Monday, April 14, 2008

Kevin Rudd speaking Mandarin

Been a while since I posted here, I have however still been progressing my Mandarin studies. Actually whilst I intend to continue posting here I am also starting to put together a more structured collection of my learning Mandarin experiences and observations to date.

Kevin Rudd, that newly elected Austrailian Prime Minister interests me immensely and has certainly sparked off a lot of online conversations regarding the quality of his spoken Mandarin. A short excerpt from one of his recent speeches:

It is fairly easy to find the usual criticisms, he still sounds like a foreigner, his sentences often carry over Western intonations etc.etc. yawn! All the usual fare from the pedants who don't think you are speaking Chinese properly unless native Chinese people peer very closely at you wondering why somebody who is evidently Chinese (because you speak so well) looks somewhat like a Westerner. Most of the manifestation of this belief that I encounter comes from Westerners who are learning Chinese (hmmmm). Now take into account that many European politicians who speak English do so with a "foreign accent" no matter how excellent their level of English (and vice-versa I guess), that in fact despite the millions of foreigners who learn English only a very tiny minority actually could pass for a native born English speaker (or though I have met some very impressive Chinese speakers of English recently). Why is it even an issue that someone cannot pass for a native Chinese over the telephone?

I feel the good news is that eventually it won't matter, the more politicians, sports people, entertainers that can speak and communicate in Mandarin then the more acceptable it will be to have a laowai accent. Stop focusing on the edge cases that have lived, worked, maybe grown-up in China and get down to the business of how does a Westerner become fluent in Mandarin. Here is some more Kevin Rudd being interviewed:

加油,加油 Kevin Rudd.


Ryan said...

I agree wholeheartedly. If a person's accent in a foreign language does not interfere with his/her being understood then we shouldn't be so critical. As long as the native speakers of that language do not have to concentrate too hard to understand what’s the big deal?

Javier Bardem (a Spaniard) just won an Oscar acting in an English speaking role. Arnold Schwarzenegger has acted in American movies for decades and is serving his second term as governor of California. President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan has addressed the American congress several times with no problem even though he speaks with an accent.

My Mandarin is quite basic but Prim Minister Rudd’s Chinese sounds pretty decent. He is interviewed on TV and the Chinese laugh at his jokes. What more do people want?

Edwin said...

The native-speaker test is absolutely nonsense. The bad thing is that people don't say it out aloud, but would judge you subconsciously. As you have said, these people are usually non-native speakers.

In case you missed it. ChinesePod recently had a podcast on the Prime Minister and his CCTV interview. They could only pick out a few mistakes.

Chris said...

That is a good question Ryan, what do people want? I have a sneaking suspicion that there are Westerners who have learned Chinese who would like to see themselves as part of a very exclusive club and possible resent the thought of it becomming more accessible and mainstream (which thanks to technology it is).

Thanks Edwin, I had just spotted that lesson actually which is what prodded me to post about Kevin Rudd , and is behind my next blog post.

Chris said...

Of course re-reading this I just realised that this artcicle is more than a little 自相矛盾 as Kevin Rudd both studied and worked in China, but he still sounds like a foreigner so I'll let that ride.

Anonymous said...

Although I agree that people should not be overly critical, that Kevin Rudd has an amazingly accurate accent. His interview wasn't as good, but he said himself that his level wasn't what it should be. Also, his joke was pretty funny when he spoke to those students. If anything, I think people like him are raising the bar for Chinese speaking foreigners, haha.

Also, it is kind of sad, but there are a fair number of people who learned Chinese as a second or third language and are mistaken as natives over the phone, but never accepted in person. Even if they try not to, they still see a foreigner speaking Chinese, so it almost always seems wrong. I have the same problem with Korean.

kdobson said...

I agree with anonymous... if I know what I'm talking about I get taken for a native over the phone all the time... even one time after studying for like 6 months (in taiwan) I was 15 minutes into a phone interview before the lady figured it out.
There is definitely a disconnect where Chinese people have a hard time believing 'foreign'-looking people can learn fluent Mandarin. As it is, foreigners are rare enough on the streets in most places that even I stare for a moment. Still, if people like Dashan and Rudd keep making it into the spotlight, they can change the popular conceptions.
Until then, there are a lot of people who see a non-Chinese face and then shut down their brain. You can literally talk to two people, have one understand perfectly, and the other just 'tingbudong'--likely because they believe you MUST be speaking English.

Anyway, everybody keep working away, but don't settle for 'laowai accent'... enough input and efficiently applied effort can make you a star.

Greg said...

As they say ... the poor Mandarin that you do speak is better than the excellent Mandarin that you don't speak.