At first glance, this topic might seem like it’s a little advanced and unnecessary right now, but knowing about at this from the very start will save you a lot of confusion in the long run. Just like an American southern accent differs a lot from a British accent, Mandarin Chinese varies with accents as well. When first starting out, I thought this was a detail I could save for later. In fact, I wasn’t even aware it was something I was ignoring. But, I quickly realized that it’s pretty important to understand accents in Chinese so that you avoid confusion when listening to audio or talking with someone from a southern region of China or Taiwan.
Like we discussed from the very beginning, the Chinese language is composed of many dialects, but education and media in mainland China is typically conducted in Mandarin. Near Beijing, people speak Mandarin, also known as Standard Chinese or pǔtōnghuà (普通话) natively and with the official accent. But as you move away from Beijing (specifically toward Southern China and Taiwan), accents of spoken Mandarin Chinese change based on the influence of regional dialects. For a foreigner learning Chinese though, this effect can be mostly summed up with the differences between two particularly noticeable accents: Northern vs Southern accents.
The Northern accent follows the standard Chinese pronunciation common in Beijing. You are likely to hear this accent in most government broadcast shows, news, and podcasts. On the contrary, Southern accents can be pretty confusing when first learning because some separate sounds from the official accent are blurred together. Because of this, context becomes even more important in understanding what someone is saying.
Compared to a Northern accent, a Southern accent has these tricky characteristics:
- less curling on the tongue for any pinyin with an “h”, such as: shi, zhi, chi, zhou, zhong, chu, zhe, she, et cetera. The result is that the pronunciation essentially ignores the “h” in these pinyin. This can present some serious confusion to a new learner because these pinyin pronunciations can then be very easily confused with other pinyin that do not contain an “h” at all, such as: si, se, zi, ci, zou, zong, cu, ze, etc. Context is really important to understand what pinyin is actually being said.
- almost no use of the “-r” sound common at the end of the pinyin shi, zhi, and chi. This is also primarily because these pinyin are pronounced the same as si, zi, and ci because of the previous bullet point.
To be clear, I know virtually nothing about pronunciations of local dialects of Chinese, but I have read that most of Southern regional dialects do not include tongue curling sounds in their lexicons. This is what leads to these notable aspects of the Southern accent for Southern Chinese when they speak Mandarin. I’d advise you not to worry about the different accents right now, but just keep this information in the back of your mind so that you understand what is going on when you hear a word pronounced completely differently from your expectations.
Now that we’ve covered most everything on the pronunciation front, it’s time to demystify tones.
Next up: Tones aren’t so scary.