Wednesday, 21 December 2011

Communicating in a foreign language (Taiwan)

When I first went to Taiwan, I discovered that they had a whole range of accents we didn’t have in Singapore, so I spent a lot of my verbal interactions with the locals asking them to repeat things.  That was tiresome for both me and the other party, so I gave up on that after a while and came up with what I thought was a clever solution:  just nod and smile as the other party rattled on, saying every now and then, “是吗 (shì ma / Is that so)?”  This way, I wouldn’t need to keep interrupting the conversation, and it was good practice at learning to join the dots rather than needing to understand every single word, which is not always possible in real life anyway, even if one was at an advanced level in the language.  It worked very well, until one day I got a puzzled look from the speaker.  It turned out the speaker had just asked me a question, and I was still going, “是吗 (shì ma / Is that so)?”


(Taiwan 1974)

A little knowledge is a dangerous thing (France)

I have certainly discovered how true this saying isfor me, anyway, in my knowledge of the French language.  

When my knowledge of French was practically at zero level (being limited to bonjour and merci), I was quite safe, as the visitors to the farm would leave me alone, my oriental looks warning them that I might not be able to speak their language at all.  As I have now visited a dozen times or so since 1996, they think I can speak their language, as indeed I should, so they try to engage me in conversation, when actually I can only speak about three more words (I blush as I write this).  
The village idiot, as he’s nicknamed, comes for coffee twice a day from his neighbouring farm, as he gets so much warmth and kindness here.  If Serge and Jeanette are not around for him to chat with, he will corner me and ply me with all sorts of questions, some of which I sort of understand but can’t answer in French, and most of which I don’t understand at all.  Trying to fob him off by smiling and saying oui does not work, as he’ll persist and pursue the point with a “hmm?” and wait with raised eyebrows in anticipation of an answer.  Three days ago, he even asked me why the cats are being locked up; at least, I was able to say, “Veterinaire.”
Serge will ask me in the morning if I’d slept wellsomething Jeanette asks me every morning, so I know it well.  Answering oui merci will elicit high praise from him that my French has come a long way now (see blog entry Matter over mind in reverse?).  
On Sunday night, dining at Monsieur Minou’s (see also blog entry Minou), there was a clip of a rugby game on the TV news.  Serge turned round and said to me something to the effect of, “Can you imagine a whole bunch of men running around chasing a ball?!?  It’s only a ball, after all, for goodness sake!”  A little knowledge is a dangerous thing, indeed.  Serge has promoted my French to the level of understanding comments on rugby, based on my marginally bigger vocabulary.  They might start seeking my opinion on French politics next!

“Not good student” (London, UK)

When Alex first cancelled a lesson by email, which he did in pinyin (Chinese written in romanised script)something I encourage my students to do rather than in English as at least they get to practise their Chinese, if not the writing of the script as wellhe signed off as bù hǎo de xuésheng (“not good student”). 


The second time he cancelled a lesson, he signed off as hěn bù hǎo de xuésheng (“very not good student”). 


The third time, it was fēicháng bù hǎo de xuésheng (“extremely not good student”). 


The fourth time, tài bù hǎo de xuésheng (“excessively not good student”). 


The fifth time, zuì bù hǎo de xuésheng (“most not good student”).

The first time I had to cancel, I did it by text/SMS.  A few minutes later, my phone rang, and it was Alex, who asked, “wéi, shì búshì wo bù hǎo de lǎoshī (hello, is this my not good teacher)?”  


(London 2004)

Wednesday, 14 December 2011

You know you're getting old when…: 1


  • ...people start offering you seats, or help you with your luggage, on the bus
  • ...people (in/from S.E.Asia) start addressing you as “Aunty” (a term of respect for anyone female who’s of the older generation but not a relative)
  • ...the manager of a Chinese restaurant in Chinatown uses her initiative and approaches you about their 15% discount for OAPs (old-aged pensioners)
  • ...people start assuming you have a Freedom Pass (free travel on public transport for OAPs)
  • ...you strike up conversations with strangers much more readily than before, especially at bus-stops or on the buswhen once you used to feel sorry for people who did that, feeling that they were so lonely that they’d talk to anyone just to ease the loneliness

Language usage: oblique reference

In the English language, there is a particular style of referring to oneself in the third person (e.g., “Come and let Aunty take a look at you”), when speaking to the younger generation, especially young children.  

One does it in Chinese too, but the younger generation also uses it when addressing seniors (in status/age), as it’s a bit too direct to refer to the senior as nǐ 你 (“you”), even nín 您 (respectful “you”) in some cases.  So, when greeting the teacher, one could say, “老师,您好 (lǎoshī, nín hǎo*)”, but one also says, “老师好 (lǎoshī hǎo)”, using the lǎoshī to replace the nín.

My ex-tutor Mr T’ung got home from work one day and found that he’d forgotten his house key, so he rang the bell.  His son asked, in English, from the other side of the door, “Who is it?”  Mr T’ung said, “我 (wǒ, I/me).”  His son opened the door and instead of saying, “爸爸好 (bàba hǎo)”, said, “我好 (wǒ hǎo).”


The standard, common way of greeting people is “nǐ hǎo (‘you good’)”, which works for all levels of formality and status of the other party, from “How do you do” to “Hello” to “Hi”.

International Women’s Day (Taiwan)

The Chinese way of referring to dates is in this order: year month day.  For well-known events, the convention is to shorten it to just the numbers for the month and the day, with people being expected to know which year it’d happened, e.g., the Tian’anmen Square incidentwhich took place on 4th June 1989, in Chinese 一九八九年六月四号 (yìjiǔbājiǔnián liùyuè sìhào/“1989 year 6 month 4 day”)would be referred to as liù sì (“6 4”).

International Women’s Day is 8th March, so the Chinese would call it 三八妇女节 (sān bā fùnǚjié / “3 8 women festival”).

In Taiwan, there’s an equivalent for the English expression “the lights are on but nobody’s home” (to describe someone who’s not entirely with it), which is 三八 (sān bā / “3 8”).  If you were to do or say something your friends consider daft, they’ll say you’re sān bā.  

During my two years in Taiwan, men would ask me on 8th March, in Chinese, “今天是不是三八妇女节?(jīntiān shì búshì sān bā fùnǚjié / “today is not-is 3 8 women festival”)”  And every time, I’d answer “是 / It is”, which they’d immediately pounce upon with, “So you’re saying that there is a festival for daft women then?!?”  The parsing for their version would be 三八妇女 sān bā fùnǚ (daft women) as one cluster and 节 jié (festival) as one cluster, instead of 三八 sān bā (March 8) as one cluster and 妇女节fùnǚjié (women's festival) as one.  The Chinese sense of humour just loves such word play and catching people out.

Sunday, 4 December 2011

Terrifying road signs (UK)

In my second year in London, I was invited to the home of an English chap.  His youngest brother was at Eton, the world famous school, so he suggested we go and see it.  On the way from Taplow, I was greeted by some rather frightening signs signalling the villages we were approaching: Burnham (which sounds just like “burn’em”), Cookham (which sounds just like “cook’em”), then Eton (which sounds just like “eaten”).
Note:  For those unfamiliar with the quirky inconsistent English pronunciation, especially of place names, Burnham is not pronounced “burn ham”, nor Cookham “cook ham”.  And for those unfamiliar with shortened versions, burn’em = burn them, and cook’em = cook them.