Friday, July 10, 2009

Why are they laughing?!??!

Smile and be happy, but there's a time and place for everything, right?!

Up early today in order to catch a 7am car to Helsinki and take part in the 300 Chinese businessmen ‘networking’ (or matchmaking as they have called it on the program!) event. Can’t say that I’m overly excited but that’s probably because I’ve only had one cup of coffee so far. I’ll have plenty of time to wake up during the 2-hour drive to the city, after all, it’s my boss –a Chinese man- who’s driving. I bet it’s going to be a fast ride!

Yesterday I prepared some questions (seeing I am very likely to be doing some interviews in Chinese) and in order not to make a complete fool of myself I asked my two Chinese work mates if I could try the questions on them, to see if my point got across. Sure I could and I thought things were going well, until I realized that they were laughing at everything I said?! Like really, everything? Was it my accent? The grammar? The questions?

Oh no, no, all fine! All good!

But please, surely it must be something?

No. Actually there wasn’t anything. I asked about 100 times, staring at my paper and at their faces… But what was ‘so funny’ that it constantly made them giggle remains a mystery….

However, this isn’t the first time it has happened. Quite often I speak to some Chinese people and find that they are giggling to everything I am saying. Is this some sort of nervous behaviour (because really, I have looked, and I don’t look necessarily ‘funny’ when I speak?!) ? Regardless of what, their smirks made me kind of self-conscious which is just what I don’t need to be today. Anyways, off I go. Some Chinese businessman better not giggle!


Sassy Scribbles said...

I think most Asians do smile and chuckle a lot whenever talked to, it could be because they are very pleased or gets excited, it's mostly out of approval so don't worry... but then you'd know if some are being ridiculous or rude. ^^

Martin said...


Sorry...I wasn't laughing at you. hehe

Great post.

Aileen said...

I think it might be because they think it is funny that someone who doesn't look Asian speaks Chinese to them? Don't you giggle when some Noggy try to speak to you in Swedish? I know I do when my Swedish colleagues speak to me in Norwegian and vice versa.

Good luck with your interview!!!

Dangerous Des said...

one time while giving a flute lesson I giggled at a little mistake the student made. She stood up and left and told me she was never coming back to a lesson where she got laughed at by the teacher.

That was over ten years ago. Since then, I am very careful to be nothing but supportive and encouraging when listening/watching someone do something they are still learning to do, including and especially while they are speaking my native lanugage, English. Not everyone is so sensitive, but it does not help a person's self-esteem when you laugh at them, whatever the reason. These girls should have been more sensitive.

Tarja said...

Have a nice trip to Helsinki! I'm interested to know how well does the chinese work mate drive here? Does he realize that he has to follow the traffic rules, or does he drive as in China?

Anonymous said...

They giggle because they think it's cute for a white girl speaking Chinese. Chinese people giggle a lot. You need to be more confident.

Ramesh said...

Giggle Giggle ... :)

Livia said...

I think they're quite happy that a foreigner actually has managed to learn their language and they're probably both amazed and amused over it!

flyingfish said...

You know, I bet it's not that you sounded wrong or that your grammar was off. If anything, I bet it's an indication that you were doing WELL! In my experience (and I know a lot of us here in the sinoblogosphere have talked about this), many, many Chinese find it very funny to see foreigners speaking Chinese, especially when they speak it well.

One time I was saying something, I don't remember what, during a seminar on Six Dynasties poetics. The professor (a young and very sophisticated Chinese poet who had got her doctorate in the USA) and all my Chinese classmates suddenly burst out laughing. I was kind of startled and thought "What did I do wrong?" But it turned out they just thought the sight of my muddy-green eyes and big nose combined with the sound of my Chinese was HILARIOUS. Mind you, this seminar took place in the USA and all the participants were very educated, well-travelled people. The professor was even married to a Westerner who is an expert on Chinese poetry, so she should certainly have been used to the idea of foreigners knowing Chinese! But apparently it's just too funny, no matter how many times they tell themselves there's nothing weird about it, it still seems odd to see non-Chinese-looking people speak fluently in Chinese.

So, that's why I say I bet they reacted that way because you were speaking WELL, not because you were speaking badly.

Tales said...

Not sure what's going on here, but it would definitely put me off too. If there's nothing funny, then why the laughing? The only thing I can guess is that they were amused to hear you speaking Chinese. Or, I do remember reading one of your posts where you said you learned some of your Chinese from children's shows. Maybe the way you're saying certain things is the way a kid might say it? You know, like the difference between a matured grammar and a kid's grammar? Maybe they find it cute.

george said...

but all and all, i can help but asking " did they giggle today?" ^^

Pete In Syracuse said...

Oh! I feel your frustration, when I was little & my Mom was mad at me. Her face sometimes appeared to have a smile on it, which would make me laugh. Great now I'm in real trouble. Maybe just having a blond haired blue eyed person speaking good Chinese makes them laugh...Maybe you should look in a mirror & make sure you don't have some food stick in your teeth just kidding. haha! I'll pray that all will go well & you will get praise for your good Chinese speaking today !

Monsieur Beep! said...

I also practice my bit of Chinese speaking in the local Chinese restaurants.
One day I went to a restaurant where I´d never been before, I introduced myself, ordered a basic meal in Chinese - I got loads of smiles, giggling, and a free coke.
That´s the Chinese way. They´re pragmatic, kind, easy-going, and have their funny rituals.

I´ve learned a lot of them.

Hang said...

Maybe you looked cute when you spoke Chinese to your Chinese colleagues. It could be your facial expression, or your earnest (which in Chinese is "你认真的样子"). Therefore, I think the giggle was triggered because they feel you 看上去很可爱.

Anonymous said...

