Learning Mandarin in Cantonese Land

“Tiān bú pà, dì bú pà, jiù pà Guǎngdōng rén shuō pǔtōnghuà”

天不怕, 地不怕, 就怕广东人说普通话,

“I’m not afraid of the heavens or the earth, the only thing I’m afraid of is a person from Guangdong speaking Mandarin.”

That’s often the first thing a Chinese person from outside Guangdong Province will tell me when I tell them I’ve learned Mandarin in Guangzhou (in the boonies outside the suburbs of Guangzhou, actually). They’re amazed that I don’t have a Cantonese accent or even a southern accent (more on this in a moment) despite my having learned all my Chinese in the South (Nanchang, Jiangxi Province for 1 year, then Kunming, Yunnan Province for 1 year, and the rest of the time in Guangzhou).

A quick (though advanced!) Google search shows that Sichuanese and others get substituted into that little epigraph. But it seems Guangdongers get picked on most for some reason.

John Pasden once told me he’d be interested in hearing what it’s like learning Mandarin in Cantonese Land. So here’s a basic outline for you, John (although it’s been so long you’ve probably forgotten that we even talked about this), and I hope others find it informative as well.

 

Listening (Mandarin)

I’ve lived in Guangzhou for a over three years now, and certainly the biggest challenge to learning Mandarin here is listening. Most people around me can speak Mandarin but usually prefer to speak Cantonese (called báihuà 白话 here rather than the more specific yuèyǔ 粤语).

Since Cantonese is most people’s first language (or Kèjiāhuà 客家话 or something else), their Mandarin accent is heavily influenced by their own fāngyán 方言.

Here are some typical pronunciation differences between “standard” Mandarin and the “southern” accents that I’ve been exposed to (including those in Jiangxi, and Yunnan):

Change Hanzi Standard Southern 

(could sound like any of these)

English
sh = s 十四 shísì sísì 

shíshì

síshì

fourteen
ch = c 操场 cāochǎng cāocǎng 

chāochǎng

chāocǎng

sports field
zh = z 组织 zǔzhī zhǔzhī 

zǔzī

zhǔzī

organize
n = l 辽宁 Liáoníng Liáolíng 

Niáoníng

Liaoning Province
-n = -ng 欢迎 huānyíng huāngyíng 

huānyín

huāngyín

welcome
h = f huā fuā flower

Amazingly, it was just the other day that I bought something I’d never bought before (and therefore didn’t know how much it would be) and heard “40” as “14”. I gave her 15 yuan and she said “Eh hem…it’s 40.” When the tones go by really fast, and you’re not really paying attention, you can still get snookered by those switcharoo consonants.

 

Listening / Eavesdropping (Cantonese)

While eavesdropping is difficult everywhere in China (for a variety of reasons), it’s basically impossible here because everyone is speaking Cantonese. How different is Cantonese from Mandarin? I’m glad you asked.

Some things are similar enough to guess:

1. nǐ hǎo 你好 (Mandarin) = hello

2. nei5 hou2 你好 (Cantonese*) = hello

NOTE: I’ve also heard “nei5 hou2” pronounced “lei5 hou2″ (see above table).

But a lot of the time Cantonese is just a totally different language:

1. chī fàn le ma? 吃饭了吗?(Mandarin) = Have you eaten?


2. sik6 jo2 faan6 mei6 a3? 食左饭未啊? (Cantonese*) = Have you eaten?

NOTE: Those same characters would be pronounced like this in Mandarin: “shí zuǒ fàn wèi a”

There are also some situations (though very rare) where the shopkeeper or someone doesn’t (or won’t) speak Mandarin. Then I’m screwed. She can understand me, but I have no idea what she’s saying back.

Good news: subway announcements in Guangzhou are in Mandarin and Cantonese. Most official functions (staff meetings, etc.) are in Mandarin since there are plenty of wàidì rén 外地人 who don’t speak Cantonese either.

 

Speaking (Accent)

As often as I get compliments on how “standard” my accent is (shockingly, when I met my new neighbor, he even complimented me after I’d only said “ni hao”!), I’m still aware of a few little uncertainties that have crept into my Mandarin.

I usually don’t have trouble remembering which words start with “s / sh” or “z / zh” etc. and I CERTAINLY don’t have any trouble with the “n / l” issue. But I still get confused with some words ending in “-n” or “-ng”. For example, “huānyíng” 欢迎 (welcome) is a word I hear all the time around here and I literally hear it pronounced as often as not with the “-n” and “-ng” wrong…oops!…I mean “not standard”.

Many times the Chinese people I’m with don’t have any idea if a word ends in an “-ng” (hòu bíyīn 后鼻音) or an “-n” (qián bíyīn 前鼻音). I even had one lady insist that “hěn hǎo” 很好 was actually spelled “hěng hǎo” in pinyin!

 

Speaking (Vocabulary)

In addition to the little uncertainties about pronunciation that have crept in to my Chinese, I’ve discovered there are some vocabulary choices that I make differently since I live in Cantonese Land. I’ll actually do a whole post on this soon, but they would probably be analogous to saying “vacuum” rather than “hoover” or “stroller” versus “pram”.

