Mandarin with a German accent

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Christian Lindner opened his speech in Chinese at the 70th Federal Party Congress of the FDP:

None of the native speakers of Chinese to whom I showed this could understand any of it, not one word (so they said).  I understood the middle part (from 在 to 要) upon first hearing.

Here's what Lindner said:

Shèhuì yǔ jīngjì zài bùduàn biànhuà, wǒmen yào jìxù qiánjìn.

"社會與經濟在不斷變化,我們要繼續前進。"

"Society and economy are constantly changing. We should continue to move ahead."

In case you're curious, the huge Chinese characters in the background are:

jīngjì zhèngcè

经济政策

"economic policy"

It's interesting to compare what Christian Lindner says here with what Bill Gates says in the video embedded in this post:

"Bill Gates speaks Mandarin" (5/3/17)

And compare the experiments of Li-ching Chang described in this paragraph of the latter post:

What all of this demonstrates is the value of Romanization in teaching people how to speak Mandarin (or other Sinitic topolects).  My wife, who was an ardent advocate of Romanization, used to write out short passages of text in Hanyu Pinyin (Mandarin) on a piece of paper and then walk up to people (utter strangers) on the street and ask them to read off what they saw.  Of course, there would be much giggling and coaxing, but most people would relent and give it a try.  When they were finished, Li-ching would exclaim triumphantly, "See, you can read Mandarin and be understood, and you don't need Chinese characters to do it!"  She performed this experiment many times in New York, Philadelphia, Seattle, Chicago, and other cities.  Doing so was one of the greatest pleasures of her life.

Only with widespread use of Romanization is there a chance for Mandarin to become a world language.  Even President Xi relies on Romanization to read the characters!

Readings

"Ruby phonetic annotation for Cantonese" (5/6/19)

"Phonetic annotations as a welcome aid for learning how to read and write Sinographs" (4/26/19) — with dozens of additional posts on the value of phonetic annotation listed in the "Readings" section at the end

"Cantonese as a Second Language" (4/22/19) — with more than two dozen additional items on the importance of Cantonese language listed in the "Readings" and "Books" sections at the end

"More misreadings by Xi Jinping" (5/2/19) — with many other relevant posts listed in the "Readings"

[Thanks to Xinchang Li]



32 Comments »

  1. Victor Mair said,

    May 8, 2019 @ 9:19 am

    From an Austrian friend:

    Wow, very courageous of that German politician to open his speech in Chinese!

    A phonetic transcription of Chinese would definitely enable more people to reach a basic level of Mandarin. I suppose;-)

  2. James Unger said,

    May 8, 2019 @ 9:28 am

    I was surprised by the difficulty he had with "yu" and "xu", which have good German counterparts.

  3. Victor Mair said,

    May 8, 2019 @ 10:02 am

    From a Chinese friend:

    "bla bla (German) ….我们要举行在(Germanese)….bla bla (German) " Oh well, at least he tried.

  4. WSM said,

    May 8, 2019 @ 10:05 am

    Concerning reading from Pinyin and hoping to be understood: why Pinyin doesn't account for sandhi (in this case for 不斷) since even assuming a brand new speaker can produce tones reasonably accurately, s/he will never know that bu4duan4 actually shifts into bu2duan when spoken to be understood.

    It would be interesting to actually test, in a controlled environment, intelligibility rates of brand new speakers reading off Pinyin. That apparently no native speakers could understand what this guy was saying is… unsettling.

  5. Neil Kubler said,

    May 8, 2019 @ 11:01 am

    I couldn't agree more with Victor's comment that "Only with widespread use of Romanization is there a chance for Mandarin to become a world language." In recent years there have been numerous conferences in China and Taiwan on "Chinese as an International Language" (国际汉语 or 國際華語); understandably, many native Chinese users hope that some day their language will be on an equal footing with (or even surpass) English as an international language. I have attended a few of these conferences and tried to make the point that, if Chinese truly want for Chinese to become an international language, Pinyin rather than characters should be used to write "international Chinese." There is no question that characters are the main stumbling block in most foreigners' learning of the language. However, with the exception of a handful of linguists, my suggestion has usually been received with a mixture of bemusement and criticism.

