Semi-final and the Need for Regional Mandarin Resources

I think everyone will agree: there’s nothing like the Olympics to get you thinking about toplects and regional variants in language usage.

Or is that just me? Oh. Ok.

Well, since I’ve spent more time during the Olympics thinking about prescriptive vs. descriptive linguistics than I have China vs. USA on the medals table, I thought I’d share a little anecdote that perfectly illustrates the need for better (descriptive) materials for learners of Chinese.

(For those of you watching Chinese coverage of the games you might find my Olympics Listening Guide from four years ago helpful and also out of date.)

I’ve watched some of the London 2012 games with two friends: one from England and the other from Taiwan. It was in the semi-finals of one of the swimming races that I discovered my friend from Taiwan didn’t know the Mandarin word I was using for “semi-final.”

What I was saying:

The word she says:

Now, a quick click on the hanzi above will show you that BOTH entries appear in the MDBG online dictionary, but here’s my niúròu with the entries: there’s no warning that “bàn juésài” 半决赛 would not be understood in Taiwan.

Now, I don’t blame MDBG specifically. The Oxford Little English-Chinese Dictionary only has “bàn juésài” 半决赛 under “Semi-final” and there’s also no warning that it might not be understood everywhere. What I want is for it to say something like this:

  • Semi-final: “bàn juésài” 半决赛 (mainland), fùsài 复赛 (Taiwan)

I know I’m starting to repeat what I’ve already said in the Future for Chinese/English Dictionaries post, but we’ve got a real problem here.

Imagine I suddenly decide I want to get a job in Taipei. I already speak Mandarin to a reasonable level, but I need some materials to tell me ALL the  differences I should expect to run into when I get there. Does this exist? Is there a dictionary of Mandarin Chinese specifically geared toward the variation spoken in Taiwan? I haven’t been able to find it.

Let’s compare for a moment the materials that exist just on Wikipedia for a learner of English who would like to know the difference between American and British English. Most people know about some of the pronunciation differences and the spelling differences (like “color” and “colour”) but there are also differences in grammar and vocabulary that are important.

Overview (including grammar):

Vocabulary differences :

Pronunciation differences:

Even the way I pronounce “semi-final” in English is different from the way my British friends do (I say “semi” so that it rhymes with “my” and the British say it so it rhymes with “me”). But don’t worry. That’s listed here (do a CTL + F search for “semi” to find it quickly).

That is a lot of scholarship and painstaking list making that has been done over many years. Perhaps it’s not completely exhaustive, but it’s probably pretty close.

There are also dictionaries that show regional differences in spelling or vocabulary. For example, look at the (American English) Dictionary.com entry for “aeroplane”. It shows “Chiefly British” and a link to the American word “airplane.” The inverse is true of the Oxford dictionary’s entry for “airplane.”

That’s exactly what we need for Chinese. And we need it all in one resource. A little bit of scholarship has been done regarding Taiwanese Mandarin as we can see in this Wikipedia article as well various other small articles. But these only give a few examples. What we need are exhaustive lists. It would be exhausting for one person to make them, but if we work together online we can do it. That’s what the Olympics is all about!

And just to be clear, I don’t only want the variations listed for Taiwanese Mandarin, but also Canton Mandarin (coming soon on this blog), Beijing Mandarin, Singaporean Mandarin, etc. You name it. And I’d like to see that information go into the dictionaries.

It would also be great if you could get phrase books and dictionaries customized for the  particular region you’ll be interacting with. This is where e-books / apps could really be awesome.

For example, imagine Chinese 24/7 gets made into an e-book (I’ve asked the publisher and it’s just too complicated with tables and graphics to convert it to an e-book right now). But imagine someone could order my book and had the option to order the Taiwan Mandarin version. How awesome would it be if every time “xīngqī” 星期 appears in my book it were automatically replaced with xīngqí (notice the tone of “qi” is 2nd / rising in Taiwanese Mandarin)!?