This is probably another instance of the East vs. the West. In most Asian countries, especially in China (because China is not quite connected with the rest of the world yet even though they think they are), people tend to giggle when they don't know what to do. They giggle when they feel embarrassed. I bet Japanese folks don't giggle as much today when they hear a Westerner speaking Japanese. However, Japanese were like today's Chinese 50 years ago. An American missionary who had lived in Japan for 20 or 30 years told of this story of his experience with the Japanese after World War II in Japan. One day, this American was hiking in a surburb in Japan and needed directions to a city nearby. When he saw two farmers working on their rice field, he stopped to ask for directions in his flawless Japanese. The two Japanese farmers were speechless upon hearing a Westerner speaking Japanese. They just stood there, saying nothing because they believed they wouldn't understand whatever the foreign language coming out of the mouth of a white man. After several minutes of failed attempts to get the Japanese farmers to respond, the American missionary just left. As he was walking away, he could still hear the conversations between the two Japanese farmers. One of them said, "I think he was speaking our language." The other farmer responded, "Yes I thought so. That means he can understand Japanese." Chinese people today are still not quite used to seeing white folks speaking their language. All these surprises will wear out in another generation. Hopefully the communist dictatorship will be gone by then as well. The Chinese people deserve better.

Shanghai MiFeng said...

You know Jonna , as I started to follow your Blog , I became very envy'd also , seeing ( but not hearing ) a nice western Woman speak Chinese so well . That I wish , that some day I could if not just some of it , so to talk and understand someone talking to . It doesn't make me laugh , but it would throw me for a loob for sure , everytime . As an example , from my own experience , when I was back in Germany in "07 and saw many Black people speak German , it's very unusual , but nice to see at the samr timne , that they care to learn the Language .

Jonna Wibelius said...

hry guys, thanks for all ur comments!! Since a lot of you have answered the same thing -that they laugh coz they think it looks funny/cute- it seems that I can relax for a bit. Nobody lauhed at me (well at least not straight to my face!) yesterday, although f course there were some giggles. Anyhow, as someone pointed out, I should probably stop worrying so much and be a bit more self-confident, however, I do have to say that it is kind of hard when people are laughing/giggling at you.... it's something I'm definitely not used to and if it would happen in Sweden it would never be a good thing!! :)

pilgrimchick said...

Interesting--do you speak to them in Chinese or English, or does it matter in this case?

Ann said...

Instead of trying to figure it out by yourself, why not simply ask your two Chinese colleagues what they giggle for. My guess is probably your accent sounds quite funny to them. You know Chinese characters have four tones. To get a proper accent, one has to remember exactly what is the tone for each character, which is tough for even the most hard-working and talented learners. So many foreign students end up speaking Chinese with their unique and funny accent, which may cause some to giggle about.

Anonymous said...

I'm guessing they were laughing at your accent. If you want to hear whether your accent is weird sounding, try making your Chinese workmates to record an oral reading of a sample Chinese passage, and record the same passage read by yourself. Play back both and compare. You may be unpleasantly surprised that you may not speak what you think you're speaking.

Jonna Wibelius said...

I know about the tones (geez, how could I not?!) and I am fully aware of the fact that I don't sound like a Chinese person when I speak. I just still find it kind of ridiculous. If I hear a foreigner speak Swedish (with whatever accent! and trust me -we might not have 5 tones in Swedish, but you can still tell if the person is a foreigner, no matter how long they have studied Swedish... It's a hard language to master!) I would never laugh! Never, ever, EVER! That would just be so... I don't know, inappropriate?! So sure, they might think my tones are off, that I look funny/cute or that I sound strange, but I will still think it is a strange reaction to LAUGH at someone who is trying their best to speak another language.

That's all!

Joanna said...

Well, they just don't know any better. The rules for manners and politeness just aren't part of a lot of native Chinese upbringing, at least I don't believe they were. Shoving yourself in front of people to use the restroom, spitting everywhere, picking their nose in front of people are just a few things I saw the last time I was in China, not to mention the starting that you experience.

They just weren't taught to be as aware or to see the situation from the other side.

To them, they don't see it as being rude or hurtful. But if you were to laugh at them, they'd feel bad but yet they'd still laugh at you, it's like they can't make that mental connection.

I say you need THICK SKIN to learn Chinese in China.

Ann said...

To my knowledge, Chinese may be sensitive to accent, but they normally won’t be hard on foreigners. Those giggle may not despise you, they are just playful people who tend to laugh at even the smallest things. In Chinese, we call those people “having low laughing point 笑点低”. So don’t take it to your heart and don’t assume they mean to insult you.
That said, I agree that Chinese is not as good-mannered as westerners in social life. Education of manner and politeness shall be enhanced in both school and family.

Anonymous said...

"I will still think it is a strange reaction to LAUGH at someone who is trying their best to speak another language."

I totally empathize with you. From my experience, I also hear strange English accents spoken by people from around the world. But they're usually understandable and don't sound all that weird, and even if I want to be rude, there's little to laugh about. Now Mandarin is very unlike English (or I guess any Germanic language), where a combination of very discernible sounds make up meanings. There's only 4 major tones to Mandarin, and in a language which emphasize so much on how you string those tones together to form meanings, any imperfection is going to be very noticeable, sometimes suggesting a different meaning which you didn't mean to say, or even impossible to interpret at all. Try to think of Mandarin as you would of music. When you listen to a great piece of music, the sounds evoke pleasurable feelings inside us, and if that piece of music is poorly performed or sung, it would certainly give us goosebumps and stiff shoulders. In my experience listening to people from European language backgrounds speak Mandarin (or Cantonese, as I'm fluent in both, and yes some of them learn Cantonese and not Mandarin), the impression that many of them give me is that of a person who just came back from a night of heavy drinking and lost their ability to speak coherently and properly (no offense to you or anyone studying any dialect of Chinese reading this, but this is the feeling that they evoked inside me the most). I usually try to be tolerant, but honestly, I wanted very badly to try correcting them, but usually just end up passing the opportunity out of respect and not wanting to give them a hard time/embarrassing them. Not to mention, there are so much to correct that the conversation would turn into a lecture, which I certainly don't want to happen.

