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Xie Xie, Mr Prime Minister November 26, 2007

Posted by Edwin in Mandarin, Speaking.

The Australians voted for a new prime minister this past Saturday. Kevin Rudd will become the 26th Prime Minister of Australia in about 2-weeks time. I don’t know much about the Australian politics, but one thing Mr. Rudd has caught my attention (and probably of many others too) is his fluency in Mandarin.

Of course, the Australians voted for him not simply because he can speak Mandarin. But no doubt, it has become one great advantage for him in the time when countries around the world want to improve their relationships with China.

This YouTube video shows Mr. Rudd interviewed by the Chinese State TV Station just before the election. His Mandarin is absolutely impressive. The Chinese host tried to switch back to English during the interview a few times, but Mr. Rudd insisted to keep speaking in Mandarin.

Mr. Rudd mentioned how he worked hard on his Mandarin while at the university. Once again, this testimony refutes the theory of “minimal effort language acquisition“.

I have noticed my Mandarin has deteriorated in the past few months. I was too concentrated on my French. Some of my Mandarin-speaking colleagues had their contracts terminated recently, and I did not bother to find other colleagues to speak Mandarin. About 2 weeks ago, I came across a Mandarin-speaking parent while picking up my daughter from school. When I tried to speak Mandarin with her, my tongue was just tided up.

After watching the video, I feel ashamed of being a Chinese but yet can’t speak Mandarin as good as a non-Chinese. It is certainly a good reminder for me to work hard on my Mandarin again. I am going to refill my iPod with more Mandarin stuff now. Thanks, Mr Prime Minister, for your inspiration.



1. Keith - November 27, 2007

Thanks Edwin for finding that video. When I listen to his Mandarin, although I am no expert, I feel that his pronunciation is native-like. I do not feel like I am listening to a foreigner speaking Mandarin. I do not hear a trace of foreignness in his accent. I noticed the interviewer speaks faster than Mr. Rudd, but I think Mr. Rudd is speaking at a normal rate of speed.

Now if I could just improve my Japanese pronunciation and prosody. When I listen to my recording, I only hear a foreigner speaking Japanese. So I know I have lots of room to improve.

2. naturegirl - November 27, 2007

Wow, I’m impressed!
He speaks really fluent, although you can hear out a foreign accent, mostly because the 4 different tones don’t come out so clear.
And the Chinese reporter looks so funny…
Edwin: I didn’t know, you are chinese?

3. Edwin - November 27, 2007

I have read from a language forum where some people criticizing his Mandarin does not sound native.

I think the judgement is quite unfair to him. In fact, a lot of language learners fear to speak because they are afraid of criticisms from the native speakers.

4. Edwin - November 27, 2007

Naturegirl, yes, I am a Chinese. You can read it from my bio. 🙂

I know it sounds strange, but I am learning Mandarin.

5. Marcelo - November 27, 2007

I think he doesn’t sound native and there are some foreignness traces in his accent.Still, his pronunciation is pretty good and he speaks quite fluently.

Edwin,one thing has always puzzled me : I don’t understand why should it be so difficult to Cantonese speakers learn Mandarin. I mean, if one knows Cantonese he basically has most of the vocabulary already, he just needs to learn how to pronounce the words in Mandarin.On top of that, the grammar of both languages is pretty similar, although spoken Cantonese has some differences.Still, hong kong people are often criticized for having a poor Putonhua. What are the difficulties that you, as a Cantonese native speaker, face when learning Mandarin?It would be interesting to hear that 🙂
And by the way, your new Cantonese blog rocks!

6. Edwin - November 27, 2007

Marcelo, this is a good question.

I remember an online Mandarin instructor once told me that we Cantonese speakers should be fine in learning Mandarin. We hold the fast pass. On average, we will need only 2-3 years to become fluent!!

I think Mandarin to a Cantonese speaker is like suddenly you have to speak English the old Shakespearian way, and all the pronunciations are changed to those of French.

Of course, it is more than that. There is no regular rules to convert between a Cantonese sound and its Mandarin equivalent. We basically have to learn them all from scratch, including the tones.

Then it is not like a Portuguese speaker being able to understand Spanish. A Cantonese speaker without exposing to enough Mandarin would simply not able to understand Mandarin at all.

7. Keith - November 28, 2007

In response to what naturegirl has said about his tones not coming out clear, is that the only thing that gives him away?

My comment is aside from the tones. Is there any of his consonant or vowel sounds that are not perfect? Please take an example sentence where you feel all of his tones are right on and clear and then tell me if there is anything about his pronunciation that is not right.

I’m just curious because I am so impressed with pronunciation.