  6. Neil Kubler said,

    May 8, 2019 @ 11:12 am

    I regrettably never met Chang Li-ching Laoshi but have been much impressed by her thinking and works. Regarding her experiment that "proved" that even people who knew no Chinese could read Pinyin out loud, this does make an important point about the value of Romanization in general and of Pinyin in particular. For native English speakers only, for this purpose a Romanization such as Yale Romanization might have proven even better. But, as Bernhard Karlgren pointed out many years ago, different Romanization systems have different functions and no system can serve all needs equally well. In any case, we must remember that the primary purpose of Hanyu Pinyin is to serve the needs of the Chinese people, who created it.

  7. Neil Kubler said,

    May 8, 2019 @ 11:23 am

    As regards WSM's comment questioning why "Pinyin doesn't account for sandhi" in cases like 不斷 "continuous" (transcribed in dictionaries as bu4duan4 but pronounced as bu2duan4) or 不但 (transcribed as bu4dan4 but pronounced bu2duan4), I believe that when preparing pedagogical materials for learners or when writing Pinyin for non-natives to read out loud, there is every reason to INCLUDE the tone sandhi for 不 and transcribe 不斷 as bu2duan4 and 不但 as bu2dan4.

  8. PJB said,

    May 8, 2019 @ 12:28 pm

    The other thing that would help make Mandarin more successful is having a free and open society that tolerates political debate and freedom of conscience. Oh, and I suppose Romanisation might help as well.

  9. Alex said,

    May 8, 2019 @ 6:51 pm

    I have done the same experiment easily over a hundred times with Professor Mair's wife's pinyin story. Dashui Guohou

    Whats interesting is if it was in Chinese characters I couldnt read it. Because I grew up speaking Chinese at home and have lived her over 12 years now I can read most of it.

    Ive asked colleagues and many parents within my garden community to try reading it. I give them 1 or 2 paragraphs a day. Uniformly at first its slow but by the 3rd or 4rth day they find it relatively easier. I only wish there was more material, I wish there was non copy protected kids books solely in pinyin. It would help me test more.

    I would love to test the 40 kids I teach in my spare time. I want to be able to show that prior to being able to read chinese characters they can easily read pinyin stories.

    On another note I was wondering whats the Chinese characters for bla bla bla or blah blah blah.

  10. Julian said,

    May 8, 2019 @ 7:23 pm

    Is the point of interest in the Li-ching story that people didn't think they could do it?
    I often get this with people who say, 'I can't sing.' Me: 'Can you sing Happy Birthday?' 'Well, yes, I suppose so …' 'So you can sing!'

  11. Sara Foster said,

    May 8, 2019 @ 10:14 pm

    The guy is a national embarrassment. So this is nothing new. He's a know-nothing who thinks he knows it all. His party is big on climate denial, too.

    But seriously: He's getting handed a pinyin text, without even realizing that tones exist. He didn't even bother to learn how the syllables are pronounced. Then he looks as if he's just made his mommy so proud. Why would anyone give him credit for that?

  12. Alex said,

    May 8, 2019 @ 11:47 pm

    @julian

    There were several considerations for asking almost all locals to read it.

    One point is definitely what you asked about. Many cant believe chinese can be read using only pinyin due to the homophone issue.

    When I use the response Professor Mair gave me when I asked years ago, which is then how do people understand each other when speaking? It still takes the story to show that pinyin can be used solely for literature rather than just a sentence or 2 with select words.

    So that its more than just singing happy birthday which would be reading a select sentence or two. By reading that long and varied sentenced story many have become convinced it can be done and that its only government decisions that are holding things back.

  13. Michael Watts said,

    May 9, 2019 @ 3:02 am

    …was he not reading off a Romanization of the Chinese already? That's what I assumed, based on two things:

    First, he pronounces 变化 biànhuà as if it were four syllables, /bi.an.hu.a/. It isn't, but if you were looking at "bianhua" in a European-languages context, that would be a reasonable guess.

    Second, he realizes what would be pinyin j- and q- with a coronal affricate, /ts/ or /dz/. (With two exceptions — the second syllable (but not the first) of 经济 jīngjì, and the first syllable of 继续 jìxù.) Obviously he can produce a palatal affricate — he does, exclusively for the pinyin syllable "ji", but not for "jing", "qian", or "jin".

