Saturday, May 09, 2009

Closer than I thought

I got a compliment today, of sorts.

I speak to my daughters' Mandarin/Taiwanese teacher in Taiwanese, though it's the second language for both of us. She speaks fluent Mandarin but my Mandarin is lousy; I speak fluent English but her English is lousy (or so she claims). We both are proficient---though less than fluent---in Taiwanese. It's enough to communicate about homework, the class schedule, my girls' progress, and the fact that I have to make a wooden horse for the end-of-year performance.

Anyway, afterwards I was sitting outside the classroom chatting in English with another mother, who suddenly asked, "Where are you from?" I was baffled by this question; it's a Taiwanese-American center, so presumably everyone's from Taiwan, and I believe the country is small enough that there are not significant regional differences in speech from, say, the north and south parts of the island. Nor did she want the location of my residence in California, so I said, "Um, well, my parents are from Taiwan---Changhua---and I was born in the United States..."

Her response was, "Oh! The way you speak Fukien [another word for the Taiwanese language] I thought you were from Malaysia or something. I never would have guessed that you were born in the U.S., your accent's too good for that!" One of the languages spoken in Malaysia is essentially a different dialect of Taiwanese---they are mutually intelligible, unlike Mandarin, Cantonese and Taiwanese---so a Malaysian accent is a "valid accent", so to speak.

It's somewhat like being told I speak German with an Austrian accent, rather than that I speak German with an American accent. The former is just a different "flavor" of pronunciation, whereas the latter is just mispronunciation.


Celeste said...

When I speak french, I am often asked by French native french-speakers if I am French-canadian. It must be my broad vowels.


Language Lover said...

That's awesome, Celeste. Consider it a compliment! (Of course, knowing the French, they probably consider it a bastardization brought on by Canada's proximity to the U.S. :) )