Chinese immigrant to U.S. explains value of Southern accent

Originally published at: https://boingboing.net/2021/01/12/chinese-immigrant-to-u-s-explains-value-of-southern-accent.html

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He’s a smart guy alright and his accent is remarkable. He must have a very good ear.

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Using a Southern accent is very clever. I’ve met countless people in China with really good English vocabulary, but still a hint of an accent. That accent isn’t far off from Southern.

Conversely, I start using an accent when I’m in China. Sort of a mild NM Chollo accent. Just not the slang. I’m not sure if it’s because it makes me easier to understand or if the cadence in Chinese brings it out of me.

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I speak words from a couple different dialects of Japanese but I’ve always been careful to not make my Japanese sound like the standard Westerner speaking Japanese.

Occasionally in an anime or drama a Westerner will come up who speaks Japanese and you can hear the comical tone in the voice they always give them. I try to avoid that at all cost

I tried to give my own accent to it but I’ve never really asked anyone how it came across.

I will say this guy, I’ve never seen anyone from Japan or Asia period pull this off. There are western themed bars in Japan but for the most part Japanese do not speak English with any kind of accent. At least, in all my travels, I have yet to meet one who does. I am sure they are out there but controlling one’s accent is a very complex high-level skill within a language so that makes this guy in the video here all that more impressive.

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It’s true, you almost never see a foreigner in scripted film or tv that speaks Japanese or Chinese without the stereotypical accent. Sadly, the stereotype is more often true than not, even with people that fancy themselves as accomplished Chinese speakers (I know much less about Japan). It’s well worth imposing the discipline on yourself to pronounce properly (or in keeping with the local pronunciation where you live, if expatting). It’s not that hard, and very rewarding. I still get a little thrill when I first meet someone I had spoken on the phone with, and they are surprised I’m not Chinese.

I have found that dialects in Chinese really are more colorful and fun to speak than Mandarin, although I can only claim to speak and understand several phrases in couple of them. If I were living in a region that spoke a dialect, I would make an effort like this transplanted cowboy did to embrace the local speech patterns.

Feedlots though. Barf.

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as a “recovering yankee” whose accent – although it goes in and out – has changed to southern, I definitely agree that the vowels and cadence of a southern accent make speaking English easier.
there are even grammar differences that are easier. america is waking up to the fact that “y’all” makes a hell of a lot more sense than “you” for both singular and plural, and getting over the perception that only rednecks use it. however, the other one that immediately comes to mind is “modal stacking,” the back-to-back usage of modal verbs: “might could, used to could, should oughta” and etcetera. it’s just easier to say and economic: “well, I might be able to” is a mouthful compared to “well, I might could” full-stop.
I’ve remarked here before about the true weirdness of the sound of my native way to say words like “oil” and “aisle.” as a yankee, I said “oy-yul” and “ay-yul” without a second thought. nowadays, even when speaking more northern, I will revert to the southern “ol” and “ah’l” but pushed back deep in my throat for both. it just sounds better, is one-sylable economic, and also flows out of the mouth easier, imo.
as for blending in, I cannot say how others perceive me, nor is a southern accent always the default in the cities I have lived in here in the south (and half the time I sound like a Michigander anyway) but I’d guess it helps. if I don’t sound like my interlocutors, I probably sound like their grandpa.
but for my part, it does help me to belong, most definitely.

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Bruce is a grad student at the college where I work. It is neat to see this interview with him!

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My Chinese vocabulary is terrible. Though I get complements on my pronunciation. It’s because I am, except for the feathers, parroting the words.

It used to be worse. When I was first learning, I had a coworker that would teach me words. But no one could understand me. So we’d keep practicing. Turns out my coworker was from a small village area notorious for having terrible accents and being hard to understand. Of course no one understood me; they couldn’t understand him!

My pronunciation is good enough in that I’ve been briefly mistaken for a fluent speaker in several countries, and a native in France. But in Italy I almost always get interrupted with a “Do you speak English?” Dear God, I butcher that language but hard.

I also probably couldn’t pull off a Southern (or any British) accent to save my life.

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I picked up a Yorkshire accent when I lived in Leeds. I found the average person didn’t understand what I was saying in my normal Canadian accent.

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I used to go to several consulates back in my messenger days. after getting my signature at a visit to the Italian consulate, I said “mille grazze!” (spelling?) in my best parroting of Italian, which was convincing enough that the secretary’s demeanor changed abruptly, thinking I was fluent. I speak literally none, but my ear and pipes are fairly good. (I don’t read music but I suspect that I have relative pitch at least.)

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I took German in college. When visiting Switzerland I asked for a cup of coffee in German and the barista responded in English. I was totally dejected. Late that same trip we were in Paris at a restaurant. I asked my wife, who took French in high school, how to say “table for four”. The hostess I spoke to responded to me in French. So who knows?

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That’s probably also because most German people are better in English compared to French people. (IMHO)

Edit: Dutch people also have the tendency to switch to English at the slightest hint of an accent making it hard for people actually trying to learn Dutch.

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With English in particular, because it’s spoken by so many people, most English speakers are used to varying accents and pronunciations of words. The French, I’ve found, are very particular about accents**, and have trouble with anything that’s not close to a native accent. (Several of my French friends said they struggled to understand any French Canadians, and say that the Canuks can’t really speak French).

** or less politely, they’re fucking snobs

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I’ve heard the Dutch speak English with each other, so who knows. However, I actually made it through a whole meal, ordering everything in Dutch, making a clarification in Dutch, complimenting the meal in Dutch, and almost made it through the whole thing until the bill came and it all fell apart for me. The server said she thought I was Dutch just because I said something to her in Dutch. Her attitude was “who learns Dutch?”

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I think he’s exceptional. For a lot of adults, as hard as they try, they cannot erase the influences of their accents no matter how much effort they expend. He sounds flawlessly native.

He does remind us that, when you learn a language, you are not just learning a language: you are learning a very particular accent for that language at the same time.

I’m sure about his main idea though. Isn’t learning flawless “broadcast-ready” East Coast accent just as useful as his flawless Southern accent? The point is to actually acquire the cadence and flow of the native speaker.

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Sure. But he is a product of his environment - plus he wanted to be a cowboy - and they are a little thin on the ground back East.

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it’s just easier to say and economic: “well, I might be able to” is a mouthful compared to “well, I might could” full-stop.

BUT!

“I could” and “I am able to” are two different things: the latter means: “I can do that thing [without implying intention to do or not do that thing]” whilst the former has the direct implication of maybe/probably NOT doing it [unless …]. ‘Could’ implies a precondition (be it incentive or even practice: “I could do this if I spent hours working on it/practicing the skill” whereas “am able to” merely states the ability and “might be able to to” does not as heavily imply the need for incentivisation (although it CAN do that).

“I could” and “I am able to” have subtle differences which DEFINITELY imply different things. So in the UK “I might could” and “I might be able to” imply different things (depending on context).

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