Talking Like That.

Arthur Chu has a very interesting essay at NPR’s Code Switch site that begins by describing how he speaks English in a “Chinese accent” for a video and goes on to unpick the complexities of such an accent:

Nearly every Chinese immigrant I’ve met does, in fact, “talk like that,” because it’s almost impossible not to have a thick accent when your first language is as fundamentally phonetically different from English as Mandarin or Cantonese is.

But it’s equally true that every single Chinese-American kid born here I’ve met emphatically does not “talk like that.” In fact, there isn’t a Chinese-American accent the way there’s a distinct cadence to how black Americans or Latino Americans talk. Most Chinese-Americans have a pitch-perfect “invisible” accent for wherever they live.

If anything, the thing that made me weird as a kid was that my English was too perfect. My grammar was too meticulously correct, my words too carefully enunciated — I was the kid who sounded like “Professor Robot.” In order to avoid being a social pariah in high school I had to learn to use a carefully calibrated proportion of slurred syllables and street slang in my speech — just enough to sound “normal,” not enough to sound like I was “trying too hard.” […]

The “Asian accent” tells the story of Chinese-American assimilation in a nutshell. Our parents have the accent that white Americans perceive as the most foreign out of all the possible alternatives, so our choice is to have no accent at all. The accent of our parents is the accent of the grimy streets of Chinatown with its mahjong parlors and fried food stalls and counterfeit jewelry, so we work to wipe away all traces of that world from our speech so we can settle comfortably into our roles as respectable middle-class doctors, lawyers, engineers, hundreds of miles from Chinatown.

No wonder we react so viscerally to the “ching-chong, ching-chong” schoolyard taunt. To attack our language, our ability to sound “normal,” is to attack our ability to be normal. It’s to attack everything we’ve worked for.

I liked this anecdote about interpreting between English and English:

Most vividly I remember being on vacation at the Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park that straddles the U.S.-Canadian border, bemusedly translating between my dad and a park ranger, both of whom were speaking English. One of them would say something. The other would blink in confusion. Only when I repeated it did they understand. And suddenly I realized my dad’s Chinese accent and the ranger’s Canadian accent were too far apart from each other to be mutually intelligible.

And if you’re interested in the history of the “ching-chong” thing, by all means click on the link within the quote. (Via MetaFilter.)


  1. David Weman says

    But there is a distinct east asian-american accent… Right? Fairly careful enunciation is part of it, but not all of it.

  2. Pretty common thing among Asian minorities everywhere.

    I was told, for example, that there is no such thing as Korean accent in speech of Russian ethnic Koreans. They speak perfect literary Russian without any trace of any accent whatsoever.

  3. What I notice is when an Asian-American has a strong regional accent that differs markedly from standard, broadcast English, like deep south or Boston. But, I feel like this is rare even with residents of those areas.

  4. Stefan Holm says

    My pet theory is that L2 problems boil down to (1) phonemes and (2) prosody. If you haven’t heard a specific sound already in your early childhood, you will face sometimes severe problems to reproduce it in an L2. I almost never hear a foreigner pronounce the (long or short variety) of the sound represented by the letter “u” in Swedish. Native speakers of English may have been living here for 40 years without ever getting the trilled “r” right (allow for the Scottish norrrthenerrrs).

    A decade ago I helped a Polish co-worker learning Swedish (at a pretty advanced level). She couldn’t get the “ö”-sound right. So instead of hör (hear – imperative) she would say hår (hair). I tried in every way to explain to her how to say /ø:/ instead of /o:/. “But I am saying that!” she finally cried out in dispair. Then I realized: she didn’t hear the difference, since she as a child never had been exposed to the /ø/-sound and it was thus not identifiable by her brain.

    As for prosody at least Swedish dialectologists say that it is the most stable feature of all in our speech. I believe them and find it extremely easy to judge wherefrom a person speaking with an ‘accent’ comes (German, English, Russian, Hindi, Danish, French – whatever). Even when non-natives speak English, I most often get their origin right. Thus we, the Swedes, have a very hard time to get rid of our tonal ‘sing-song’ accent when speaking English. From the same reason we are often taken for “Balts” when speaking Russian – presumably due to the former Soviet citizens’ of Lithuania also having a tonal stress system.

  5. But, I feel like this is rare even with residents of those areas.

    What basis do you have for feeling that? People in the MeFi thread seem to agree that it’s normal for Asian-Americans to have the accent of the place they grow up, and it certainly seems likely a priori. Of course, if you encounter them outside of those places, they will likely have adopted a standard accent to avoid being stigmatized, just as non-Asian-Americans do.

  6. “What basis do you have for feeling that?”

    I have no evidence. And, admittedly, my experience with a Boston accent is limited, particularly Asian-Americans.

  7. I am not sure that Chu’s claim would be true for people of Asian background who grew up in the UK or Australia – it seems to me that there do exist “distinct cadence(s)” of BrEng/AusEng that are identifiably Asian and quite common among Asian-background native English speakers from these countries (including those who are functionally monolingual in English). These accents are pretty subtle, but I wonder whether they might share features with what David Weman in the first comment above calls “a distinct east asian-american accent.”

  8. Dmitry Rubinstein says

    I’ve had at least two separate accidents where a coworker would (subtly, yet unmistakably) propose his interpretation services in conversations with coworkers of Chinese origin (perhaps they assume that being a foreigner I’d be even more puzzled than a native speaker – that’s a wrong assumption, actually: I believe non-native speakers deal better with heavy accents, having acquired no “right way” to speak the language themselves).

  9. I live in Vancouver, B.C., where there are a lot of Chinese immigrants. I often have a terrible time understanding the ones with really heavy accents. Generally, I’m quite good with accents, but heavy Chinese accents defeat me. I find this embarrassing, and feel it would be rude to keep asking for the words to be repeated, so I nod a lot in these situations.

    I should emphasize that there are plenty of Chinese immigrants who do become easily understood to a native English speaker. Losing your native accent when acquiring a new language seems to be a talent like any other. Some people are better at it than others.

  10. J. W. Brewer says discusses some research that purported to show that some people (especially Asian-Americans!) could pick out Asian-Americans (those with native-like fluency, not recent immigrants) at a better than chance rate because of various fairly subtle distinctive features of their speech.

  11. Having spent most of my years in Victoria BC, which has had a Chinese population for more than a century and a half, I don’t recall ever hearing the phrase ‘ching-chong’. Could it be American?

    The couplet ‘Cning-chong chinaman sitting on a rail, along came a white man and cut off his tail’ from Cannery Row prompted two thoughts. 1, the tail would probably have been a pigtail and 2, I’m sure I recall ‘Chinkie, chinkie chinaman’, which is probably the origin of the pejorative ‘Chink’.

    All this sounds pretty childish to me. I associate it with white children’s jokes, not taunting.of Chinese kids. There were no Chinese kids in my post-WW 2 elementary school. They didn’t begin to appear until junior high, and there was no hazing.

  12. Stefan Holm says

    Until at least the 1960s Swedes had a very vague and distorted picture of China mediated mainly through fiction litterature about missionary adventures. It resulted in schoolyard rhymes like:

    I Kina går kineser / med långa bamburör
    Och fångar missionärerna / och steker dom i smör.

    A poor attempt to keep the rhyme in English would be:

    In China walk Chinese
    with bamboo sticks so high.
    They missionaries seize
    and let in butter fry.

    We have a more humble approach today…

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