China Elevator Stories

“We Don’t Really Have A Dialect”

Is it true that people from Northeast China don’t have a dialect?


Ruth Silbermayr
Ruth Silbermayr


Many of my friends from Northeast China tell me: “We don’t really have a dialect, we do speak a very intelligible Mandarin. Maybe there are some words that are different, but that’s about it.”

Oh, the beloved “er” Northerners use in any possible way one can imagine! Having studied Mandarin Chinese both in Austria and in Kunming in South China, I have to disagree when someone says what Northeastern Chinese speak is intelligible Mandarin. I’ve had the hardest of times trying to understand Northeastern Chinese people’s so-called dialect-free Mandarin Chinese. Well, maybe they are right in that what they speak is not a dialect, but it surely isn’t accent-free Mandarin Chinese either.

I usually don’t have a problem understanding people speak Mandarin Chinese in Shenzhen. I’ve had problems understanding Cantonese people speak Mandarin Chinese before studying in Kunming where I got used to hearing people speak Mandarin with different accents. After having spent almost 2 years in China’s south, I feel that I have made big progress. A few people on a bus in Shenzhen were once delighted that I could understand their Sichuanese. A Hunanese woman once told me in her native dialect that she doesn’t speak Mandarin Chinese and that this is the reason why she doesn’t understand me (again, since I did understand what she was saying, I didn’t notice what she spoke was a dialect until she pointed it out). But when Northeastern Chinese start using their own words and put an “er” at the end of every second or third word or so, they just get blank stares from me.

“Excuse me, can you say that again? I don’t understand”, is what I will say then. And then they say it again. And I can’t understand what they’re saying for a second time. So I’ll ask them again. When they repeat it, I still can’t understand it. That’s usually the time when we all give up trying and smile at each other excusingly, at a loss for words.

My husband and my in-laws are from Northeast China. My husband speaks pretty intelligible Mandarin Chinese with me (and if he doesn’t, I tell him to repeat it and speak slower). My in-laws, who have been living in Northeast China their whole life, on the other hand, are a completely different story. It’s probably my turn now to learn some Mandarin with a Northeastern accent and to get used to the “er”-ending.

Have you ever had similar problems?

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