understanding why chinese speak tagalog the way they do

Mayyali Joy E. Ng
University of the Philippines
Diliman, Quezon City,
[email protected]
This paper explores some prosodic and morpho-syntactic
characteristics of the speech variety employed by Mandarinspeaking Chinese-Filipinos when conversing in Filipino. The
first section of this paper discusses how speakers of a tonal
language adapt to the speech rhythm of a non-tonal language.
Mandarin is a tonal language. It possesses four lexical tones.
The third, when used in a combination, is simplified by means
of toneme deletion (Schoenfeld &Kandybowicz 2008). On the
other hand, Tagalog is a non-tonal syllable-timed language.
What would be interesting to find out is if the tone inherent in a
Chinese word or utterance is carried over by the speaker to its
Tagalog equivalent. The second section of this paper deals with
how speakers of an isolating “SVO” language talk in Tagalog,
an agglutinating “VSO” language. It is noticeable that the
Tagalog that most Chinese employ in conversations are different.
This study posits that these Chinese, though using Tagalog
lexical items, utilizes the syntax of Mandarin in their
constructions. The Chinese do not inflect their verbs to show
case or aspect. Furthermore, their pronouns do not differ
according to case, thus case is determined through strict word
order. Interviews with several informants will be conducted
where informants will be asked how they speak a certain
Mandarin construction in Filipino. The gathered data will be
used in morpho-syntactic analysis. A short film will be shown to
each interviewee and asked to relate the story they have seen
both in Tagalog and in Chinese. The recorded stories will be
used for prosodic analysis.
From gold to trade to a search for a better life, many reasons
prompted the Chinese to migrate to various corners of the world,
including the Philippines. The Chinese has had a long history
with the Philippines, starting from the 9th century when the first
of the Chinese junks docked in Manila. Most chose to settle in
the Philippines, nurturing and adding to their families while
growing their businesses. In the course of their interaction with
the Filipinos, learning the language of their hosts became a
necessary to work and function in the society. This paper aims to
explore the speech variety the Mandarin-speaking ChineseFilipinos employ in conversations.
Mandarin refers to the language spoken widely across northern
and southwestern China. It is a language with the most native
speakers compared to other Chinese dialects. When the Chinese
settled in the Philippines, they brought along the knowledge of
their language with them. Tagalog refers to the Austronesian
language spoken in the regions of the Philippines.
As stated, the first part explores the speech rhythm employed by
the speakers of this speech variety. Mandarin is considered to be
the most widely used tonal language. In a tonal language, pitch
levels play an important role in determining the meaning behind
a word. That said, Mandarin possesses four lexical tones and one
neutral tone. Each Chinese character is a monosyllabic lexicon
and same syllables with different tones will have a distinct
meaning (Liu 1999). What the speech rhythm of Mandarinspeaking Chinese-Filipinos is will be the focus of this part.
The second part of the research explores the morpho-syntactic
realms of this speech variety. A huge difference in the syntax of
the two languages can be noticed right away. Mandarin starts a
sentence with the subject while Tagalog has verbs as its
sentence-initial. The research will show the grammaticalization
that occurs with this speech variety.
The researcher conducted interviews with several language
consultants. Two factors were asked for in the selection of
language consultants: 1) must be able to converse in Mandarin
and Tagalog and 2) their first language must either be Mandarin
or Hokkien.
The language consultants were first shown a short film and were
then asked to narrate what they have seen first in Tagalog, next
in Mandarin. Recordings were then loaded onto PRAAT where
the recordings of the Tagalog narration were compared to that of
the Mandarin. Snippets of conversation where the usage of
Tagalog sounded most natural together with the sentences
gathered during recording were used for morpho-syntactic
The first question this paper aims to answer is whether the
intonation patterns and speech rhythm the Chinese employ in
their own language is carried over when conversing and
speaking in Tagalog. One of the hardest things to lose when
acquiring a second language is the phonology of the first
language or L1, including its prosody or speech rhythm. Some
of the phonemes found in the second language might not be
present in the first language. Because of this, the second
language learners replace the phoneme with the nearest
phoneme found in their first language. The same thing happens
when Mandarin speakers use Tagalog. Mandarin has no voiced
bilabial, dental and velar stops found in Tagalog. They use either
voiceless or aspirated voiceless stops instead.