Or if someone checks the “Northern Mandarin” option all the 儿化 gets added in so “yìdiǎn” 一点 gets automatically replaced with “yìdiǎnr” 一点儿. You must admit that would be cool. (Feel free to steal this idea, make a lot of money, and just give me a little thanks on the website somewhere.)

And it would be great to have an online dictionary linked in with some print-on-demand publisher that could do the same thing. Oh you’re going to Shanghai for a year? No problem just click the “Shanghai Mandarin” option and get your very own English/Chinese dictionary complete with all the Mandarin words they use in Shanghai printed and mailed to you before you leave.

Chinese is such a tough language and there’s nothing more discouraging than spending a lot of time getting the tones and vocabulary for words just right only to find out “That’s not how we say it here.” With the right resources, and a whole online community working together, we could solve that problem. But I’m still not entirely sure where that one, central database is going to be. There’s still much to be done.


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  1. 13 Responses to “Semi-final and the Need for Regional Mandarin Resources”

  2. Les UNITED STATES said:

    I think the main lesson here is to relax. If you accidentally say the wrong word or use a tone that is different in Taiwan than elsewhere, it’s not that big of a deal. It’s not going to cost you a job or friendships, or render you unable to communicate.

    Those lists have little use to me. It’s much better to listen to a lot of Chinese input and realize when people say certain words and phrases than it is to memorize some list of words that vary by region.

    The dictionary is a tool of very limited utility, in my view. It can give you the general idea of what a word means, but to really understand it, you need to see it in many contexts.

    Wordlists serve no use at all except as a novelty. The nonnative English speaker who spent time studying the Wikipedia list of differences between American and British English is going to be far worse off than the one who spent that time reading, listening to, and speaking English – even if they accidentally write “colour” in an email to an American friend.

    That’s just my view, anyway.

    Comment date: Aug 6, 2012

  3. Alexis UNITED STATES said:

    That seems like a good idea, though for a very niche audience. Not sure how much research you want to do into this, but the Mormon missionaries who visit Taiwan must have specifically Taiwan-Mandarin-based learning materials. However, when they came back to BYU (where I did my undergrad) they had to switch into Mainland-Mandarin, and it was generally a slow switch.

    Comment date: Aug 7, 2012

  4. Jens UNITED STATES said:

    I only just now realized that various expressions used by my native Hong Kong friends that I assumed was their rough English was in fact them using UK English correctly!

    But just like regional accents and word usage exist in China, there’s regional accents and word usage everywhere. The UK comprises four countries, with major differences across them. Just listening to the BBC for 15 minutes will likely expose you to at least three wildly different English accents.

    Throw in slang and worldwide migration, and so much is dynamic anyway.

    Comment date: Aug 7, 2012

  5. Matt UNITED STATES said:

    I would buy a book that explains all the differences!

    Comment date: Aug 7, 2012

  6. nh MALAYSIA said:

    Personally I prefer 半决赛.复赛 does not equal to semi-final, it can be quarter-final also!

    I really cannot stand 二分之一决赛,四分之一决赛,八分之一决赛, it sounds too weird and mouthful in Chinese. Bad translation without thinking…

    Comment date: Aug 10, 2012

  7. Kaiwen said:

    Check out 《一國兩字》, a book I bought in Taiwan. It’s written for a Taiwanese audience, but basically it’s a bunch of words arranged into chapters showing where the same expression has different meanings & explanation, or what mainlanders would say when their word is different from a Taiwan-mandarin word.

    http://findbook.tw/book/9789867651747/basic
    ISBN986765174X

    Comment date: Aug 12, 2012

  8. Tom AUSTRALIA said:

    华山狼,你真的成了一个中国通了,好佩服你啊!我每次都认真看你的博客,这就是我的感受。
    Dear Albert: You really know a lot about China and the Chinese language now. You are a Sinologue. I can see that China still lags far behind the U.S not in the Olympic fields but in the area of education. A country with good teachers or students like you is and should be very powerful. I read your blog every time and that is the impression from which I have got. I have written a letter to your gmail box about tones which may interests you.
    yours friendly Tom

    Comment date: Aug 13, 2012

  9. James Lande UNITED STATES said:

    Hello Albert,

    Congratulations on a superb site, and the depth of your inquiries into the language and people.