    This might look weird, but it reflects an older system of Romanization! Compare Tsingtao beer (青岛,pinyin qingdao) or Tsinghua University (清华,pinyin qinghua).

    Is the problem here that Romanization wasn't used when it would have helped, or that it was used when it wouldn't?

  14. maidhc said,

    May 9, 2019 @ 4:11 am

    My experience is mostly in Chinese restaurants in the US, where Tsingtao beer is usually pronounced (once you get hep to the jive) "Ching Dow". However I met a person with a name starting with "Ts", and when I asked her how to pronounce her name, it was with a definitely "TS" sound. I feared it would be a bit intrusive to quiz her on her family history..

    I believe that the old Romanization was based on a different topolect than what pinyin is based on?

  15. Philip Taylor said,

    May 9, 2019 @ 4:51 am

    My uncle by marriage (Vietnamese/Chinese, fluent and literate in both) delivered Tsing Tao beer; he pronounced it (approximately) /tsʃɪŋ taʊ/.

  16. David Marjanović said,

    May 9, 2019 @ 4:58 am

    I was surprised by the difficulty he had with and , which have good German counterparts.

    Please try again! The software interprets everything in angled brackets as an HTML tag, and nonexistent HTML tags are deleted.

    I have attended a few of these conferences and tried to make the point that, if Chinese truly want for Chinese to become an international language, Pinyin rather than characters should be used to write "international Chinese." There is no question that characters are the main stumbling block in most foreigners' learning of the language. However, with the exception of a handful of linguists, my suggestion has usually been received with a mixture of bemusement and criticism.

    It wouldn't specifically have to be Pinyin, of course (if, say, Pinyin is considered too Western for nationalist tastes). Good old homegrown bopomofo would work just as well (if it's not too strongly associated with Taiwan these days). Probably, so would the Korean script that "the wise man learns on a single morning and the stupid man in ten days": it was originally designed not just for Middle Korean, but also for Late Middle Chinese, and could probably handle Modern Standard Mandarin with few if any modifications (other than omissions).

  17. Michael Watts said,

    May 9, 2019 @ 5:26 am

    I believe that the old Romanization was based on a different topolect than what pinyin is based on?

    That's possible — it is definitely true of other old-style romanized words like Peking. But it's worth noting that the q- sound seems to the American ear like it's somewhere intermediate between American /ch/ and American /ts/; my mother has produced /ts/ when trying to imitate the sound.

  18. Michael Watts said,

    May 9, 2019 @ 5:28 am

    Actually, now I'm wondering if Philip Taylor's transcription of /sʃ/ reflects that perception too.

  19. Michael Watts said,

    May 9, 2019 @ 5:30 am

    This is what I get for commenting late — by /ch/, I of course meant /tʃ/.

  20. David Morris said,

    May 9, 2019 @ 6:44 am

    Reading pinyin alone is not the entire solution. I can't tell the difference between ma1, ma2, ma3 and ma4 when Chinese speakers say it, and certainly can't remember which is which. I'm just as likely to wish you happy horse day, or happy hemp day.

  21. Philip Taylor said,

    May 9, 2019 @ 8:02 am

    Out of fourteen members of staff at my former college who attempted to learn Mandarin Chinese, seven were unable to to hear (or to repeat, which is not necessarily the same thing) the difference between the four basic tones, and dropped out of the course after just a few weeks. The remaining seven heard the tones clearly and were able to repeat them with reasonable accuracy, although remembering them was not necessarily as easy …

  22. Victor Mair said,

    May 9, 2019 @ 8:22 am

    Did a makeshift repair of James Unger's comment above (the second one).

  23. Michael Watts said,

    May 9, 2019 @ 3:19 pm

    For "yu" and "xu", I also noticed that "xu" seemed to be a problem. I thought "yu" came off more or less OK, but then again, "yu" is difficult for me…

    I can't tell the difference between ma1, ma2, ma3 and ma4 when Chinese speakers say it, and certainly can't remember which is which. I'm just as likely to wish you happy horse day, or happy hemp day.

