“We don’t really have a dialect”

Many of my friends from Northeast China tell me: “We don’t really have a dialect, we do speak a very intelligible Mandarin. Maybe there are some words that are different, but that’s about it.”

Oh, the beloved “er” Northerners use in any possible way one can imagine! Having learned Chinese in Austria and in Kunming in South China, I have to disagree when someone says what Northeastern Chinese speak is intelligible Mandarin. I’ve had the hardest of times trying to understand Northeastern Chinese people’s so-called dialect-free Mandarin Chinese. Well, maybe they are right in that what they speak is not a dialect, but it surely isn’t accent-free Mandarin Chinese.

I usually don’t have a problem understanding people speak Mandarin Chinese in Shenzhen. I’ve had problems understanding Cantonese people speak Mandarin Chinese before studying in Kunming where I got used to hearing people speak Mandarin with different accents. After having spent almost 2 years in China’s south, I feel that I have made big progress. A few people on a bus in Shenzhen were once delighted that I could understand their Sichuanese (imo it really didn’t sound that different from Mandarin Chinese). A Hunanese woman once told me in her native dialect that she doesn’t speak Mandarin Chinese and that this is the reason why she doesn’t understand me (again, since I did understand what she was saying I didn’t notice that what she spoke was a dialect until she pointed it out). But when Northeastern Chinese start using their own words and put an “er” at the end of every second or third word or so, they just get blank stares from me.

“Excuse me, can you say that again? I don’t understand”, is what I will say then. And then they say it again. And I can’t understand what they’re saying for a second time. So I’ll ask them again. When they repeat it, I still can’t understand it. That’s usually the time when we all give up trying and smile at each other excusingly, at a loss for words.

Btw, Y and my in-laws are from Northeast China. Y speaks pretty intelligible Mandarin Chinese with me (and if he doesn’t, I tell him to repeat it and speak slower). My in-laws, who have been living in Northeast China their whole life, are a different story. It’s probably my turn now to learn some Mandarin with a Northeastern accent and to get used to the “er”-ending.

Have you ever had similar problems? I’d love to read your comments.

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6 thoughts on ““We don’t really have a dialect”

    • Ha, you’re actually the opposite of me. I don’t think the “er” sound is sexy at all. I guess this is connected to me studying Chinese in Yunnan and being used to how people speak Mandarin Chinese there (I do actually like the “ga” that is often added to a sentence in Yunnanese a lot).

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  1. Speak a very intelligible Mandarin? I humbly disagree. It doesn’t make sense. The way you know people are “intelligible” with Mandarin is how many traditional Chinese characters they can recognize and how they write their characters. Is it neat? Can they do calligraphy? My mother in law is from Hunan Province, she had education, and her Mandarin is very standard but most of all, she is not illiterate. She can write very well and understand Chinese poetry. My husband is the same – he speaks very standard Mandarin. There are Taiwanese people who don’t only because their mother tongue isn’t Mandarin but rather, Taiwanese dialect, which is understandable. You can speak Mandarin well with whatever accent but be illiterate. To me, that’s not “intelligible” Mandarin. Speaking with the exaggerated “er” sound at the end of each sentence does not make your Mandarin more intelligent.

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    • Maybe I used the wrong word and it should be another word than intelligible? English is not my mother tongue, so I might have used this word in a wrong way. What I meant is an easy-to-understand Mandarin Chinese, standard Mandarin Chinese, accent-free Mandarin Chinese. For me, Mandarin Chinese means spoken Chinese, not written Chinese. I didn’t mean to say that someone is literate or illiterate, I was just talking about spoken Chinese. And no, I don’t think it makes someone’s Mandarin more intelligent if they add an “er” either, this is just how people speak in Northeast China because it’s part of their accent, not because they want to sound more intelligent.

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      • I understand where you are coming from. Beijing accent: standard-easy to understand Mandarin? I find that to be the opposite. I have a Beijing friend who kind of laughed at this thought. That said, whatever accent, it can be easy to understand if you get used to of it. Maybe one day I will get used to of the Beijing accent. 😀 It is not a bad accent in the slightest but standard ? Not quite.

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        • Although Mandarin Chinese is based on the Beijing dialect, I wouldn’t say Beijing accent today is the same as standard Mandarin Chinese today, far from it. Mandarin Chinese has changed through the decades, and although it’s based on Northern dialects, there are also many other influences. I totally agree, Beijing accent is not easy to understand if you haven’t stayed in that area long enough to get accustomed to it. I, for one, have a hard time understanding it, since I’ve only lived in South China.

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