How can I become expert at distinguishing a person's home province in China, based on their speech patterns?
August 21, 2012 4:12 AM   Subscribe

How can I become expert at distinguishing a person's home province in China, based on their speech patterns (accent)?

I'm already pretty good at guessing which province someone is from based on their accent, but I want to get even better at it (I also take into account subtler clues like height, skin color, clothing style, hair style, cell phone type etc), but I want to become one of the best in the world at determing which county a Chinese person is from, based on their accent.

Please point me in a good direction, websites, books, or a database of sound files of good examples of different Chinese accents.

I might just go to grad school for linguistics to study something like this, but I figure I might as well start on my own, because I am very interested in it.
posted by crawltopslow to Travel & Transportation around China (7 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
It would be helpful if you could give us an idea of your level right now - are you able to tell whether they're from the North/South, or can you already pinpoint the more distinctive provincial accents (i.e. Sichuan, Shanghai, Beijing, Guangdong...)? It might be near impossible to pinpoint their actual *county* just because not all areas are mapped to such detail linguistically, but a good way to start will be to study the dialect/slang terms from different areas in China, which can immediately clue you in to where the person is from.

And though you didn't specify, I assume you mean their accent while speaking standard Putonghua? A lot of places have their own dialects that are completely mutually unintelligible - I've heard a Beijinger would not be able to understand Sichuan, Cantonese, etc. people speaking their own dialect.
posted by monocot at 4:29 AM on August 21, 2012

This gives some slang or variations by province if you can read Chinese.
This gives a good breakdown of the variety and geographical distribution of dialects, and probably thus distinctive accents you can focus on.
posted by monocot at 4:49 AM on August 21, 2012 [1 favorite]

Going on Tudou or Youku and searching for clips or TV series from certain areas may also be helpful. News clips can help you hear the contrast between the announcers' standard accent and the regional ones.
- Searching "Chengdu" gives us this news clip (interviews with locals start 1:07 and 2:05)
- Guangzhou (Accented Mandarin mixed with Cantonese)
- TV series set in Beijing
- How to sound Taiwanese
posted by monocot at 5:32 AM on August 21, 2012

I have gained some ability in this area without really trying. It comes from dealing with a lot of Chinese people over the past decade or so. It seems like this is a sort of pattern recognition skill where you will improve with more input.

I would suggest stationing yourself in a big Chinese city - one that attracts a lot of migrants (Beijing or Shenzhen might be a good place to start) - for a couple of years. As you meet people, ask them about their lives, where they came from, etc. This will help you build out your "database". You coud supplement this with extended travel into more remote or less populated areas. That would give you a pretty good lay of the land.

I think you would get further with this "on the ground", so to speak, than in any graduate program.
posted by clark at 5:44 AM on August 21, 2012

I've been in China for 3 years, I live in South China, I've traveled around china a decent amount, and I often interact with people from other provinces because I'm at a university.

I want to pinpoint people to a province, I'm pretty good at it now, getting it about 50% of the time in the first 3 guesses, and often on first guess.

I heard about linguists doing this in USA and they would ask people to say specific sentences, and specific keywords, that were pronounced differently in different parts of America.

I would love to build my "database".

I kind of assumed some huge audio database already exists somewhere in internet-land, of good examples of speech from every different province.

I am aware that there are lots of mutually un-intelligible "dialects" of Chinese, so I am referring to pu tong hua (Mandarin). Even if people can speak the mutually un-intelligible dialects, the vast majority of the time they can also speak pu tong hua.
posted by crawltopslow at 11:19 AM on August 21, 2012

This might be of limited use, but you might be able to tell provincial differences in how Chinese speakers accent their English, see this collection from GMU.

I don't know of any similar accent studies in Mandarin.
posted by Hollywood Upstairs Medical College at 9:11 PM on August 21, 2012

Seconding Youku and other online video sites -- take a look for regional news programs in particular, since they'll have footage of people speaking their native dialect or language along with Mandarin commentary and subtitles. Entertainment media will generally not be a very good way of getting a feel for things, since actors will be putting on lightly accented variants of Putonghua rather than speaking in authentic dialogue, but this might be an okay way of getting a general feel for what Mandarin speakers see as the distinguishing features of different regionalects.

Characters are basically useless for recording sound information. Occasionally you'll come across blog posts in Chinese saying that Word X sounds like Y in dialect Z: these are sometimes okay for getting an extremely broad view of things, but will mostly not be a very good use of your time. If you're familiar with IPA, there's a series of dictionaries of dialect words, with titles in the form of X方言词典, e.g. the 哈尔滨方言词典. These are more about dialect-specific words than about regional pronunciations of Mandarin, but if you look through them you should be able to get an idea of what sounds tend to show up in different dialects, and how different dialects render different words.

Some friends have started, which aims to collect recordings of different speakers from around Greater China. Again, the focus here is not on cataloguing accents of second-language speakers of Mandarin, but it might be another useful resource.

Sounds like a fun project -- I hope you'll let us know how it goes!
posted by bokane at 9:33 PM on August 26, 2012

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