Mar 17, 2010

Gauging your accent in Mandarin

As a Westerner speaking Mandarin as a second language, have you wondered how funny your accent sounds to native speakers? Chinese people tend to be very nice about judging foreigners' accents. Unless you're very good friends with a Chinese person, they'll probably not tell you that your accent is horrible.

As in any foreign language, students of the Chinese language typically make progress from one level of fluency to the next. Here's my list of how I think our laowai Mandarin Chinese sounds to native speakers as we progress through the levels of fluency:
  • Level 1 (beginner): to native Mandarin speakers, your accent sounds like Tom Hanks' character in The Terminal, Viktor Navorski (before his English improves, during the first part of the movie).

  • Level 2 (intermediate): to native Mandarin speakers, your accent sounds like The Festrunk Brothers (the two wild and crazy guys from SNL).

  • Level 3 (advanced): to native Mandarin speakers, your accent sounds like Borat Sagdiyev .

After you get to the Borat level, you're very fluent, but with a pretty obvious accent. The nice thing about Mandarin, however, is that since so many wai di ren (transplants/out-of-towners) speak horrible Mandarin, you won't be identified as a Westerner over the phone. Native speakers will often be fooled into thinking you're some random wai di ren.

I think I'm somewhere in the Borat level currently. If I ever get to Level 4 (super-advanced!), I'll come up with a fictional foreigner from some American movie or sitcom to equate that level to.

I've got Level 5 (super-duper advanced) figured out already: the equivalent accent is Christoph Walz.


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