Figure 2. Tagalog Kita
The second question this paper will answer is how the speakers
of this speech variety construct their sentences. As previously
stated, Mandarin constructions begin with the subject followed
by the verb and the object. Tagalog constructions, on the other,
begin with the verb followed by the subject and the object.
Aside from that, Tagalog inflect their verbs to show aspect.
Mandarin constructions have no verbal inflection and instead
use markers to show aspect. The nominative and objective
pronouns in Mandarin do not differ and is determined only by
strict word order. Tagalog has varied morphemes to differentiate
between the two cases. I then posit that though speakers of this
speech variety use Tagalog lexical items in constructions, the
syntax of Mandarin is still the pattern employed.
4.1 Mandarin and Tagalog Prosody
This part of the paper will discuss whether the speech rhythm
and inherent intonations of Mandarin are carried over when the
Chinese speak Tagalog.
As stated previously, Mandarin has four lexical tones and one
neutral tones. The first tone is high and leveled, the second tone
rises in pitch, the third starts from a medium tone, lowers then
rises up to a high tone while the fourth begins from the highest
tone and lowers strongly. The neutral tone has is flat. Stress is
often found at the first syllable of a disyllabic word. Some
constructions may have three syllables but one of the syllables
must carry no stress. The particles 的, 得, 了, 把, 被; the aspect
markers 了, 过, 在 and the measure words 个, 杯, and 本 may
carry a neutral tone.1
The word 看过 in Chinese, which means ‘have gone’, is both in
the fourth tone. As seen in Figure 1, the pitch of 看 starts high
then abruptly lowers. The same happens with the pitch of 过. 看
begins at 155.94 Hz and ends at 90.94 Hz; 过 at 130.8 Hz,
ending at 114.91 Hz.. However in the word ‘kita’, the Tagalog
equivalent of 看过, the pitch of both syllables appear to maintain
a high and leveled pitch.
The Mandarin ‘电影’ and the Tagalog ‘Sinehan’
Figure 3. Mandarin 电影
The researcher compared the resulting pitch of several
constructions to determine if the Mandarin intonation is carried
over in Tagalog. The researcher compared the pitch of the
Mandarin lexical item to its equivalent in Tagalog.
The Mandarin ‘看过’ and the Tagalog ‘Kita’
Figure 1. Mandarin 看过
Yip, P. & Rimmington, D. 1935.
Figure 4. Tagalog ‘Sinehan’
4.2 Mandarin and Tagalog Morpho-syntax
Mandarin sentence constructions begin with the subject
followed by the verb alone or by a verb and an object.
I sleep.
他们 吃 面条。
They eat noodles.
我去 公园。
I go park.
I go to the park.
Verbs are not inflected. Instead, aspect markers are used to
signify completion of an action. Verbs with no aspect marker
can either be a completed, continuing or a non-completed action.
Let’s now examine ‘电影’ and ‘Sinehan’. At first glance, we can
see that there is more diversity in the pitch of 电影 compared to
sinehan. If we compare the pitch of each syllable, 电 starts at
135.45 Hz and ends with a lower pitch of 116.53 Hz. 影, on the
other hand, begins at 116.53 Hz, dips as low as 97.03 Hz, the
rises once more to 130.38 Hz. Its Tagalog counterpart, seem to
show little change in pitch. The word begins at 136.05 Hz,
slightly lowering its pitch when it reaches the second syllable at
126.29 Hz then hitting 103.51 Hz at the end of the word. If
anything, it clearly shows that the pitch of the Tagalog word
does not follow the up-down pattern of its Mandarin equivalent.
Looking at a full construction, it is easily noticeable that there is
far more pitch diversity in a Mandarin construction compared
with its Tagalog counterpart.
I slept.