So, what does all this mean? Well, I hope you realize that your coworkers were not laughing at you because you sounded cute or exotic or whatever feeling your accent evoked in them (well they may, but if they thought that, they would most likely giggled a little bit at the beginning and became more serious as the conversation went on, not a sustained giggle that lasted a long time). In my opinion, they were laughing because what you said was discernible but improperly spoken, sort of like talking to a clown, but the person they were talking to wasn't a clown. If you're really serious and driven, you should take from this experience as an indication of where your Mandarin level is at, particularly your spoken Mandarin, which is very likely just not good enough to be taken seriously, and that one day, your Mandarin will be so good that they will have looks of disbelief when they hear you speak. And if you ever do arrive at that stage, you'll no doubt look back in hindsight and realize how silly you sounded once upon a time, and you'll also realize how seriously bad the majority of European Mandarin speakers are. So who knows, you may one day get the goosebumps like I do listening to Europeans speak Mandarin, and I sincerely wish that you will, not in jest, but in full comprehension.

Ann said...

Hi, Anonymous. I've noticed your comments in several posts. Just wonder why don't you choose a net name for yourself, or open a blog here, so that you can identify yourself and exchange ideas with Jonna more conveniently?
Your make good points about the topic of accent, although personally I don't give it a damn about accent. When it comes to accent in speaking English, all non-native speakers, especially Asian, tend to have strong Asian accent which certainly does not sound pleasant to native speakers. Overseas Chinese are also well-known for their "broken English". But does the deficiencies in speaking stop them from achieving success in a foreign land? I don't think so.
Language is a tool for communication, as long as we get our messages crossed, any accent shall be acceptable.

Jonna Wibelius said...

Anonymous -nice point you are making but I refuse to believe that my Mandarin is so bad it would give u goosebumps. Seriously. I am not saying I sound like a local, but I definitely don't sound like a clown! I recorded some of the interviews I made last week in Helsinki, and no... No clown noise, no horrible grammar, no, no no... And nobody laughing at me. I find that older people rarely laugh. It's always the young ones.

Angel said...

haha so cute ^^ don't be self conscious... It's that its always funny to see someone else other then an asian to speak chinese =P I'm so curious about what your accent sound like... hehe look at it like an asian having to talk ur mother language in a fluent accent.. With you knowing that this person has another accent... all the respect that you've learned chinese =)

Ann said...

Why not upload an audio sample to youtube and let us hear what your accent sounds like? So curious.
People in English-speaking countries are aware of accent too. I once visited a forum in which people talked about accent of then-presidential-candidate Obama and Palin enthusiastically. Some in that forum are just experts in accent, I mean, if you give them any audio clip of whoever speaking English, they will instantly tell you what accent they think the speaker has, and the possible location of the speaker. Others go to the forum to seek help to improve their accent. In one case, a Canadian boy who comes from a Chinese family is very worried about his accent, so he uploaded an audio clip and asked those experts to give him some advice. It is from that forum that I know there is a technique called “shadowing” which can be used to improve ones accent.
Accent can be so important in west that it is directly associated with people’s social position. The importance of accent is reflected in the classical movie “Pretty Woman”, in which a linguist professor taught a poor girl (played by Audrey Hepburn) proper accent and finally transformed her into an elegant lady.
Western people also can laugh at accent they don’t like. I know some Singapore students who studied in UK were made fun by their British classmates because of their Singlish (an accent influenced by Chinese dialect). So they made a lot of efforts to remove or hide their accent. By the time they finished their study, their accent is quite similar to British. But back in Singapore, they still speak Singlish as everyone else speaks it. One will feel out of place if they speak in British accent.

Jonna Wibelius said...

Ann -haha, no, u know what, I have no need to hear from others that my accent is 'so good' or 'so bad'. If people can understand me, if I feel communication is smooth and if I am happy with myself I feel that is more than enough. I don't need everybody else to tell me that in order to believe it. Confidence comes from inside, not from other people telling u things. Also, the whole showing videos, sound clips, etc etc f yourself is really not my thing! Some things I like to keep to myself! :)

Anonymous said...

So Blogger is saying my post is too big, so I'll break it in 3 parts.

@ Joanna

I don't know if you're just ignorant, or stupid, or heavily astigmatic, or all of the aforementioned, but I see the same sort of disorderly behavior committed by your very own white people here in North America. I see white people spitting phlegm on the street or on the side of the street, throwing trash and cigarette ashes and butts out from the inside of the car into the open road, spitting gums on the street and lawn, clearing their nose with mucus going straight to the asphalt, defecating without flushing the toilet in public washrooms, putting their feet on the tables in lecture room without thinking that perhaps the next person who may be using the table do not want contact with the dirt from their shoes, and on and on. I have also been personally cut in line by white people (and confronted them) before.

If you want to argue that you see it more often there than here, well let me tell you something. Suppose 1 in 100 people in the entire population of America (307M) and China (1330M) do these kind of unacceptable social behavior. That gives a rough guesstimate of about 3.07M in America and 13.3M in China. Even if 1 in 100 do these sort of social faux pas in China, the number is still roughly the entire population of Norway and Sweden put together. And since large cities in China are so densely populated, you're bound to see more of them, more often. Even if you do see it often does not necessarily mean it is socially/culturally accepted behavior or the myth that it is a popularly-perpetuated-so-it's-tolerated practice. In fact it's the entire opposite -- most Chinese despise them. You can be fined if caught. I don't remember the number in China, but I know in Hong Kong, each spitting violation is a $1500HKD fine (roughly $190USD if you're mathematically impaired too). As far as I can see, white people may be slightly more generous in general, but in terms of bad social behavior, they're no different than Chinese, you just don't see it as often because most travel here by car, so interpersonal contact in large numbers is uncommon in regular streets, only in crowded places like shopping center, organized events, or downtown districts, and also the population density is just so much lower. I can't speak for European manners as I've never spent much meaningful time there.

Perhaps if you just pull your head out of your ass and get off your illusionary ivory tower, or even just heeding your VERY OWN advice "to be as aware or to see the situation from the other side", you'd see more clearly and make better informed judgements and opinions. "The rules for manners and politeness just aren't part of a lot of native Chinese upbringing"?? Nonsense, are you kidding me?? I can say the same for white people too. For every example you bring up, I'll give you a counter example, Joanna. Same shit, different skin.

