29 Jul 2012

Now she speaks Mandarin

So I'm sitting at home, browsing the net for info as I always do and what pops on the telly but a commercial for Rosetta Stone language learning software. Towards the end of it, a spunky white woman declares in both Mandarin then English, "Now I speak Mandarin!"

I always get tickled by this sort of out-of-the-box iconoclasty towards cultural norms. I wish a lot more people were as adventurous. Considering the rise of the Chinese economy over the past decade, it's a little surprising to me that Chinese isn't more common than it is among the non-Chinese community. Then again, there continues to be insulation between European and Asian cultures after centuries of persistent isolation from each other - culturally, politically, economically and linguistically.

Now what exactly is she saying in Chinese? To convey "Now I speak Mandarin!" in Mandarin, one might expect a word-for-word translation such as 现在我说汉语! Xiànzài wǒ shuō Hànyǔ. Mandarin by and large has the same word order as English making the grammar relatively simple even if the pronunciation and tones present a dilemma for speakers of languages without word-tone distinctions. As I strain to listen to her rapid execution of the Chinese sentence, my ears detect the addition of huì /xwe(ɪ̯)/ (会) 'can, be able' but she misapplies the term guóyǔ (国语) 'national language, official language' as an equivalent to 'Mandarin'. This is best translated as Hanyu instead (literally 'language of the Han', the Han originally being a culture from northern China) since if one resides in the States, one's guoyu should be Yīngyǔ (英语) 'English', not Mandarin.

The thing that throws me off the most in her sentence is what's happening at the end of it. My brain expects to hear guoyu but it instead sounds like *guoyuan. This can't be right. I can only surmise that she's added a sentence-final particle a to denote a statement of fact.

The transcription I'd expect then is: 现在我会说国语啊! Xiànzài wǒ huì shuō guóyǔ a! "Now I can speak the national language!" Perhaps I'm missing something so I'd love to hear feedback. The phrase may not be the best but then again she's one of the very few Mandarin-speaking blondes represented on TV to date so we should cut her some slack.


  1. I think Guoyu is the term for "Mandarin" in Taiwan ? Not quite sure just how "common" it is, though - I'm just past beginner level :D .

    But does Rosetta Stone promote the Taiwanese variety, traditional characters and all (or both varieties)? Maybe the final particle a has somewhat different uses in Taiwan, so that would explain the unexpected semantics/phonetics of the sentence.

  2. This has nothing to do with regional dialects, whether Mainland or Taiwan. In both China and Taiwan, Mandarin is naturally the official language and so if you are from there or reside there, it's sensible to refer to one's language as guóyǔ, literally meaning "country language" (guó 'country' + yǔ(yan) 'language').

    However it's fair to say that this lady is not Chinese, nor residing in China or Taiwan, so I find her use of guóyǔ to be inappropriate considering that the word Hànyǔ is readily available. I would expect a non-Chinese Mandarin student to use the latter term instead and to reserve guóyǔ for situations where one wants to specifically say "official language".

    There is also the term "putonghua" (literally "common speech") which again doesn't strike me as something that a non-Chinese should ever be using to say "Mandarin" unless one is in China where the context makes sense.

  3. "Maybe the final particle a has somewhat different uses in Taiwan, so that would explain the unexpected semantics/phonetics of the sentence."

    Frankly I couldn't answer that question but I guess that just means that I should start exploring the differences between China and Taiwanese Mandarin. I do already know that the writing system chosen between the two countries is different because of politics. However I still haven't learned what differences exist in their dialects. I'm sure there are differences but I don't know any offhand. Excellent thought to ponder!

  4. What about using "putonghua" in Taiwan? Bad idea?

    1. I would say that Hànyǔ is the most direct way of translating "Mandarin" in Mandarin. Anything else risks being used out of context or, worse, can get political. This site explains well the difference of these and more terms referring to the Chinese language:
      What’s the difference between zhongwen, hanyu, putonghua, guoyu and huayu? by Yangyang Cheng

  5. Native Chinese speaker here.

    国语 always refers to Mandarin in any relevant context.

  6. Native Chinese speaker here.

    国语 always refers to Mandarin in any relevant context.