    Technically, you're talking about different "ma" syllables, none of which feature in "Happy Mother's Day" 母亲节快乐 mǔqīn jié kuàilè.

    There are two things you might say about the choice of word — 母亲 is a much more formal word for "mother", and that probably has a lot to do with its appearance in the name of the holiday. But also, from an information-theory perspective, there aren't enough syllables in Mandarin, discounting tone, to support the existence of that many one-syllable words. 马 mǎ, horse, has one of those special one-syllable slots. 妈 mā, mother, mostly doesn't. It is used reduplicated, 妈妈, or in compounds that supply the context necessary to correctly resolve the syllable (爸妈 bàmā, "parents", or less formally than that, 爸爸妈妈 which is even less ambiguous).

    Tone could provide the necessary disambiguation of single syllables. But in practice, that disambiguation mostly occurs by lengthening most of the words. And that's sufficient — if you get the longer words right and the tones wrong, people will still understand, because there is much more room in the two-syllable space than there is in the one-syllable space, meaning that any given two-syllable sequence has much less competition than a one-syllable sequence does.

    My ABC dictionary lists three entries for the pinyin sequence "fuqin", discounting tone. 父亲 "father"; 抚琴 "play the zither"; 服勤 "work hard / be on duty". In contrast, there are more than a dozen entries for various characters pronounced fù, fourth tone only.

  24. Michael Watts said,

    May 9, 2019 @ 3:24 pm

    seven were unable to to hear (or to repeat, which is not necessarily the same thing) the difference between the four basic tones

    Indeed. A friend of mine complained to me about the English distinction between /θ/ and /s/ (to a Mandarin speaker, both are /s/), and I taught her how to pronounce [θ].

    She practices English mostly by listening to podcasts. This is great in terms of learning idiomatic speech, but unhelpful for learning pronunciation differences which you can produce but can't hear. She now produces [θ] in many English words that call for [s].

  25. Julian said,

    May 9, 2019 @ 6:46 pm

    @ Philip Taylor

    Memory of an undergraduate German class. One boy is having trouble with /x/. Teacher: 'Say ich.' 'Ick.' 'No—ich.' 'Ick'. 'Listen carefully. Ick—ich. Ick—ich. Ick—Iccchhh. Now say 'iccchhh.' 'Ick.'

    Of course it might have been a problem with production rather than recognition, but I got the impression that the student was unaware of doing anything wrong.

    Why are there such big interpersonal differences in aural recognition? What's going on, psychologically or neurologically?

    Imagine the analogy in the visual sphere. Some visitors from the planet Zift (identical to human beings except they have no alphabetic writing systems) are learning the alphabet. Unfortunately half of them can't recognise the difference between the shapes D, O, P and Q. Presented with a pile of scrabble tiles bearing these shapes, they say they all look identical. They can't sort them into different groups. Teacher: 'I don't want you to think about anything that objects with these shapes might mean or might be used for on Zift. I just want you to focus on the shapes as abstract shapes. Trace each one out with your finger. Are they really EXACTLY the same?' Students: 'Yes!'

    Possibly the Ziftian environment has cause Ziftian brains to evolve in such a way that the only thing Ziftians notice about shapes is how many holes they have, topologically speaking. All the four shapes are doughnuts, and that's all the Ziftian sees.

    In the visual sphere this scenario seems strange – I find it hard to imagine a world which would have caused Ziftian brains to evolve this way. But in the aural sphere it's normal. Why the difference? And why can half the students get the idea in spite of their evolution, but half can't?

  26. Julian said,

    May 9, 2019 @ 6:52 pm

    @Phillip Taylor

    What I'd like to do is give your 14 colleagues some musical listening tests. Are these two notes [played in quick succession] the same or different? Is this note higher or lower than the previous one? Are these two notes played together more or less dischordant than these two? Et cetera. It would be interesting to see whether the results correlate with language aural recognition ability.

  27. S. Tsow said,

    May 9, 2019 @ 11:21 pm

    Pinyin may be fine for native Chinese, but foreigners need something more accurate. I wince every time I hear Christiane Amanpour refer to "Zhee Jinping" on CNN. Zhu Rongji had a similar problem. Commentators always pronounced his given name as "Wrong Jee."