8. chris(mandarin_student) - December 4, 2007

Why is there so much obsession with sounding native, it is really, really dumb. Being understood clearly is the criteria I am aiming for.

None of the Chinese people I have spoken to sound native English (even those that studied in China and have lived in England for seven years). If there are so many many more Chinese people who have learned English and don’t sound native then statistically Westerners who sound native in Chinese are always going to be thin on the ground, Westerners who can easily express themselves in Chinese is a different matter.

Perhaps the issue is fudged by people not factoring in second generation Chinese (who speak English natively) or Chinese that move d to an English speaking country in early childhood (both cases that will only apply in reverse in execptional circumstances).

Stop the madness, being able to express yourself and be easily understood is a laudable goal (sounding native is elite).

9. chris(mandarin_student) - December 4, 2007

To lay the effort argument to rest, I think this is a semantic issue, perhaps it would be fair to say that you cannot learn a language without a lot of activity (which still neatly counters all the instant language ‘snake oil’ merchants).

As a very crude but easily understandable analogy, my sexual prowess undoubtedly improved over time as I grew from an adolescent to an adult. I hardly regard it as an effort though. Acquisition through activity is not always an effort and perhaps indeed the real trick of it is to make sure that is is not.

10. Edwin - December 4, 2007

Chris, thanks for your comment. I agree with you.

Hmm, the analogy… yes it is indeed a bit crude. 😉

11. Keith - December 4, 2007


First of all, I do not understand the second half of your second post. Well, at least not the first half of it.

Second, there is nothing wrong with going for native-like pronunciation. And a post like yours coming from a mandarin_student is really surprising. Maybe if you worked on your pronunciation in a more serious manner you wouldn’t be so concerned with simply being understood.

As for Chinese people sounding native-like in English, listen to Jerry Dai. He will even tell you that pronunciation is the shortest shortcut in language learning.

Third, your pronunciation is the first thing to make an impression on a another person. If your first two sentences are perfect along with the pronunciation, you will be accepted differently than if your pronunciation clearly indicates you are not a native speaker. And you never get a second chance to make a first impression.

12. chris(mandarin_student) - December 4, 2007

Keith errr cough!

No there is nothing wrong with going for native like pronounciation, but there is a lot wrong in expecting it, in critiqing those who don’t have it, in idolising those that do (for whatever reason), in obsessing about, in overemphasing the importance of it. I can assure you I take learning Mandarin more seriously than you might expect. But I have seen people obsessing about perfection and a year later they still can’t just wander up to Chinese person and have a chat, they still can’t cope with a Chinese speaker who doesn’t themselves have perfect Mandarin themselves deng deng.

mandarin_student is my attitude through and through, I have no classes, not teacher, no close Chinese friend and live in England with no previous experiance in language learning and precious little free time, and on that basis I doubt you will find a more dedicated, hardworking, serious student of Chinese on this island 😉

Unlike some I do not believe I need to perfectly pronounce everything , before I move on which is the kind of paranoia I see too often with the prevailing attitude, my goal is to learn to speak and understand Chinese, with Chinese people in real situations as quickly as possible and then just keep improving on every level.

I practice tongue twisters, set phrases, etc. etc. to improve my pronouciation but that is just to improve my chances of being understood, one day I may be able to fool a native, but I also see that many foreigners that speak English with great skill still can’t fool a native English speaker so as an aspect of learning, perfect pronouciation 没什么大事! I am not impressed by pronouciation at all just by fluency. Assuming I can speak a little Beijinghua with perfect prounounciation does that make me better than a southern Chinese who may speak fluent Mandarin but doesn’t say sh the same or doesn’t differenciate between l and n sounds so to a Westerner shi nian sounds like si lian (apart from the tone of course) ? is the northerner’s 儿 right or wrong and what am I to make of the Chinese people who use both yidian and yidian’r almost as two different words with subtly different usage as opposed to those that heavily favor one over the other. How do I rate the Chinese speakers who hit the w in wangshang like the German w over those that don’t, or the few (very few) that pronouce er like the ur in fur rather than the much more common ar from bar.

I know this is just a question of learning methods, some people have different strengths but in my world the ear is king, to me if you ask the question about the consonant or vowel sounds then the answer will not help you. If you cannot hear it for yourself you do not own it, I take listening very very very seriously, and strain hard to improve it all the time.

As to the second post, I apologise too much wine, and also the discussion acutually ranges over another post on this blog and one or two on mine, so apart from being cheeky I don’t expect it makes a lot of sense to most. I also apologise for going on so but I see so many ridiculous approaches to learning Mandarin that occaisionally my blood boils and I get an attack of verbosity.

I have no idea who Jerry Dai is but I don’t agree with him, I just work of the many Chinese people who I go out of my way to speak to in real life.

