What is Meant by 'Standard Mandarin'


You may have heard people talking about 'standard Mandarin' or 'non-standard Mandarin'. These terms are not completely self-explanatory. Therefore, it's a good idea to be clear what this is all about, particularly where it concerns how we learn Chinese and from whom.

Chinese Local Languages or Dialects

All Chinese people in mainland China that read and write use the exact same writing system. So if someone writes an article for a local newspaper in the Southwest Province of Yunnan, or someone texts a friend on their phone in coastal Fujian, then another Chinese in northern Hebei province could read either just fine.

Ok, no big deal. But here's where it gets weird...

If the Fujian person read that article or text message aloud in the language she speaks everyday at home with her family and close friends, the person in Southwest China probably would not be able to understand what the heck she said. And vice versa.

Now unless you're from an Arabic speaking country, where a similar phenomenon exists, the fact that they share the same writing yet have different spoken languages is somewhat unusual in this world.

What's happening is they are all speaking their own local language, or dialect. At home with their family, most people do not speak standard Mandarin.

You've heard of Cantonese. That's what the people in Guangdong Province are using to speak to one another.

From region to region (often varying from city to city) the Chinese all have their own local language. There are hundreds of these Chinese dialects in China. And often they can't be understood by one another. What a mess, right?

Well, that's what the Chinese recognized, too, quite a while before we just did. And so they declared that there should be one standard language for the country. And they decided that the language should be the same language spoken in the capital city, Beijing.

Actually, no. At that time the capital was in Nanjing. (It's moved around a few times - I'm just trying to keep you on your toes.)

But no matter, because now the standard is Beijing's language.

Ignore the Other Dialects; Learn Standard Chinese

If you want to learn Chinese, of course you want to learn standard Mandarin. Everyone in China knows this language. It's the language of the media - the television, movies, etc. And it's the language that's spoken in the schools - or should be, if the kids and teachers are behaving themselves.

Actually it's not completely accurate to say everyone knows standard Chinese. A very small percentage of people may not be able to speak it, but they understand it just fine. (These would be older, less-educated folks.) Another even smaller percentage of people - older folks in culturally secluded settings - may not know it at all.

Unless you're living in such a place, or, heck, even if you are, you want to learn standard Mandarin.

Does Your Teacher Speak Standard Mandarin?

Something you must be careful of when you choose a Chinese teacher is if they are speaking with an accent that could accustom you to some bad habits.

Now, for sure, anyone whom you have found to help you learn Mandarin and who is a native Chinese, will be speaking to you in the standard language - which is Mandarin, and not in his or her own local language. This is common sense to him as well as to you.

However, what you should be aware of is whether or not he or she is speaking with an accent, and just how heavy that accent is.

The accent is, of course, the effect of their local dialect on their Mandarin speech. Some sounds in standard Mandarin may be difficult for them to differentiate - both in speaking and in listening.

One example is in Hubei Province, many people do not distinguish between the 'l' and 'n' sounds. Not only can they not pronounce the two distinctly - their 'l' sounds like an 'n' - but for many words, because they are not used to hearing the difference, they in fact don't know whether the pinyin would actually read 'l' or 'n'. (The pinyin spelling for a word comes from standard Mandarin.)

If you are evaluating a teacher or tutor there are three things you can do.

1. Ask them (well, that's a no-brainer) "How is your Mandarin?" "Do you speak good putonghua?" or "Is your Mandarin standard?"

If it isn't so standard, they will probably, somewhat embarrassed, tell you it isn't. They might add how their classmates would always laugh at them when they said this or that.

If, on the other hand, it is pretty good, or even excellent, they will tell you, probably feeling quite proud of the fact (and why not?), that they have 'very standard Chinese'.

2. Ask if they have taken the putonghua or Mandarin test.

Standard-Mandarin-putonghua-certificate.

Nowadays, many students in Chinese universities take a Mandarin speaking test and get a certificate. (Audrey's is pictured above). If they are going into certain professions, like teaching, they are required to.

For the test, they read some passage using the best Mandarin they can summon and the examiner gives them a rating.

Any of the top 3 slots in this rating system are acceptable for a Chinese who is going to teach you to speak. It's not necessary that it's perfect. But below those positions, you should consider it a real disadvantage.

3. Listen to them speak and look for some common errors.

Here are some of the sounds that I'm familiar with as often being botched - it depends on the region the speaker comes from, which sounds will have a tendency to be 'non-standard':

The list of non-standard sounds may be incomplete, simply because there are too many dialects for me to have experience with all of their associated accents. But these do cover a pretty big area.

Of course, it follows that people from around Beijing, or even anyone in the Northern Provinces will tend to have less of an accent because their dialect is bound to be closer, if not almost identical with standard Mandarin. That's where standard Mandarin came from in the first place.

My Peculiar Mandarin Coach

Indulge me for a moment as I introduce my peculiar Mandarin Coach, who has helped me unlock some of the nuances of standard Mandarin.

My wife, Audrey, who is from Hunan Province, speaks standard Mandarin always. No dialect. No accent. Pure putongua. It doesn't matter who she's with, or where she is, or what she's saying.

She's not normal. (In more ways than just her speaking, but that's another topic.) So what has brought about this linguistic phenomenon?

Though she was brought up in Hunan, where local languages are the norm, she lived and went to school in a small city that was basically established to serve a large (at that time) state-run oil company. All the employees there were transplanted from the north.

The schools were all attached to this company and so her teachers were from Beijing or somewhere else in the North. And whenever there was a mix of people around outside school, it would include these Northerners, so the language used was standard Mandarin. Her parents, though they had their own local dialects, reinforced this by always speaking Mandarin to Audrey.

She can understand her family's dialect because she would often hear them speaking to each other. But interestingly, she can't speak it herself.

Though she did have some traces of a southern accent, she later went to broadcasting school in Beijing, because her work was in local tv. And so most of that accent was trained out of her as part of her course of study.

So the bottom line is that, I, her husband, am quite lucky, because I always benefit from hearing her oh so sweet and melodic Mandarin.

You, as a Chinese learner, can use your own (or similar way) to surround yourself with standard Mandarin. But, sorry, Audrey's already taken.