The Sincerest Form of Flattery

I’ve just had a week on the road with a bunch of guys, a sports team, to be a little more precise. I’ve been coaching them for about eighteen months and we’re all on pretty familiar terms, but this is the first time we’ve all been away together.

We travelled from home in NE China, down to the South – 30 hours plus on the train. Plenty of time for everyone to get into the tour spirit.

Having played various sports for most of my life and having been on a number of tours, I ought to be pretty familiar with how these things pan out.  And sure enough, this tour was like most others; plenty of laddish humour, lots of card playing, a certain amount of drinking. People take up various roles in the group; the worrier, the flirt, the joker, the quiet one, the leader, the guy who can never find his stuff, the one who’s always last to breakfast.

Then there’s always tour language. Maybe someone says something really dumb on the first day and it becomes a catchphrase for the tour…

…or maybe one of the group has an unusual accent and this becomes much imitated.

And so it was. They all did their impersonations of me. Some just occasionally, some near incessantly. It was kind of amusing; sometimes flattering, sometimes pretty uncomfortable, but mainly just intriguing to hear how I sound to them. I only managed to capture a few phrases on the final day and here they are:




[Descriptions of above recordings added, 11 Aug 2010. Sima]

I’d love to pretend that I never say any of these things and that it certainly sounds nothing like me, but I guess the big question is…

Is this clear evidence of girlspeak?

But beyond that, does anyone have any experience of being mimicked? Is there a general comic accent which most people would recognise as the foreigner speaking Chinese? Would anyone care to describe what they hear in the above recordings that sounds foreign?

13 responses to “The Sincerest Form of Flattery”

  1. Peggy says:

    hi sima, it seems that you’re pride has been dented 😉
    nice story, thanks for the sharing.

  2. Syz says:

    Sima: Bravo for bravery. Maybe you’ll inspire me to post my daughter imitating me…

    What’s up with the “ni hao ma?” I don’t know much about Mandarin outside Beijing, but I don’t recall hearing anyone except foreigners educated abroad say nihao with the “ma”. It seems to be presented as a standard greeting in a lot of introductory Mandarin materials, although I can’t say I know why (a southernism?)

    Anyway, I know you learned your Mandarin in country in 东北, so I’m inclined to think “ni hao ma” is not part of your regular speech. This raises the interesting possibility that your “imitator” is actually imitating stereotypical “foreigner speech” (Zhonglish) rather than imitating speech specific to you. Thoughts?

  3. “Would anyone care to describe what they hear in the above recordings that sounds foreign?”


    I would venture to say it is both foreignspeak and girlspeak.

  4. F says:

    Is there a general comic accent which most people would recognise as the foreigner speaking Chinese?

    Yes there is. Sometimes people do it to me and I hate it (I think they do it sometimes to take the piss and other times in the belief that I’ll understand it better). It’s basically Chinese spoken with mostly or all fourth tones if I remember correctly. I believe it’s supposed to sound like an Uyghur person speaking Chinese, but gets extended to include foreigners too. Someone else is familiar with this, surely?

  5. pc says:

    I originally thought that “foreigner” Chinese was all fourth tones and I imagine that’s probably the case for most beginners in Chinese. However, when I’m mimicked it’s either a) saying a phrase over and over really quick (à la 没事没事没事 all rolled into one mutter)or b) all 1st tones. Perhaps this is just my own little 特色 - a potential result of a) me saying yeahyeahyeah or okokok in English and b) an inability to distinguish tones in general.

    Not to critique the creativity of your fellow tourmates, but I’m surprised that their imitation of you is so…standard? All of the Chinese speakers (native or otherwise) I know well have their own little quirks – just as I imagine you have yours – outside of all-4th-tone-I-am-the-foreigner default. With this in mind I think it would be interesting to see other examples of Chinese people imitating CSLers to see how they differ from Sima’s examples.

  6. Chris Waugh says:

    A few of my students have occasionally spoken “foreigner Chinese” in my presence over the last year or so. I don’t think they’ve been imitating me as I refuse to speak Chinese to them (although a few have overheard me speaking to Chinese staff in Chinese), instead they sound like those foreigners with utterly atrocious Chinese who get hired to do ads on TV – I would say more toneless than all fourth tones, and with an odd lilt that sounds almost like they’re trying to fake a Welsh accent (and yes, I do admit I may well sound like that).

    Sima, your third recording sounds like that “foreigner Chinese” to me. The first two recordings are too brief for me to hear much in them.

    Re: “你好吗?” I remember way back in the days of my first exposure to Chinese it being presented as an equivalent to “How are you?” I hadn’t really realised until I read the first couple of comments here that I haven’t heard it said in years. I honestly can’t remember if I’ve ever seen it in a textbook, but I do seem to remember it being presented as both Mandarin and Cantonese.

    Come to think of it, I only ever use, and hear used, “你好” in situations in which there is some social distance between the interlocutors.

  7. Kellen Parker says:

    I get into this conversation often enough, as I’ve tried in recent months to really be spot on with my tones and intonation.