    The difficulty is that pinyin is based on Russian. The Cyrillic alphabet has letters like X and one pronounced "zh." So we get "zh" and "x" in pinyin. Foreigners can get the "zh" right, but are bound to be baffled by the "x", which in Russian is pronounced, approximately, "kh".

    To illustrate the difficulties, write the pinyin word for toilet, "cesuo," on a piece of paper and show it to any non-Chinese speaker. He (or she, or it) is bound to pronounce it "sess-oo-oh" , "sess-woe," or "see-swo." Spelling it "tseswo" would evoke a more accurate pronunciation.

    This is why I have long advocated a slightly modified version of the Yale system for foreigners–at least for those living in the Western hemisphere. Only I would recommend substituting "ao" for "au" and a few other minor changes. And I'd separate syllables in multisyllabic words with hyphens, as in the Wade-Giles system. That would make foreigners stop worrying about what the apostrophe is supposed to mean in the pinyin "Xi'an". A hyphenated Yale system would make that "Syi-an." But hey, pinyin has the massed millions commanded by the Chinese government ("Junggwo jengfu," not "Zhongguo zhengfu") behind it, and that has more firepower than my puny self could ever command.

    S. Tsow (not "Cao", please–people will pronounce it "cow")

  28. B.Ma said,

    May 10, 2019 @ 2:44 am

    Regarding Tsingtao etc., I find native Chinese speakers seem to pronounce these sorts of words in an "English" way when speaking English.

    @Julian, certainly some people are not as good as distinguishing tones or syllables from each other without prior exposure, but there seems to often be an element of refusal or willful ignorance where people want to believe that they can't do it, so they convince themselves that they can't hear any difference.

    @S.Tsow, I wonder where you grew up and who made the choice to spell your name Tsow. I often meet recent PRC immigrants or the children of those, who have names in Pinyin, but when speaking English they pronounce their own names the way an uninformed English speaker would (i.e. "cow")

  29. Philip Spaelti said,

    May 10, 2019 @ 5:11 am

    This time around in the thread there isn't much discussion of the content. But this basically seems to be another instance of "Chinese wisdom". He could have just said: tempora mutantur et nos mutamur in illis

  30. monscampus said,

    May 10, 2019 @ 11:14 am

    @Philip Spaelti said

    My thoughts exactly at first glance. But then again, Lindner is younger than me. These days, Latin isn't compulsory in German higher education any longer. It used to be, at least for long enough to memorise famous Latin quotes. Now these would sound like Chinese (or Greek) to the average party-member and certainly wouldn't make L.'s mummy proud.

    @Sara Foster

    Warum so polemisch? The post was NOT about what anyone might think of L. as a man or politician. I fail to understand why you blame him for apparently not knowing the first thing about an exotic language.

  31. Rodger C said,

    May 11, 2019 @ 10:23 am

    *nos et mutamur in illis

  32. Mango said,

    May 13, 2019 @ 10:40 am

    I am not sure whether at the end he is really saying jixu qianjin 繼續前進. To me , ,, he seems to be pronouncing something as pinyin *jushe zai jing (compare his pronunciation of shehui at the beginning), which does not exist in Chinese. His own German translation of the sentence is "to keep up with the times", which would be yushi jujin 與時俱進 in Mandarin. The only transcription I have found – in the newspaper Rheinische Post – also understands it that way: https://rp-online.de/politik/deutschland/fdp-parteitag-in-berlin-christian-lindner-als-spaetzuender_aid-38406853.

    I do not see how the conclusion follows from Lindner's speech ("only with widespread use of romanization is there a chance for Mandarin to become a world language. Even President Xi relies on romanization to read the characters!"). Lindner is clearly using a romanization already, so his poor pronunciation has obviously nothing to do with characters. He would have butchered any other language with which he has had no exposure, irrespective of writing system, be it Vietnamese or Arabic. The problem is that he has not bothered to practise with someone knowledgeable.

    As to the content, I don't think it's a case of Oriental wisdom; he is just trying to be cool and trendy. I find it utterly ironic that Lindner, who incessantly calls for as small a government as possible, is now full of praise for Chinese economic policy.

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