 

Reading

If you go to Hong Kong (another Cantonese speaking area) you’ll see they use fántǐ zì 繁体字 rather than the jiǎntǐ zì 简体字 in use in the Mainland. While Guangzhou uses simplified characters, there are two issues for reading Cantonese:

1. They use the characters differently / The grammar is different.

I’m not going to say much about this, but as you saw in the “have you eaten” example above, the character for “eat” was “chī ” in Mandarin and was replaced by “” (which is pronounced “shí” in Mandarin) for the Cantonese. In fact, only the character for “rice / food” () was the same between the two utterances.

Also, for the verb “to be,” Mandarin speakers use shì. But Cantonese speakers use xì, which we know as “department”!

2. They have their own special characters.

You think you’ve cracked the code? To say “I’m not” in Mandarin is 不是. So it should be 不系 in Cantonese, right? Sorry. They’ve got their own special character for “not”.

Mandarin Cantonese English
不是 bú shì 唔系 m4 hai6 Not to be

For other examples of special Cantonese characters see this MDBG search.

 

Conclusion / Should I Go To Beijing to Learn Good Chinese?

I always hear “go north to learn good Mandarin.” I suppose I should say yes, that’s true. If given the choice between Guangzhou University and Beijing University (or other southern / northern choices) to work or study at, I guess it would be technically “better” to go north to avoid the linguistic challenges listed in this article. I suppose you’re more likely to learn “standard” English accents in Colorado and London than you would in Arkansas and Newcastle, respectively.

But, for what I want to do with the language, I’ve done just fine. It’s not impossible to learn “standard” Mandarin in the South. Also, the North may have it’s own linguistic challenges (érhuà 儿化 and other variations on the “let’s not speak clearly” theme, some of which can be found at Beijing Sounds).

It’s more about who you learn from then where you are. Wherever you are, it’s important to find a good, “standard” Mandarin speaking informant (tips on how to do that here). It’s out “on the street” that you’ll notice the difference.

And most importantly of all, it’s how hard you try. If you really want to learn Chinese, you’ll do it no matter where you go. If you’re not that motivated, you could be stationed in the very heart of Putonghua Land (wherever that is) and still not learn it.

————-

*I’ve chosen the Yale transcription system because I hate that I don’t even know how to pronounce Jyutping.

Comments

  1. Interesting article. I’ve studied Chinese in Nanning for two years. The announcments on the bus are only in Standard Chinese. But BaiHua is often used when people speak among themselves. I laughed about your example of getting confused with 14 and 40 (or 4 and 10). It still happens to me all the time! I don’t think studying in Nanning has been a real disadvantage either, because my teachers had good standard mandarin.

  2. Wow, I actually do remember that, but I wasn’t sure if it was ever going to become a post. Nice job!

    It’s funny; a good chunk of your post could have applied directly to my experience of learning Mandarin in Hangzhou. I found that I just had to be really diligent about looking up new words people taught me, because no one’s pronunciation was to be trusted!

  3. Thanks for post. I might move to Guangdong in 4 or 5 years, so was really curious how that might affect my Mandarin, or ability to find people who speak fairly standard Mandarin. I will also take up Cantonese again (studied for a couple of years, years ago). I’m not so concerned about day-to-day interactions, but more being able to have people who speak standard Mandarin to get into deeper and more interesting conversations with. Sounds like you c.an find them.

  4. I really have to comment on this because I’m living in Guangzhou and studying Mandarin Chinese! And first I have to admit that I thought ni hao is lei hou in Cantonese, didn’t know that it’s supposed to be nei hou.

    After a year in Guangzhou and almost a year with my boyfriend from the same province, my accent is quite southern I would say. (Have a sound clip in my blog if you want to hear) It’s not standard and maybe never will be, but my life is here in the south so that’s not a problem for me.

    What is a problem is the 4, 7, 10, 14 and so on. Sometimes the shop keepers accent is so strong that it’s hard to hear it right. And occasionally the n and l confuses me too when I hear you yen, when it’s supposed to be you ren 有人.

    You mentioned Guangzhou university in the end and after studying here for a year I’m sorry to say that there must be better options in this city. Even now after a year of complaining all of my teachers are quite good!

    p.s. I want to learn a little bit of Cantonese too. Heard that it’s good for business!

  5. ha! Finally someone explains why my fiance (from Hong Kong) finds it utterly impossible to say and hear the difference between si and shi!! I can’t practice my Mandarin with him because he continually mis-pronounces wprds and insists he’s not! It all makes sense now… it’s because he’s a native Cantonese speaker! 😀

  6. Awesome read! I lived in Nanchang for three years (taught at Blue Sky, then Nanchang University School of Medicine, and had tons of friends at Jiangxi Normal) and in Hengyang, Hunan for my last year in China. Now I’ve been back in the states for two years, and it was good times remembering my Wenzhou friend’s uncle’s question “Fuocezan zai lali?” instead of “Huochezhan zai nali?”! Southern Chinese, like Southern English, is far less grating to the senses but jarring to the mind when trying to listen from elsewhere!

  7. I’ve had my husband swear blue to me that leng (cold) should be spelled “nen” in pinyin. (And he was once long ago a chinese teacher in middle school. lol

  8. I have the feeling that 很好 is indeed pronounced heng-hao even in my lessons. This isn’t surprising as h is a “back” consonant, and would thus change the pronunciation of the preceding n as well. What do you think?

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