    When I get lucky and say something right to a clerk or cabbie, the conversation inevitably turns to “foreigners are all sing-songy when speaking Mandarin”. I’d say foreigner Chinese is more wrong tones than all 1st or all 4th or even lacking tones. I know people who over-exaggerate every tone, even if it was the right one to begin with, and others who just throw tones in there to sound (to themselves at any rate) more native.

  8. Claw says:

    The phrase “你好嗎?” most likely has southern origins. In Cantonese, “你好嗎?” is commonly used to explicitly ask “how are you?” while “你好” is simply “hello”.

    The sentence final particle 嗎 itself is not natively Cantonese though. I am under the impression that it was borrowed from Mandarin, and it is generally only used in fixed expressions (such as “你好嗎?”) or more formal language (because Mandarin is the basis of the written language, spoken Cantonese that approaches the style and usage of Mandarin is generally considered more formal). “你好嗎?” may have originated as a mistaken (or hypercorrected) Mandarinism of Cantonese. In colloquial Cantonese, yes-no questions almost always use the “verb 唔 verb” construction (equivalent to Mandarin’s “verb 不 verb” construction) rather than “verb … 嗎”.

  9. @Sima: I’m surprised by your lack of erhua on 点. And now that I think of it, you also say 这里 instead of 这儿. Without more examples it’s hard to say, but if you say things the same way all the time (like using 吧 a lot) it contributes more to your being able to be imitated. Thinking more, all of your syllables seem to be about the same (short) length.

    @Claw: That’s the first time I’ve heard 你好吗 as being influenced by Cantonese. That’s an interesting idea.

  10. Claw says:

    @Randy: Perhaps I made my case too strongly. I should have said that based on how 你好嗎 is used, it’s not out of the realm of possibility that it is influenced by Cantonese or another southern topolect. This is a theory on my part that on the surface looks plausible.

  11. Sima says:

    Apologies for not making the transcript of the recordings clear in the first place. Now updated.

    Re: “你好吗?”

    Fair comment from transliterationisms. Both girlspeak and foreignspeak for sure.

    I went through that process, like many others, when I first started learning the language. Conversations would go something like:

    Me: 你好!
    Other: 你好!
    Me: 你好吗?
    Other: 你好,你好!(confused/embarrassed look)

    One soon learns not to say it. I’m pretty certain I have never said it to any of the players, though I might greet them with “挺好吗?” However, it is possible they have heard me using “你好吗?” when greeting ‘leaders’ and outside people to whom I’m supposed to show a little respect. I always find such meetings excruciating, largely because, in Chinese, I’m ill-equipped to make small talk with such people.

    Anyway, I guess that means that it’s fair game for the players to imitate, but I think syz is on to something there – it does seem to be typically foreign, as much as typically “me”.

    Many thanks for that. The whole history of 你好 itself seems quite interesting. I’ve been meaning to put together a post about that for some time…but, at my current rate of posting, please don’t hold your breath.

    @Chris Waugh
    I think the rhythm on that third recording is interesting. I’m fairly sure that it’s a very non-native rhythm.

    The main feature, to my ears, is that the speaker is using quite a “light and airy” voice. This is partly just relatively high, but I think there’s more to it that that. It does seem to be very girly.

    The complete lack of erhua is interesting. As I think you have noted before, I have a pretty heavy ‘r’, but in each of these examples I can kind of imagine myself dropping it…perhaps because of the ‘吧’ (why? I don’t really know). Even 这里, which ought to be pretty rare for me, somehow seems believable now that I think about it…though where I picked it up, I really have no idea. Of course, the lack of erhua could again be idealised foreignspeak to some extent, but I suspect it’s not only that.

    Syllable length is interesting. I really think I still have a long way to go in imitating the rhythms I hear around me. I suspect I’m going to have to make a conscious effort to work them out.

    Just thinking back, another particle which crept into the immitations was ‘哈’, not used in the sense of 啥,什么 as it’s commonly used in 东北, but actually used as a kind of question marker. I can only think that this came from a week spent on a package tour in 云南 with an unreasonably exuberant (male) tour guide who punctuated all his sentences that way. That was probably six years ago and despite having never been aware of anyone else having such an annoying mannerism, maybe I’ve been carrying this horrible little quirk with me ever since. Hell.

  12. DylanK says:

    “你好嗎?” may have originated as a mistaken (or hypercorrected) Mandarinism of Cantonese.

    I buy this. Over here, lots of conversations with Cantonese speakers, realizing you speak Mandarin like this: “你好吗?你会听吗?会讲国语吗?”

    On the imitation tip: Check around 6:38, where Meimei does a quick impression of Sufei, complete with foreign accent erhua.

  13. Limengdi says:

    A somewhat related question for those who speak/know of various Chinese dialects: Has everyone converted to using the dialect equivalent of nihao as an all-purpose polite hello? In Teochew this is the case, you will hear “Lɘho”.

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