Anonymous said...

Part 2:

@ Ann

Not all of the Anonymous posts made on this topic are made by me. I can tell you though that I am the author of this and this, and the one I wrote directed at Joanna. I can tell you also that this is the first time I've written on Jonna's blog, and the date I made my first post here is the date I first stumbled upon this blog (by Google search actually, on a totally unrelated topic... and no I will never tell you the query). I don't feel that I should signup and use my own identity just to make a few comments on an interesting topic I've never seen discussed before on a blog which I do not follow regularly. I'm an engineer by trade, so I'm mostly active in places where geeks and engineers hang out for discussion, not in personal blogs. In fact, I don't follow any personal blog at all, as I don't believe in butting into the lives of others -- it's just none of my business, not to mention eerily stalkerish. So I'm already committing a sin of my own just talking about this here! :) So, I will continue to use Anonymous till the moment this topic discussion settles at its end, and that will be the time I disappear completely.

I agree with you on the idea that a language should be seen as a tool for communication. But I think you're way too naive to believe that accents don't matter. Let me just give you a simple example. If you've ever made phone calls to, say, banks or technical supports that speak English, surely you've spoken to someone in India at some point. Now I don't know what you see or hear on this subject, but the pulse I always get from the American public about those English speaking Indian telephone support workers is that of disdain, for their accent, for their undecipherable English, and to some extent, for their taking away of American jobs. I've never seen or heard one American say "well, that's OK, I understand them and they're pretty cool people" or "boy, I enjoyed talking to those Indians so much, let me make another call!" Oh no, it's always about taking the CEOs that outsourced these jobs to India to the guillotines and how much they hated talking to them. They may not show it outright, but I'm sure they harbor the dirty things inside for political correctness, or I guess to pretend to be cultured, cosmopolitan and sophisticated while talking behind their backs. I'm also certain the feeling holds true towards East Asian speakers who carries a heavy accent too, for some white people. And you know, I've yet to meet a white person who'd give someone who's clearly a beginner speaker of English, or any European language, trying to speak to them (with an accent of course) free drinks or words of encouragement for trying. Yet plenty of Chinese would give out little rewards and words of encouragement and complement for white people trying to speak Chinese. In that regard, I think the Chinese are being way too generous, not insensitive beings as many of you seem to claim. Sure they may smile or giggle a bit, but they mean no harm. Sort of like how people laugh at silly things little babies/kids say because they're young and know very little.

Now, I personally don't claim to be a know-it-all, and I certainly don't know how Jonna sounds. Maybe she's right that she has an accent so good, so beautiful, and so seductive that Disney/Pixar must be crazy not to commission her to do the voice for their next animated film. I'm not here to judge her on how she speaks either. She asked "Why are they laughing?", and I'm here to tell her why, very bluntly, based on what I've 'SHE' (seen, heard, experienced). I think she deserves an honest answer, in the spirit of this blog, and without it being wishy-washy.

Anonymous said...

Part 3a:

@ Jonna

I probably don't need to explain to you that older people are probably wiser, more tolerant and considerate than the younger ones. Also, since they don't know you in person, they're probably more respectful and mindful of the fact that you were trying. The younger ones, on the other hand, probably know you in person, and they likely laugh a little bit just to tease you in a friendly way. But keep in mind, if everything you had spoken was perfectly correct, there is absolutely nothing funny to laugh about. I probably shouldn't have suggested you record what you say and do a comparison with a sample of one recorded from a native Mandarin speaker on the same passage. If you knew what the differences are, you'd try to correct it, whatever way you can, to the proper way. It's like asking a severe alcoholic addict to manage a bar. Now I'm not slighting you. I should have known better that self reflection is much easier said than done. And from what little I've read from your writing on the blog, you appear to be pretty stubborn too, just like me. So I'm not going to push you into a direction you're going to ignore and resist anyway. I'm just going to tell you what I think are keys to really master a language.

From my experience (I can communicate in English, Cantonese, and Mandarin at a native level, and French and German at a basic-intermediate level), I think there are three keys, in my opinion, to mastering a new language. First is that you must insist on using it on a very regular basis. After all, there's no substitute for persistence and hard work; talent will only take you so far. Second, you must push yourself beyond your comfort zone to as much as you can handle. The best way to do that is to be in a situation where you will be pushed very hard, most likely an academic setting. I guess business settings works too. Nobody knows you better than yourself, so you should know what's difficult for you. Try to put yourself in as many difficult situations, communication and academic wise, in which you will be pushed to the limits of your knowledge of the language, without breaking yourself down.

Anonymous said...

Part 3b:

The third key, and the most important one, is that the language must build on what you learned previously. Think of learning a language as a growing tree. First you learn the very basics (the roots), then gradually, you branch out into more complex expressions (branches) by building on the foundation you had built before. Learning the language by translating words and phrases and expressions when you need them on the fly from another language is a very passive way to learn. As soon as you translate that and use it for some purpose (an assignment or a reply to someone), very likely you'd quickly forget about it afterwords. It simply because it wasn't branched out from your tree of knowledge; it was simply tacked on. There is no shortcut to learning a radically new language; it must be grown in you. So how does one 'grow a language'? For basics, when you're using Mandarin, never, never think in Swedish or English first then Mandarin second. If you want to use Mandarin, think in Mandarin. when someone asks you something in Mandarin, never translate it to your native language. Formulate your reply by staying in the Mandarin frame of mind and reply like a native would. And when you read Chinese novels (well I hope you've read at least one Chinese novel before right?!?), imagine the story and its vivid details in Chinese, never deviating to any other languages. Another way is to learn the language in a way that a native would of their own language. If you're using one of those Chinese to Swedish (or English) dictionaries, don't use them. Use a Chinese to Chinese dictionary, one that the Chinese themselves would use to find out new meanings of characters and phrases (漢語大詞典 and 漢語大字典 come to mind). It's no different than a Swedish dictionary for Swedish speakers. Perhaps you can try writing this blog first in Chinese before translating it to English.

