trips up native Mandarin speakers and leaves second language speakers sounding even more non-native. One way that could avoid confusion on the above example would be to repeat subject and then ask, "how was it?"

This is all quite ironic because most Mandarin speakers are not first language speakers. The majority of people grew up speaking topolects and dialects as their first language. As a result they can also struggle greatly with speaking "standard" Mandarin, as it is promoted. Using the correct words, getting tones right, pronouncing initials and finals is just as difficult for many of these speakers. And of course, they will say things wrong and cause misunderstandings just like anyone else. But, there is a certain native air to their speaking that earns them the benefit of the doubt.

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  • Thank you so much for taking the time to give me an in-depth answer. Yet, because I am only learning to speak Chinese and am not super interested in learning to read or write it too, I was not quite able to follow along in your examples. Having said that, I am assuming the short answer would be, yes, it is very easy/common for foreign Mandarin speakers to sound just as bad?
    – BreWoodsy
    Jan 26 at 18:18
  • Japanese speakers especially struggle with /-an/ at the end of words, often switching it to /-uan/. Can you elaborate? There are several characters for which Japanese and Chinese sound near-identical, e.g. 三, 看, 板.
    – dROOOze
    Jan 29 at 5:02
  • @dROOOze This is just purely anecdotal from observing acquaintances, but I've noticed often when 言 is on the end of a word they would pronounce it yuan. 語言 for instance would become yu yuan.
    – Mou某
    Jan 29 at 11:27
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Two things I want to say about tones.

1, Tones are not as important as they sound if the purpose is to get yourself understood.

You must have been told thousands of times that tones will affect the meaning of the words, and the example given is usually "ma1" (mom) and "ma3" (horse). However, most of the time, the meaning can be told from the context. Actually, I do have a Taiwanese friend referring to her mom as "wo3 de ma3", but we all know what she is talking about. I think that case is much more distinguishable than 四 vs 十 in some dialects. (not Cantonese level "dialect". I consider Cantonese as a different language. The dialect here is something like '河南话' which is not far from Mandarin. However, I was never able to tell 四 from 十 in '河南话'.)

2, Even if you get all the tones right, I will still be able to tell you are a foreigner

The key is the pitch (抑扬顿挫) of sentences, not the tones of characters. Some of my ABC friends speak Chinese very well, which is better than most second language learners. They sound to me like they are speaking perfect Chinese sentences in English pitches.

*, "Do foreign Mandarin speakers sound as bad speaking Mandarin as foreign English speakers do speaking English?"

If you consider it as 'bad', yes they do, but it is 'better' than most dialects sound to Mandarin speakers.

Well, I don't think it is bad as long as understandable.

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  • Thank you! This helps a lot!
    – BreWoodsy
    Jan 27 at 6:05
  • Regarding 2, there's no pitch accent in Chinese, only tones, right?
    – Jimmy Yang
    Jan 28 at 7:21
  • @JimmyYang You can understand it like this: 抑扬顿挫. I don't think there are fixed rules for that, but it is part of the expression.
    – River
    Jan 28 at 15:04
  • "They sound to me like they are speaking perfect Chinese sentences in English pitches" - may I ask what you mean by this? Can you provide an example? Mar 20 at 18:29
  • @MuchAppreciated25 It is like, if the words are written down, I will not tell if it is by a foreigner. The tones are also like 99% correct. But the pitch is raised in some unexpected positions. Pauses and accents can also happen at unexpected positions. Like English speakers tend to raise the pitch of yes-no questions, but it is not necessary for Chinese. I guess they learned that in classes, but I can tell when they are trying to hold that temptation intentionally.
    – River
    Mar 21 at 20:01

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