Sunday, June 8, 2008

Company Man

WARNING: liberal use of IPA letters in this post. Some computers may not display all characters correctly (although Unicode should be enough). Also, I'm not a professional transcriber, so my IPA guides may be greviously erroneous. //Warning

Anyone who enjoys espionage and prescriptive linguistics would enjoy the movie Company Man. The main character, a high-school English teacher, somehow ends up working for the FBI (or CIA... something) because of his grammatical prowless.

Anyway. That has nothing to do with what I'm planning to blog about today. (Although, if you do get the chance, I highly recommend watching the movie, despite it being rated exceptionally lowly on I suppose the general audience don't have an appreciation for quasi-linguists-turned-international spies.

So, on the busride home from a shopping spree with my roommate (although I didn't end up purchasing anything, except lunch), I was confronted with the delightful opportunity of making an amateur analysis of the linguistic patterns of a pair of passengers seated directly behind me and my roommate. For the majority of their conversation, the two speakers (one male, one female) spoke in English, but it was fairly evident that both were native Mandarin speakers.

At first, I was slightly unnerved at being forced to listen to someone else's conversation, especially when the conversation is between strangers. But then, the jarring, unnatural patterns of speech became a source of study for me.

It quickly became evident later (confirmed when they eventually switched to speaking Mandarin), that the female was from mainland China who came to Canada much later in life than the male, who although possibly Taiwanese, sought to adapt the Beijing standard of speech (his inability to follow as fluidly in Mandarin betrayed his age of immigration).

My findings were as follows (of the male speaker; I didn't care much for the female):

1. Dropping of medial and final dental/alveolar plosives (and possibly replaced with aspiration)
Of the most commonly used words, these involved "it's" becoming /ʔihs/, "that" /thah/, "not" /nawh/. Additionally, words like "considered" became /consihereh/. This probably stems from Mandarin lacking any sort of terminal plosives, fricatives or affricates. Indeed, the only real syllable/word-endings that exist in Mandarin are vowel sounds, /n/ and /ŋ/. Curiously, /k, g/ seem to be less affected.

2. Nasalisation of vowels
This occured commonly, especially with the -ing ending of verbs/gerunds. Thus, "voting" became /vohĩ/ (instead of /'voutiŋ/), but also for replacing glides and approximants (/w, l, n/), as in /faĩoh auwh/ for "filed out".

3. Vowel Approximation
This is probably most common for any ESLer, or any second language speaker for that matter. My Russian friends tell me that I mess up their vowels somehow. (But then again, I haven't tried very hard either.) Most commonly, in native Mandarin speakers, this seems to suggest that they aim for the orthographical letter as opposed to the naturally schwa syllable. Thus, "fulfill" becomes /fohfiw/.

In summary, native Mandarin speakers who seek to speak a more natural variety of English should be especially careful about their schwa vowels, and ending syllables with consonant sounds.

Also, I should probably note that I haven't written this post in an elaborate form of spite towards immigrants or non-native speakers. Rather, I hope that this post makes more native English speakers aware that there isn't just one "Chinese accent". Also, hopefully this proves a semi-funtional guide for native Mandarin speakers to pinpoint and curb their natural habits in order to speak English more effectively.

Hopefully, my next post will be about native Cantonese speakers.

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