    Your point about the regional variations in Mandarin is well taken, and your comparison with English spoken around the world is certainly a point of departure. English might be the greater challenge, but it does seem that a Comparative Glossary of Regional Mandarin would not be an impractical project. Most of us who do pick up knowledge of such differences acquire it by living in the various places (in my case I was taught by p’u-t’ung-hua (Putonghua) native speakers, then lived in Taiwan for three years), but that approach doesn’t have the discipline for a scholarly tome. PhD candidates might be the best prospect for accomplishing the necessary research, but even laymen such as ourselves could accomplish much in, say, two years, by circulating an ever-growing glossary of terms among participants in the regions of interest. How much organization and leadership would it take to recruit a forum suited to the task?

    Another barely related topic is MDBG, which I’m glad to hear you are associated with. You may have the experience to put together a critical evaluation of MDBG as a tool for various purposes, compared to the Guoyu Zidian, or Ssu Hai (Sea of Terms). I bring this to light because I rely heavily on MDBG hovercraft, and have for many years (after many more years of bench pressing hardcopy dictionaries) and, in one particular case, I found a particular example representing the limitations of MDBG’s word list. That case happened when I read Chang Ailing’s Rice Sprout Song in Chinese (it is said she first wrote it in English, so I do not know much about the pedigree of the Chinese in the version I read). Frequently, I came up against combinations that were not in MDBG, and it turned out these phrases were all based on language in old Chinese novels like Hung-lou, San Guo, or Shui-hu. Ultimately, I found all the terms in the online (and CD version) Taiwan Guoyu Zidian. Several conclusions from that experience have remained with me, and left me with a persistent curiosity about the origins and character of the Chinese language in MDBG

    Best regards,
    James Lande

    Comment date: Aug 24, 2012

  10. Anne INDIA said:

    Hi Albert,

    I am a native Chinese speaker from Taiwan and I’ve just recently started teaching Mandarin in Mumbai, India. I’ve found your site very useful as you are able to pinpoint the kinds of difficulties that Chinese learners might encounter, which I as a native speaker would not necessarily realize myself.

    On the differences between Taiwan Mandarin and Mainland Mandarin, there are actually a few books published by the Taiwanese. For instance this one: http://www.books.com.tw/exep/prod/booksfile.php?item=0010551225#catalog

    I think the reason why you haven’t been able to come across these books is because they target people who already speak the language. So in the west there might not be enough demand to render publications on this topic.

    Hope you find it useful.

    -Anne

    Comment date: Sep 12, 2012

  11. Alan AUSTRALIA said:

    半決賽is more accurate, your saying was alsolutely fine. However I think your Taiwanese friend considered it to be the match after the first round, right? However I agree with what Les said, one should relax for learning a foreign language, it’s an ongoing journey, the joy from it is to improve it bit by bit,day by day. Don’t be afraid of making mistakes.

    Comment date: Sep 28, 2012

  12. dna synthesizer INDIA said:

    English might be the greater challenge, but it does seem that a Comparative Glossary of Regional Mandarin would not be an impractical project. most of us who do pick up knowledge of such differences acquire it by living in the many different places (in my case I was taught by p’u-t’ung-hua (Putonghua) native speakers, then lived in Taiwan for three years), but that approach doesn’t have the discipline for a scholarly tome. PhD candidates might be the best prospect for accomplishing the required research, but even laymen such as ourselves could accomplish much in, say, 2 years, by circulating an ever-growing glossary of terms among participants in the regions of interest. How much organization and leadership would it take to recruit a forum suited to the task?

    Comment date: Sep 29, 2012

  13. Albert CHINA said:

    @dna synthesizer,

    I like the way you think! Maybe just a place to store the data is all we need. Anyone have any ideas?

    Comment date: Sep 30, 2012

  14. dna synthesizer INDIA said:

    I spend most of my time in the Olympic games which affect my education but i really enjoyed with the games….

    Comment date: Oct 19, 2012

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