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Business English Skill: Understanding Chinese Accents

(Note to Chinese-speaking Magooshers: This post may interest you, because it looks at the importance of China in the business world. But it’s probably not too educational for you personally. You already can understand Chinese English, I’m sure! While this post is for non Chinese speakers, Magoosh also has some posts just for you. Check them out here and here.)

The TOEFL itself focuses on the accents of native English speakers, with an emphasis on North American English. However, for many international students and workers, English is far bigger than just the “native” varieties. Business students and businesspeople especially need to be able to understand many different kinds of English accents. Business has become more global than ever, and English is the international language of commerce in modern times.

China, with its massive population, its wealth of resources, and its rapidly growing economy, just might be the biggest player in global business right now. Because of this, many of my non-Chinese ESL students ask me for help in understanding Chinese accents. I’ve been lucky enough to work with a lot of Chinese English speakers in my own global trade—international education. In fact, the Chinese accent is probably the “non-native” variety of English that I’m most comfortable with.

For many non-Chinese ESL speakers, however, the Chinese accent can be a little hard to follow. This is especially true for business students and recent graduates who are not from East Asia and don’t have much past business experience with East Asian companies.

As you listen to Chinese-accented English, it’s important to remember some of its key characteristics. Consonant sounds in gender pronouns are sometimes misspoken. Voiced consonant sounds are expressed differently in Chinese compared to English too, as are consonant sounds at the ends of syllables. English also has more vowel sounds than Mandarin or Cantonese Chinese—and different ones. So Chinese speakers of English often speak with less distinct vowel sounds, and vowel usage that is different from native English.

And of course, like all non-native English speakers, Chinese speakers have a different intonation in their own native language. So the sound of connected speech in Chinese English will be different from that of Native English and from that of other languages. Chinese is much more tonal than English, which is almost monotone in comparison. And the Chinese rhythm of speech is syllable-based, while English rhythm is based more on phrases, sentences, and longer segments of speech. Because of these differences, Chinese English may sound like it has a “twang”—an almost musical change in tones not found in native English. And Chinese can also sound a lot more choppy. People who are used to less syllabic language may have trouble following the more abrupt syllable use in strongly accented Chinese English.

When my business English students ask for help understanding Chinese accents, I often have them listen to interviews with Jackie Chan. Jackie Chan is a major movie star in the U.S. and China, and he has been speaking both Mandarin and Cantonese Chinese for most of his life. Chan did an interview with Canadian talk show host George Stroumboulopoulos (call him “Strombo” for short) that’s especially good. George has a charming conversational tone, and Jackie is both funny and fascinating as he talks about his life and his global business—show business!

I’ve created a transcript of the video that you can use to check your own comprehension during your listening practice. I originally was going to transcript just half of this 24 minute video, so that you could really test your comprehension in the second half, and try to understand everything on your own. But I couldn’t resist transcripting all the way up to the 16 minute mark. That way I include a text version of Jackie Chan’s stories of his adventures in Australia before he became really famous. This is all really great stuff. Learn, and enjoy!

Download the transcript hereWatch the video below. (Those of you in non-YouTube countries can view the video here.)

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