When you persist on doing that, the language will naturally and surely take hold inside you. You will find, as I had found, that in order to truly learn a language, you must be truly assimilated into the culture in which the language thrives in. If and when you near that stage, you will know it yourself. You will know phrases and poetic expressions in Chinese for which you can think of no better translation and explanation in any other language that you speak. And you may even slowly lose some ability to recall some words and expressions in your native language, because it has been replaced, in your mind, by the same expression in another language. If these things aren't happening to some extent, you're doing something wrong, or you're not trying hard enough. When you've been thoroughly assimilated into the culture and language, proper accent and form will follow naturally, even with a bit of local flair. A language is every bit a communication tool as it is a cultural sculpture of the people.

You appear to speak multiple languages yourself, so you probably know some of these things to some extent. Hope this is at least useful to you in some way.

Ann said...

Hi Anonymous, Thanks for replying me. I am sorry that I assumed all Anonymous is the same person.
Regarding accent, I am certainly not so naive to think accent does not matter at all. If you noticed another comment I left in this post, you will see that I talked about the importance of accent which is clearly reflected in the classical movie "Pretty Woman" (starring legendary icon Audrey Hepburn), in which a poor girl is transformed into an elegant lady just because she is taught how to speak with the upper-class accent.
Generally, job seekers with better accent stand more chance to be hired, although accent alone is not a decisive factor in one’s career, unless he is in some special occupations, like teachers, actors, TV reporters, journalists, CEO, etc.
For other ordinary people, I don't think accent is a big deal. I live in Singapore, Singaporeans speak English with strong accent, but as their English is quite fluent, they have no difficulty in communicating with westerns.

Ann said...

I am sorry that the movie I refer to is not entitled "Pretty Woman“(in Chinese 风月俏佳人) starring Julia Roberts, its title shall be "My fair lady”(in Chinese 窈窕淑女). Here is what I found in wiki about its plotline:
In London, Henry Higgins (Rex Harrison), an arrogant, irascible, misogynistic professor of phonetics, believes that it is the accent and tone of one's voice which determines a person's prospects in society. He boasts to a new acquaintance, Colonel Hugh Pickering (Wilfrid Hyde-White), himself an expert in phonetics, that he can teach any woman to speak so "properly" that he could pass her off as a duchess at an embassy ball, citing, as an example, a young flower seller called Eliza Doolittle (Audrey Hepburn), who has a strong Cockney accent.

Ann said...

I think kind people (regardless of his skin color) are always willing to give encouragements to new learners of language. I remember I uploaded an audio clip of myself speaking English and asked for advice in a forum, then I got comments which were quite generous. One comment is "I think you're being much too hard on yourself. Your English, while admittedly heavily accented, is easy to understand. ...I wish you good luck in your endeavors". Another comment "Let’s be honest: yes, you have a very strong accent, and it is sometimes a bit hard to make out what you said. However, as long as your concentrate on your speech and speak slowly (as you were doing in the video), you will be fine. " The third comment "I understood no problem... accent, definitely , but really I can tell you are most likely East Asian; that said for your phonology is very clear (especially for a non-European). YOU ARE A CLEAR SPEAKER, keep working, but don't get bogged down trying to sound like too much like a native. "
I really feel encouraged when reading those kind comments.

Ann said...

Months ago I happened to do some online research on accent. From what I learned, Chinese is a "syllabic language", while English is a "stress language". To speak Chinese properly, one just need to speak each character with its correct tone. Foreigners have accent just because they speak some characters with incorrect tones.
In contrast, to speak English like native-speakers, one shall not only have good pronunciation, but more importantly, one shall speak with intonation by stressing those "content words" (noun,verb,etc) while gliding over those "function words" (preposition, etc). A common mistake made by English novices whose mother tongue is "syllabic language" is that they tend to emphasize each word. I found some teaching material about English accent quite insightful so I share it here:

Many people think that pronunciation is what makes up an accent. It may be that pronunciation is very important for an understandable accent. But it is intonation that gives the final touch that makes an accent native.

Intonation is the "music" of a language, and is perhaps the most important element of a good accent. Often we hear someone speaking with perfect grammar, and perfect formation of the sounds of English but with a little something that gives them away as not being a native speaker.

Therefore, it is necessary to realize that there is more than the correct pronunciation of the vowels and consonants of a language. This is very important and we do stress it in other articles. But it is only one of the three components to an accent, pronunciation, intonation, and linking.

Ann said...

As Singapore is multiethnic country, one is exposed to a variety of Asian accents, Indian, Malaysian, Philippine, Indonesian, etc. So I am not strange to Indian accent at all. One just need a little time to get used to Indian’s accent which actually sounds lovely to me. In fact, Indians are quite proud of their accent, they regard it as a part of their culture and won’t bother to change it. In contrast, Singapore leaders always encourage their people to abandon “Singapore English” and speak Standard English.
I admire non-native speakers who can speak as well as or even better than native speakers. I am always amazed to watch those foreigners in CCTV-4 hosting large events in perfect Mandarin. Their Mandarin is so good that you will hardly distinguish them from their Chinese colleagues. But interestingly, I somehow prefer foreigners to have slight accent since I think they sound lovely with that little accent.

Jonna Wibelius said...

Ann -I think you have set a record now for the one that comments the most time on one post! :) Very impressed of your commitment to this topic

Anonymous said...

Now I have no desire to break Ann's record on most consecutive posts in a single topic, but Blogspot isn't letting me post because it's too big again. What's with Blogspot anyway, geez...

@ Ann

So I was thinking of waiting until tomorrow for more comments to show up, and answer them all in one go. Haha, no, just kidding, I was busy yesterday. In any case...