吃 面条。2
CONTINUING eat noodles
I am eating noodles.
我想 去 公园。
I will go park
I will go to the park.
There are constructions in Mandarin that have two lexical verbs
in once sentence with no intervening marker to indicate
subordination or conjunction. It occurs simultaneously.
我看过那本小说 vs. ‘Kita ko ang isang istorya.
Figure 5. 我看过那本小说
我去 市场 买 东西。
I went market buy things
I went to the market to buy things.
爸爸 叫 我 叫 姐姐 教
Father tell me tell sister teach little brother.
Father told me to tell sister to teach our little
Mandarin pronouns are easier to remember compared with other
languages. There is only one form for each—case is determined
by strict word order.
我送给 他 一个
I gave him a + measure word gift
I gave him a gift,
10) 他 想 看 电影。
He will watch movie
He will watch a movie.
Figure 6. ‘Kita ko isang istorya.’
The figures show that aside from the high pitch range at the
beginning and at the latter part of the construction to signal the
start and the end of a thought, there is little pitch variation in the
Tagalog construction. However, if we look at the Mandarin
construction, the pitch varies per syllable—changing according
to the tone one character possesses.
Notice that there exists only one form for ‘him’ and ‘he’. Any
pronoun that precedes a verb is in the nominative case and any
verb that appears after the verbs is in the objective case. Simply
put, the pronoun before the verb is the doer of the action and the
pronoun after the verb is the receiver of the action. Furthermore,
Mandarin uses the possessive marker 的 to mark the genitive
case and the marker 们 to pluralize a pronoun.
Not to be confused with the locative marker 在. 在 functions as
a locative marker when followed by a place name.
Table 1. Chinese Pronouns
1st Person
2nd Person
3rd Person
他, 她, 他们3
Tagalog, in contrast, has different forms to differentiate between
11) Pumunta ako sa SM.
I to SM.
I went to SM.
12) Ibinigay ko sa bata ang laruan.
Gave I to child the toy
I gave the toy to the child.
In Tagalog, ‘ako’ is in the nominative case while ‘ko’ is in the
objective case. Furthermore, as seen in sentences 9 and 10,
Tagalog constructions begin with a verb. Aspect is showed
through inflection of the verbs.
13) Kumain ako ng
I marker rice
I ate rice.
14) Kumakain ako ng
I marker rice
I am eating rice.
15) Kakain ako ng
Will eat I marker rice
I will eat rice.
Let’s examine the constructions of Tagalog-speaking Chinese.
16) Ikaw gawa pagkain.
You make food
You cook.
17) Huwag hawak ‘yan, dumi!
Don’t touch that dirty
Don’t touch that, it’s dirty!
18) Ikaw saan aral?
You where study
Where do you study?
As stated previously, Tagalog constructions usually begin with
verbs. What would be normal for native Tagalog speakers is:
19) Gumawa (Magluto) ka ng
you marker food
You cook.
20) Huwag mong hawakan ‘yan, madumi!
Do not you touch that dirty
Don’t touch that, it’s dirty!
21) Saan ka nag-aaral?
Where you studying
Where are you studying?
她 is used instead of 他 to indicate that the person being
referred to is a female.
Now, if these sentence constructions are translated into Chinese,
the resulting sentences would be:
22) 你 做
You make food
You cook.
23) 别
Do not touch that dirty
Don’t touch that, it’s dirty.
24) 你 在哪儿 学习?
You where study
Where are you studying.
There are constructions in this speech variety that use two verbs
in one construction.
25) Ako punta SM nood sine.
SM watch movie
I went to SM to watch a movie.
26) Siya hindi payag ako labas.
He do not allow me go out
He did not allow me to go out.
27) Ikaw akin bag kuha pera bili spaghetti.
You my bag get money buy spaghetti
Get money from my bag and buy spaghetti.
28) Ako bili ito bigay iyo.
buy this give you
I bought this to give to you.
If we examine these sentences using Tagalog, we will notice that
these constructions will not have two verbs.
29) Pupunta akong SM at manonood ng sine.