Also if you really belive that first impression stuff then my answer is just one of my experiances I described here,

the first couple of phrases I stumbled over then got into the zone. Yeah I know if you you pronouce a couple of phrases really well then they get all gushy but follow through with some real conversation, off script and that is the paydirt. Actually if I am not going to have time to get past the first impression stage does it really matter?

Say ni hao perfectly and they say “ohh your Mandarin is so good”

Go straight into basic conversation and run with it they say nothing “” just talk with you.

Get a little better and they start offering corrections and teaching you chengyu and sayings of Mao etc.

Get still better and they ask you how long you lived in China and where did you study there (not yet been actually)

After that I don’t know but I am damn sure I will find out!

13. Keith - December 5, 2007


I am glad you are a serious learner. I suspect that you are not as concerned with pronunciation as I am is because you are not so impressed by it. You have a practical attitude. Understand, speak, and be understood. You would also like to get somewhere as soon as you can and I suspect you already have.

To me, it does not matter how many immigrants there are and none of them seem to be able to speak English with native-like pronunciation. That situation is just normal. I, however, am not normal. If you did meet one who has achieved native-like pronunciation you wouldn’t even know it. You would just assume he (or she) was born in the country and is a native speaker. So maybe you already have met such a person but didn’t know it. I have already met such people.

I think you were just trying to point out all the different native pronunciations there are by Chinese people from various regions of the same country, however, to answer your questions, I would not compare my pronunciation to any native speaker to see who is better. I would not say his pronunciation is wrong. Just like you and I pronounce English differently.

If pronunciation is not your concern, that is fine with me. I hope you will allow me the same courtesy to choose what is of concern to me.

Your blog post was very interesting to read. Unfortunately, I don’t see how it is a response to my statement about first impressions. Did you think I was saying that nobody would talk to you or give you a second chance to speak if you don’t do it perfectly from the start? That’s not what I said. I did say that you would be accepted differently. However, you will never know what the difference is because you cannot experience both from the same person and you cannot compare across individuals because each one has his own way of accepting. Either way, I suppose it doesn’t really matter.


14. chris(mandarin_student) - December 5, 2007

Yes of course peace, We do have one thing in common though.
I too am not normal 🙂

15. Max - December 11, 2007

I have listened to the interview as well and I think Mr Rudds accent is very good although I (a non native speaker) can tell he is not a Chinese. He does make some tone mistakes but what I think gives him a way the most is that his overall sentence intonation isn’t chinese. He stresses the “wrong” parts of the sentences which makes it sound a bit unnatural.
As whether or not to pursue a native accent I would say that in my language studies I try to use methods (like listening alot and chorusing individual sentences) which ensure that I get a native like pronunciation early on. I simply base my language learning around pronunciation exercises. However I try not to obsess about it. When I am in conversation I don’t think about my pronunciation at all. I just speak. I simply try to do alot of listening and chorusing and hope that when I do speak to someone the pronunciation will take care of itself.
However I would say that a good pronounciation with poor grammar will give a better impression than poor pronunciation with good grammar.

16. Keith - December 11, 2007

Thank you Max for your insight. That is the kind of detail I was looking for.

17. qizhong8 - January 20, 2008

Guess what? I am more impressed by the Chinese host than the prime minister. His English sounds far better than the prime minister’s mandarin – I am not saying his mandarin is poor, just doesn’t sound like a native speaker.

In this post, someone mentioned Jerry Dai. My guess is, if the prime minister uses his methods to learn Mandarin, his mandarin would be far better.

18. Cisa - May 5, 2008

I´m just a beginner in Mandarin, I would be really happy if I could speak at least like Mr. Rudd does! 😉

As to the question of native pronunciation, my basic philosophy is that native pronunciation is the privilege of native speakers! 😛 On the other hand, aiming to that is OK, I´m also doing that, however, by achieving short-term goals. If I achieve one, I set up a new one, so this way I´m kep motivated and have little ´successes´. 🙂

By the way, it may be a stupid question, but what do you think, what are the major difficulties a learner of Mandarin could meet when taking up Cantonese as well? Also, don´t you know a good site with a Cantonese consonant pronunciation guide and a C-Md comparative description? 🙂 That would be really interesting!

19. Edwin - May 6, 2008

Technically speaking, they would have to learn to pronounce all the words difficultly. They have to cope with the 6 tones and also they Cantonese colloquialism.

As for Cantonese pronunciation, Hong Kong University has a very comprehensive collection of Cantonese sounds. They don’t have explanation of how to pronounce them though.

Perhaps I should do a post on Mandarin/Cantonese comparison soon.

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