It's funny that you talked about in great length here about how you didn't care for accents and how bad accents aren't preventing them from having success and the acceptability of bad accents (which is what I was reponding to on my previous post to you), and then you turn around and said here and alluded to a movie here about how bad accents can get you discriminated socially and here about how bad accents can get you passed over for hires and careers in some fields. So is having bad accents really accepted? If the only people you deal with are ordinary people, then no. But otherwise, all you said seem to support my position (and contradict your own original position) that accents do matter. If having a bad accent can prevent them from having the career advancement that they could/should have been entitled to, isn't that preventing them from achieving their full potential, their success? The discrimination really is just a barometer for the society's nonacceptance of improper accents. It's naive and silly for anyone to think otherwise.

For these technicalities, I can't really comment on them. I'm an engineer, not a linguist. I don't really think knowing that is going to help anyone speaks better Mandarin or whatever else either. We really don't need someone with a PhD in linguistics to tell us whether someone has an accent or not; if one isn't having hearing problems or brain damaged, inaccurate accent will be heard. But in order to have a genuine local accent, there is no substitute to practice and imitate the local way of speaking as often as possible.

Anonymous said...

For this, I'm not really that familiar with Singapore since I've never been there in my life, so I don't really know what it's like. But, when I was in university a couple of years ago, I was fortunate enough to work with an exchange student, a female of Chinese descent, from Singapore's NUS. At the time, we were supposed to form groups of 4, and my group (composed of me, a white guy, and an Iranian guy who knew each other) were short one member, so we asked the prof to just give us someone who couldn't find any group, and he sent her our way. Initially, we didn't really have great feelings for her, since it's a female (we all know most engineers are guys), and it's an exchange student, so we didn't know whether she'll fit in well and communicate well and carry her weight (reasonable concerns, yes?). But long story short, we were totally blew away by how talented she was. She single-handedly did almost 50% of the project on her own and was glad to take on more, no complaints. We didn't do much not because we didn't want to, but she did it so quickly and efficiently it seemed second nature to her. We also got 98% for the project too. Anyway, enough about that. What I remember of her was her accent was pretty heavily accented, which sounded a bit like a cross between Mandarin and English, but it was clear and didn't bother me at all. I read her technical reports too, and I thought for the most part her writing was not all that bad. Now of course I can't generalize and say every single Singaporean can do that, but the impression she gave me was that the educational system in Singapore is pretty darn sound.

On Indians: I don't meet too many of them often, but most here don't have that Indian accent. Even those that do, their accents are mostly tolerable. But one thing I know for certain is that they aren't proud of their accents here. I've seen comedy shows making jokes on Indian accents in front of big audiences (and national television). I've also made calls to some telephone support help lines before where I spoke to some Indians (in India I presume) whom I could not understand at all. So, my experience with them are kind of mixed. I neither like them nor hate them. I guess because they have such a significant presence in Singapore, they probably don't care if they don't speak English that precisely because there is no pressure and incentive to, since everyone speaks badly anyway, so why improve and make yourself stand out (and probably ridiculed by others jealous or just teasing) among them? I guess it's a vicious cycle that's unlikely to be broken, but one you probably don't seem to mind. Do whatever makes you happy.

Anonymous said...

More on accents: I really don't think Chinese people have a lower so called 'humor tolerance" than say the Europeans. I've heard of different English accents from around the world, and while some of them are weird, none of them really tickled my funny bone. But, somehow, I have no idea why foreigners, especially beginners, speaking Chinese sound so... weird, clownish, and silly. Their accents have the uncanny ability to make me squirm and uncomfortable inside like no other accents for any other languages I have ever heard. I suppose it's probably because Chinese is a syllabic language like you mentioned. Now maybe because I'm also a violinist myself (and a bit of a perfectionist), I am very sensitive to tones. I listen to classical music on radio on a regular basis, and often times I'm able to identify the violinist by just listening to the style of play and the sound the performer of the music was able to bring out from their instrument. Anyway, perhaps I'm too harsh, or too mean, or both, but that's how I feel...

Finally, on the subject of white people giving complements. What I was referring to earlier was meeting white people on and about in their daily lives; for examples, salespeople in stores, shopkeepers in bakeries, servers in restaurants, gatekeepers in parks, or even regular people on the streets. Of course in a setting of learning, in classrooms or online forums for learners, you're much more likely to be encouraged by the people there teaching, or even by one of your fellows. In China, if you were a foreigner, you're much more likely to be encouraged by regular folks who are on and about in their daily lives. I don't need to give you examples; you know what I'm talking about. That was precisely what I was referring to. Besides, who's to say that those who encouraged you in the forum were Caucasians? Couldn't they be other Asians or other non-Caucasians? And for those who replied, did you really expect them to say "you sound terrible, go kill yourself" or something along those lines? Of course not. Any reasonable person is going to be supportive in that position, unless there are active trolls in that forum.

Anonymous said...

@ Jonna

Hahaha, I guess I really piqued her passion on this topic, somehow. Everybody except Ann are afraid to talk to me I guess. RAWR I'm gonna eat'cha, my wok is waitin'! Mmmm mmm good! (licks finger)

So, just for fun, I tried looking for some video of Europeans speaking Mandarin with a perfect accent, and Youtube didn't disappoint. Now this guy is flawless, with a genuine Beijing accent (you can tell by hearing a lot of tongue rolling sounds). Even I can't speak like that (my accent resembles most closely to the Taiwan accent). And I was even able to dig out how he did it here. Here are some excerpts:

.. began studying Chinese in 1998 ... [in] an "almost 100 percent Chinese environment."... "he studied at home for hours and engaged in conversation with any Chinese person he happened upon."

"... consumed whatever Chinese language material he could - novels, newspapers, magazines and historical texts. He constantly listened to television and radio shows, and would repeat new phrases to himself until he was sure the pronunciation was perfect."

"... his successful quest in learning [was] mostly down to hard work. He is a regular performer of cross-talk, the popular art of stand-up comedy with a linguistic bent. He says it has brought a new level of sophistication to his Chinese."

