17 September 2010

Pronunciation Norms in China

In July, while I was at the University of Regensburg in Germany, I discussed the pronunciation norms I encountered (here), observing that German speakers of English adhere quite strictly to an external norm, usually that of either the UK or USA, and there is little acceptance in the possibility of a localised pronunciation norm. In contrast, in an outer-circle place such as Singapore, there is more widespread acceptance that it is OK to sound Singaporean just so long as you speak clearly and well. In fact, in Singapore, for a local person to sound completely British sounds rather absurd.

Like Germany, China is in the expanding circle, and there is a strong focus towards native norms of pronunciation, either British or American. Sometimes this borders on the obsessive, with speakers attempting to achieve every last nuance of RP patterns of intonation, even though minor differences in a rising or level head to an intonational phrase really don't make that much difference. I'll discuss this issue again in my next posting, in connection with the reaction to the presentation by the other keynote speaker at the conference I was attending in Zhenjiang, Francis Nolan of Cambridge University.

However, there is one feature of native speech that people in China are reluctant to imitate. In my presentation, I pointed out (playing lots of examples) that BBC announcers regularly omit the word-final /t/ or /d/ in phrases like 'last night', 'most people' and 'world class'. But people in China are convinced that this is lazy pronunciation and generally avoid it. So, in fact, there are limitations to the degree to which they imitate native patterns of speech.

(If you want to read my paper that analyses /t,d/ deletion in BBC speech, it is available on-line here.)