Words mangled, officials tongue-tied at China meet

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BEIJING, Oct 17 (Reuters) China may have one official national language - Mandarin - but as delegates at this week's Communist Party Congress have shown, fluency and accuracy remain distant goals for many citizens.

Only half China's 1.3 billion people actually speak Mandarin, according to government figures. Poverty, lack of resources, remoteness and attachment to local dialects have hampered language promotion efforts.

Minority tongues, ranging from Tibetan and Uighur to Yi and Zhuang, further confuse the mix. Not to mention the numerous foreign reporters covering the meeting who either speak poor Chinese or none at all.

President Hu Jintao, from the eastern province of Jiangsu, showed how hard the language can be for some Chinese by consistently pronouncing the ''l'' sound as an ''n'', as many southerners in China do, in his opening speech.

At the Shanghai delegates meeting, one lady provoked sniggers from her colleagues as she struggled to get her words out - the Shanghainese being notorious in China for their poor Mandarin and love of their own guttural dialect.

''It's ok, I'll manage,'' she said, giggling herself.

ACCENT Another official with hard-to-understand Mandarin was Xinjiang Party boss Wang Lequan, from the northern province of Shandong, whose accent made him sound like he had marbles in his mouth.

''Do you need an interpreter?'' Wang asked one foreign journalist who had put him a question in fluent Chinese, perhaps referring to a need to make his own impenetrable speech into something approaching standard Mandarin.

Gyaincain Norbu, chosen by Beijing as the next Tibetan spiritual leader the Panchen Lama, said just two words in Mandarin when first surrounded by reporters on the meeting's sidelines -- ''the centre''. He then switched into Tibetan.

His next comments were just as perplexing.

''This is my second time,'' he said, again launching into a burst of Tibetan.

Consecutive interpretation into English is provided at all the main press conferences, but not at the provincial, city and other delegation meetings to which the press were invited to watch and in some cases to pose questions.

This caused a brief moment of uncertainty at the financial group meeting, where a foreign journalist asked central bank governor Zhou Xiaochuan a question in English, a language not widely spoken by even the most well-educated officials.

''Doesn't this meeting have any language requirement?'' Zhou, who himself speaks fluent English, turned and asked one of the technical staff after a long pause, followed by laughter from the assembled media.

Finally banking regulator head Liu Mingkang came to the rescue, translating the question into Chinese.

REUTERS RN AS1040

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