So in just under a decade, he was able to go from knowing nothing about the language to a native speaker. Impressive I say. From his experience, he was pretty much following my blueprint I outlined before for you: to use it on a regular basis, pushing himself to the limits, and persistently stay in a Chinese frame of mind and assimilate himself into the Chinese culture and language for many years. One thing I didn't mention though, was passion. It was his desire that enabled him to do what he did, that he was able to set a high bar for himself and achieve his goal. So, how high is your bar, and are you willing to put in the effort? That ultimately will determine how successful you will be.

Ann said...

Anonymous - I really don't want to break my own record or break your record, but after reading your new comment, I just feel I still have something to say.
I don't think I contradict myself in my view of accent, I am just talking about the two sides of a coin. I agree with you that good accent is sometimes necessary in help advancing one's career, since high-level job nowadays normally doesn't deal with materials, technology, etc, but rather deal with human beings. Just think of the high level manag
ers, CEO in any companies, their daily job is simply to talk, talk and talk, like talking to business partners, to employees, to medias, etc. so talk is a very important daily activity for those people, admittedly a good accent can help them get the job well done. Therefore, anyone who aspires to become big names in the industry must devote himself to learning a perfect accent.
Undoubtedly learning accent definitely requires a lot of time, however, not everyone can afford to spend so much time on language-learning as there might be other more important things in their lives that they need to focus on. For example, for a computer programmer, his job is coding and debugging, a good or bad accent really has nothing to do with his daily work. For the models who barely speak when they walk in the runway, it is their look rather than their accent that make them attractive to the audience and camera.
So my conclusion is still that accent may be very important to some people, but may be irrelevant to others. It is really unnecessary to exaggerate the importance of accent.
And even to those top people, accent is not always that important. Chairman Mao spoke Hunan Hua (a dialect in Hunan province), he doesn't have a good accent, yet he eventually became a great politician remembered by his people for decades, while those with good accent? probably forgotten by the history.
To be successful in life, one has to have many good merits, such as commitment, courage, vision, expertise, personality, etc, accent is just one of the factors, but by no means it is the most decisive factor.

Anonymous said...

I will never forget my first stop over in Thailand, 25 years ago.I went to a souvenir shop and copped a blast of giggles without doing or saying a thing. I felt very uncomfortable, especially when the assistants called in their mates to point and laugh at me. The laughter soon became gale force shrieks, with one of them bent over double and almost having convulsions. Another appeared to be hyper-ventilating.Finally, I could stand it no more and left without buying anything. My face was burning hot with embarrassment and I felt like crying.I have since tried to find out why they behaved like this, and why it didn't seem to strike them that a person might resent being laughed at for no apparent reason, without success. Needless to say, whenever Asians begin giggling near me, I feel a sinking feeling in my stomach and inwardly pray that they won't start pointing, or calling in their cronies to join in the fun.

Anonymous said...

@ the Anonymous above

I think I may have a little hypothesis of what happened.

So you went into this shop without doing anything weird, and all of a sudden they started laughing uncontrollably. If they were able to laugh so wildly, into a convulsion even, without you having performed any comedic act, then there must had been something really funny about you at the time. What I suspect happened was you were wearing a T-shirt, which you most likely bought while you were in Thailand from those tourist areas, with a message on it that probably suggested something really inappropriate, most likely a sexual innuendo, in Thai script (you know, something along the lines of "I came to Thailand to stock up on cum" written across your shirt, clearly visible, and walking around with it on...). Sometimes people wear things in foreign languages that they don't even know the meaning for, thinking they're fashionable. I would never condone anyone doing something like that (by that I mean those who made those T-shirts and those who laughed), but people just don't laugh like that without a very good reason. I feel sorry for you for what happened and the effect it had on you, and I hope you will get over this Asian crowd phobia nonsense. I assure you this is very very unlikely to happen again.

@ Ann

Well, let's see what you wrote again.

"... does the deficiencies in speaking stop them from achieving success in a foreign land? I don't think so."

"... as long as we get our messages crossed, any accent shall be acceptable."

Not really. You know you can be discriminated against, and you already gave some of those examples. This may be true for jobs where you don't talk to other people much, like the few you mentioned, but it isn't true for many others where there are much interpersonal contacts, which you pointed out also. You also mentioned before what a huge obstacle having a bad accent can be, career and social wise. And yet, you clearly said here that you didn't think it prevents them from having success and that they are acceptable. Is that not a contradiction between what you stated and your evidence?

Finally, I'm not hammering on these little things to intimidate you. The biggest issue I have with you is how easily you appear to be in shying away from problems, in this case bad accent. To me, reasons like "oh I'm too busy I don't have time" or "there are more important things to worry about" or "I don't really need to do X, since such and such famous people can't/don't do it too and yet they do quite well" are just excuses for not trying. If you, or anyone, think like that, then you've already failed, because the probability of success for not trying is zero. It shows me those who are weak minded and not confident, those who always skirt around problems rather than confronting them, those that do not have the courage to dare because they are difficult. Never settle for mediocrity, and never let anyone tell you that you can't. 做人一定要有意志和鬥志,有志者事竟成。

Ann said...

Anonymous - Have you ever wondered why Jonna does not reply to your comment? You comment is so considerable in length that it shall easily attract her attention. But why she appears to ignore you by not answering any of your questions? Has it ever occurred to you that you might have hurt her feeling in a way when you said something so negative of her "ignorant", "stupid", about making an apology to her for being somehow rude and inconsiderate?

You seem to expect Jonna to become a person like the French guy who appeared in the popular talk show 锵锵三人行?Surely he speaks very impressively and I will give him score of 95 for his accent. Jonna’s accent may not be as good as the French, but as she can communicate with local people without any problem, I think she deserves at least a score of 80 which is high enough. It will be more fruitful for her to devote her time to writing (for her blog and for any journals) than to refining her accent.

Your explanation about how to learn a language is impressive, but Jonna herself is an accomplished multilingual person. I think she already knows those theories very well.

Ann said...

