Accents, dialects, topolects, and languages — United Kingdom, Australia, and China

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Normally I wouldn't want to call attention to a program as vapid as the one transcribed in the "quasi-blog" post linked to below, but the intelligent, critical comments that are interspersed by the blogger make it an instructive exercise after all.

"An interview about Chinese accents:  How cross-cultural differences led to a conversation conducted totally at cross-purposes" (3/23/16)

Here's the introduction:

On 9 February 2016, Kelly Higgins-Devine, the afternoon presenter on 612 ABC (Australian Broadcasting Corporation) Brisbane, hosted a program about accents. The program can be heard here.

Kelly spoke to three different people. First up was Professor David Crystal, a prominent British linguist, who spoke in a very informative and entertaining manner about accents in the United Kingdom and, to some extent, Australia.

This was followed by an interview with Associate Professor Felicity Cox from Macquarie University, who held a very intelligent discussion about accents within Australia.

Finally, in what appeared to be a nod at accents in foreign languages, Kelly held an interview with Xing Jin from the Confucius Institute at the University of Sydney.

What was most remarkable about the interview with Xing Jin was the fact that Kelly Higgins-Devine did not manage to elicit a single comment pertaining to the topic at hand — "accents in Chinese" — during the entire interview. That is a breathtaking achievement. Although the average Australian listener might have gleaned a few morsels of intelligible information from the interview, for the most part the two participants were speaking at cross-purposes from start to finish.

What could have turned a potentially interesting discussion into such a disastrous failure? That's what I want to delve into here.

I will reproduce the interview below, interspersed with my own notes pointing out where the problems lie. I know it will sound nitpicking, but fathoming a communication failure of this magnitude requires a fine-grained look at the assumptions and thinking that led to it running off the rails in such a spectacular manner.

If you want to listen to the interview yourself, you can go to the recording here.

The segment on Chinese starts at around 30 minutes — if you click on the 30 minute mark you'll catch the tail end of the interview with Felicity Cox; the Xing Jin segment starts almost immediately afterward.

Some additional comments from the blogger:

I must say that while Xing Jin isn't totally impressive she does try to convey some of the basic contours of Chinese. [Yet, i]n her well-worn role as an "explainer" of Chinese for foreigner listeners she basically fails to either understand or stick to the topic. Her own English accent, while good, might not always be understood by Australian listeners. But the real problem was the questions from the Kelly Higgins-Devine, which betrayed such lack of knowledge about the basic situation in Chinese (starting with the issue of "dialects") that it was inevitable from the start that the interview would go nowhere.

We have made countless posts on these subjects at Language Log, but I'll only list a few here:

"Voice recognition vs. Shandong accent" (3/1/15)

"Ma Ying-jeou and Xi Jinping: presidential language notes" (11/21/12)

"When intonation overrides tone" (6/4/13)

"Cantonese intonation" (4/3015)

Finally, to end on quite a different flavor, if you like vinegar, the same blog ("Spicks & Specks") has a very impressive post on "Vinegar Museums around the World" (3/2/16).


  1. Lara H. said,

    March 25, 2016 @ 8:10 am

    Isn't part of the problem that the interviewee was from a Confucian Institute? My understanding is that these institutes have become extremely controversial on University campuses precisely because they have a curricula agenda that does not necessarily conform to the university's/ department's own in terms of learning the language, and that this compromises the range of what gets taught and how it's taught (and the instructors used). These institutes are desirable for the PRC, if not for outright propaganda, than at a minimum for having some effect on the university's independence in teaching about minority group status in China in a way that could prove 'sensitive' to the PRC (e.g., wrt Tibet), and so for 'public relations' goals. And desirable to university's because … funding. While the interviewer clearly wasn't prepared, maybe Xing Jin was in some way just trying to stay on message. Even if in this context, what that message here is is unclear, but the program's choice of her as a participant from the start puts her in an asymmetrical (disadvantaged) position vis a vis the other, more ordinary choices of academic experts interviewed on the show.

  2. Noel Hunt said,

    March 26, 2016 @ 10:07 pm

    Can one consider a 'flattening' of tone as a form of 'accent'? If so, then I would be interested in Profesor Mair's reaction to a claim made by a friend of mine, who was born in Beijing in 1954, that the younger generation of Taiwanese now speak Chinese with a very flat tonal contour, which she finds very irritating.

    She made this remark while she was watching a Taiwanese television news program. I simply made the comment that I found the high-pitched voice used by the announcer very unappealing. I was not really aware of the flattening of tone which she reacted to. This flattening would appear to be extended, over whole utterances, not just words occurring in certain positions in a phrase.

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