Will go I
SM and watch
I will to SM to watch a movie.
30) Hindi niya ako pinayagang lumabas.
Not he me allow
go out
He did not allow me to go out,
31) Kumuha ka ng pera sa bag ko at bumili ka ng
Get money from my bag and buy spaghetti.
32) Binili ko ito para sayo.
Bought I this for you
I bought this for you.
However, if examined through the Mandarin syntax, these
constructions will sound more natural.
33) 我去 SM 看 电影。
I go SM watch movie
I went to SM to watch a movie.
34) 他 不 准 我 出去。
He not allow me go out
He did not allow me to go out.
35) 你 在 我 包 拿 钱
You at my bag get money buy spaghetti
Get money from my bag and buy spaghetti.
36) 我 买 这个 给 你。
I buy this give you
I bought this to give to you.
When Chinese speakers often use the Tagalog time words
‘ngayon’, ‘bukas’, ‘kahapon’, after the subject, as opposed to
native Tagalog constructions where these words appear at the
latter part of the construction. This is because in Chinese words
meaning ‘today’, ‘tomorrow’, and ‘yesterday’ can be found after
the subject of a Mandarin construction.
37) Ako ngayon bili pagkain.
today buy food.
I bought food today.
38) Kahapon ako kita siya.
Yesterday I
saw him.
I saw him yesterday.
39) Ako bukas
meron trabaho.
tomorrow have work.
In Filipino, the previous constructions will sound most natural if
the time words are found at the latter part of the sentence.
40) Bumili ako ng pagkain ngayon.
Bought I
I bought food today.
41) Nakita ko siya kahapon.
Saw I him yesterday
I saw him yesterday.
42) Meron akong trabaho bukas.
Have I
work tomorrow
I have work tomorrow.
Obviously, the Tagalog sentence is far different from the
construction of the Chinese speakers. Where the time phrase
should be found at the latter part of the construction, it is placed
either on the beginning or after the subject. However, if we
compare the construction of the speakers of this speech variety
with the Mandarin constructions, we can see how similar the
construction is.
43) a. 我今天 买 食品。
I today buy food.
I bought food today.
b. 今天 我 买食 品。
Today I bought food.
I bought food today.
44) a. 我昨天
看到 他。
I yesterday saw him
I saw him yesterday.
b. 昨天
我 看到 他。
Yesterday I saw him
I saw him yesterday.
45) a. 我明天
有 工作。
I tomorrow have work
I have work tomorrow.
b. 明天
我有 工作。
Tomorrow I have work
I have work tomorrow.
The Chinese, when speaking Tagalog, employs the pattern
Mandarin S-V-O as opposed to the Tagalog V-S-O construction.
Due to the lack of inflection of case and aspect in Mandarin,
Chinese often lack inflection in their constructions. To mark the
aspect of a construction, they make use of aspect markers.
Similar to Mandarin, their construction may either begins with
an aspect marker followed by the subject or the subject followed
by aspect marker. It is then followed by the locational marker
and the location, then the verb then the object.
Chinese speakers do not carry over the lexical intonations of
their first language. The speech variety these speakers use may
sound different possibly because of the difference in thephonetic
inventory of the two languages.
Every speaker may have a different level of grammaticalization.
Since many are in contact with Filipinos on a daily basis, some
learn, at the very least, the use of affixes and, if not, at least the
proper Tagalog word order. The speakers who’ve learned to
speak Tagalog show direct and constant with Filipinos through
work and business.
[1] Cao, Jianfen. Intonation Structure of Spoken Chinese:
Universality and Characteristics. Retrieved January 18, 2010
[2] Lim, H. & Wang, Q. Mandarin Rhythm: An Acoustic Study.
Journal of Chinese Language and Computing 17 (3): 127-14.
[3] Lee-Schoenfeld, V. & Kandybowicz, J. Third Tone Patterns
in Mandarin Chinese: A New Perspective. Retrieved January 16,
[4] Yip, P. & Rimmington, D. Chinese: A Comprehensive
Grammar. Routledge, New York. 2004.
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