Anonymous - About the Singaporean exchange student you mentioned, I am not surprised at her good performance. NUS is the top university in Singapore and one must be smart and diligent enough to be admitted to NUS. Singapore education system resembles that in USA, therefore students are very accustomed to doing course projects and making presentations from even primary school. English is the official language in Singapore, and courses are taught in English in schools of all levels, it is just natural that Singapore students are good at English writing.

Back to the accent issue, I am somehow astonished that you don’t think the Singapore girl has accent. So it seems we have a fundamental difference in the definition of "accent”? It is silly to continue to argue without a clear definition in the first place. So tell me what is your definition of accent?

Initially, you appeared to keep your identity a secret, you even did not want to tell what was the search enquiry that brought you to Jonna’s blog. But interestingly, you seemed to unintentionally reveal what a person you are with all your comments. Now I am pretty confident to portray you like this:
A man in his late 20s or early 30s
You are ABC or you immigrated to US while you were a kid (otherwise you cannot speak like a native)
An engineer, multitalented (you can play violin and speak multiple languages).
A perfectionist who doesn’t want to compromise anything (otherwise you won’t be so keen on accent).
You like to play the role of a mentor (otherwise you don’t write so much about how to learn a language).

Somehow you reminded me of what I was in the past, I used to be a perfectionist, having zero tolerance of this or that, too aggressive in discussion and too eager to convince others... but I've outgrown that stage, and I am quite open-minded now.

Ann said...

To all the anonymous - Now you can see why I suggest that you choose a name for yourself. Because if there are more than two "anonymous" in the same post, readers will easily get confused about who is speaking.

To another anonymous - thanks for pointing out my weakness, although in real life, I don’t think I am a person who easily gives in or compromises. I certainly don't think a very bad or awful accent is acceptable. What I say is that average accent is quite enough. There is no need to further polish one's accent unless accent itself becomes a big obstacle to advancing one's career.
You know people need to deal with many things in their lives, their study, their job, their family, and so on. Different things shall have a different priority, right? With a limited lifetime, one definitely need to concentrate on things that are of the highest priority to them. Dancers shall concentrate on practicing dance movement, painters shall concentrate on painting, writers shall concentrate on writing, etc. Not everyone relies heavily on good accent to get their job done. Michael Phelps, who won 8 gold medals in Beijing Olympic Games, clearly has an accent if you watch his TV interview. Can you blame him for not having a good accent? The fact is, if he spends his time improving his accent, probably he won't even win a gold medal due to lack of time for practising swimming.

To both anonymous - Frankly, I am quite interested in your accent. Do you mind sharing your audio clips in youtube to educate me on what is a good accent?

grumpy_stilts said...

The issue of accent becomes complicated for any sort of resident in China foreign or not. There are tons of dialects in every province and the majority of people in China I've met don't speak the bastardized Beijinghua that is Mandarin with the accent of tv news anchors or actors. Having a "local" or "standard Mandarin" accent both are limited in different ways in China. Having a good local accent means that you can get things done more efficiently in a particular region but that accent becomes a marker of where you are from outside the region. Having a good Mandarin accent means that you can communicate well with other educated Chinese and people will be impressed with how "intelligent" you sound but until you speak up about where you are from in China and what dialects you speak, you cannot make use of the connections that make so many things get done in China. As useful as it is, just speaking Mandarin in many places in China labels you as an "outsider". Having a good Mandarin accent is something hard to achieve, there is a reason why teachers in China have to take a test where they read a passage in Mandarin as step in get their teaching credentials. Therefore I don't think it's very polite at all to make fun of another person's accent foreigner or 非本地人 or US resident with an accent。 I personally would have been at the very least been extremely distracted in Joanna's situation if not extremely offended. Joanna's frustrations, those of learning a language in it's native environment are issues that need to be expressed somewhere. A mountain of humbling experiences related to language gathered in 3 countries has made me believe this and has also had the side effect of making me sparing in any sort of subjective comments on people's accents.

Anonymous said...

@ grumpy_stilts

I concur with you on discrimination, but I totally disagree with your notion that speaking proper Mandarin (or Beijinghua) is just a status symbol of having a proper education. One of the main reasons why the teachers must go through a proper Mandarin reading test in order to teach is because of how fragmented dialect wise China is. If the Chinese government hadn't insisted on a proper, standard dialect on the country, China would be very similar to European Union today -- political and territorial union, sure, language (and to a lesser extent cultural) union, not so much. People who can't speak Mandarin would be pigeonholed into communicating only within their immediate vicinity and would become de facto foreigners if they ventured afar (I would even say they would be considered to be an 'even bigger outsider' than a Mandarin speaking Chinese). Yes, speaking Mandarin in many places labels you as an outsider; I've seen instances of this in person. But what is the alternative? Have that person speak their own local dialect in a new place where there is a radically different dialect, and end up with two people confused with each other? Speaking Mandarin properly does NOT mean "you can communicate well with other educated Chinese and people will be impressed with how "intelligent" you sound", rather it empowers you an opportunity to be heard. Speaking proper Mandarin is mandatory if you want to have the best chance to understand and be understood by people throughout the country. Mandarin is a critical tool for Chinese unity -- a common denominator of communication for all of us. Having a local accent is useful for forging ties in local areas, I agree, but it's absurd to say that knowing Mandarin is only useful for communicating with the educated and privileged. While many Chinese people, especially those over 40, can only speak a local dialect and have problem speaking proper Mandarin (and I've met many of those myself) because they hadn't received an education or didn't live near Beijing, with the proliferation of education in China today, I'd be surprised if anyone under 30 in China have trouble speaking Mandarin properly. Mandarin is neither, and will never be, a status dialect nor an esoteric dialect. I don't know if your claim that speaking Mandarin prevents you from forging local connections is true; I personally have not seen any strong evidence supporting this claim. But some things are for certain; Mandarin is the de facto lingua franca of China, and eventually, it will be both the de facto and de jure lingua franca of China and perhaps much of the Chinese diaspora in the future. Speaking it and speaking it well is in anyone's best interest if they want to do anything in China. Speaking it without an accent will be an even bigger bonus, as you'd be seen as 'one of them' and not a foreigner.