Wednesday, 21 November 2012

A helpful word of advice (Bangkok, Thailand)

My Cambodian friend’s father was a rich and successful businessman who was well-known in Cambodia during his time.  One day back in the late 60s or early 70s, he was waiting in the departure lounge at the airport in Bangkok for a flight back to Cambodia when another passenger, also Cambodian, struck up a conversation with him.  He asked my friend’s father if he was Cambodian, to which came the answer “yes”.  After a bit of small talk to break the ice, during which they’d got on well conversationally, the man then asked my friend’s father if he’d heard of the very rich and successful Cambodian businessman called So-and-So, which was my friend’s father himself.  My friend’s father replied with a simple “yes”, not wanting to identify himself out of modesty.  The fellow Cambodian then said, “Well, let me give you a word of advice:  don’t ever do business with this man!  He’s absolutely ruthless and heartless!”

Tuesday, 13 November 2012

Oops (London)

Last week, my Cambodian friend invited me round to her place for lunch sometime this week, as she’d brought back from her holiday there some dried fish for me and would like to show me how to cook it.  (I know this is really just an excuse to fatten me up.  She gets me over to her place once every few months ostensibly for lunch, which invariably stretches to include a late afternoon sweet snack, then extends to early dinner, before I’m allowed to waddle back to north London.)

On Saturday, I tried tentatively to move it forward from Tuesday to Monday, in an attempt to fit in my constantly-fluid appointments (which get cancelled or moved last minute quite a bit), sending her an email to ask how she’d be placed for Monday instead.  Got no reply by mid-day Sunday, after which I went off air.

A text arrived on Monday, an hour after lunch time, asking if I was all right, saying she’d cooked lots of food but no appearance on my part.  I texted back saying I’d not heard back, so I gave up on Monday, and couldn’t now make Tuesday after all.

Her email which arrived next reduced me to hysterical tears and had me in absolute stitches:

I checked my email on Saturday morning and I did not check my emails again until 10pm on Sunday as I was very busy getting my place ready for the carpet fitters. 

Just as well you were not here today as it was extremely noisy with the carpet fitters banging away all day long.  

My reply:

This reduced me to absolute tears and had me in stitches!!  Did you not know that the vulgar slang for "bang" is:  “an act of sexual intercourse”.  Hahahahahahahahaha, I'm still laughing hysterically nine hours after reading this!!

(London 2012)

Saturday, 10 November 2012

Punning (London)

See Update of 051112 in blog entry: Born to pun

How to make the victim apologise (London)

I trod on someone’s foot in a crowd, and instinctively cried out, “Ouch!”, feeling for the other person.  Upon hearing “ouch!”, he  also responded instinctively by immediately apologising, “Oh, I’m so sorry!” even though it was his foot that had been trodden on.

(London 1977)

How to say “spaghetti” in Chinese (London)

When I was teaching evening classes in Chinese for adults, the first beginners’ lesson covered self introductions, which included saying which country one came from.  This was easy, thus boosting the students’ confidence, because a lot of country names in Chinese sound like the original.  I told the students that the Chinese versions of foreign names (personal or geographical) are usually stretched-out versions of the original, e.g., Yìn-dù-ní-xī-yà for Indonesia, Luó-mǎ-ní-yà for Romania, Mǎ-lái-xī-yà for Malaysia.  I said that even if they had not learned it, they just had to utter the foreign version with every syllable enunciated, slowly and with emphasis, and it’d be very similar to how it’d be in Chinese.

For the next lesson, we moved on to food and drink, amongst which were chǎo fàn (fried rice), chǎo miàn (fried noodleswhat used to be rendered as chow mien in recipe books and on menus in Chinese restaurants and takeaways), and miàn tiáo (“wheat-flour strings” / noodles).  I wanted to start teaching the students how the Chinese language deals with foreign concepts, using “spaghetti” as an example.  As they’d learned the Chinese version of Italy (Yìdàlì) in Lesson One, I asked them, “So, what is spaghetti in Chinese?”, expecting them to put Yìdàlì and miàn tiáo together to form “Italian noodles”.  

In unison, the whole class replied, slowly and with emphasis, “SPA-GHE-TTI !!”

(London 1985)

Friday, 9 November 2012

Students' version of Chinese (London)

(See also blog entry: Let me show you my…)

In my experience of teaching Chinese, which spans more than a quarter of a century in mainstream education23 of which were spent teaching mature students doing evening classesstudents are practically always mortified when they make mistakes.  It didn’t matter (to themselves) that they were diplomat trainees (Oxford graduate Peter would draw, in the days long before emoticons came into currency, a cross face against his uphill struggle at a translation).  Or the holder of a PhD in geology.  Or an MOD Russian-English translator.  Or a polyglot (English/French/Spanish) at a notary public firm.  Or an IP (Intellectual Property) specialist lawyer.  The list goes on.  However eminent their professional (and personal) achievements might’ve been, learning Chinese (and the attendant outcome of making embarrassing mistakes) seems to turn them into shrinking violets.

What these (self-)Doubting Thomases don’t realise is how much of an eternal source of mirth they are to the teacher with a kooky sense of humour.

Example 1Before I went into mainstream teaching of Chinese, I was invited to teach a 10-week course at SACU (Society for Anglo Chinese Understanding) for people who’d booked a 3-week tour in China.  When it ended, one of the students Ceri wanted extra lessons.  

I thought it might be useful for her to find out the names of things she’d seesay, in the market placeor to find out from a local who could speak a bit of English what the Chinese version of certain things/phrases were.   This way, she could learn more, and interact with the locals, when she was actually there.  

Where she could point at the item in question, she could say, “How does one say this/that in Chinese?”  Where she had an English word in mind, she could say, “How does one say XYZ in Chinese?”

The Chinese format for this is either: “This/That, Chinese, how to say?”;  or: “Foreign word, Chinese, how to say?”

As they’d been taught Huánghé (“Yellow River”), and mǎ (“horse”) in their drills of the four tones (mā má mǎ mà), I decided to throw in an exercise as well in how Chinese versions of foreign concepts are put together (cf. blog entry: How to say spaghettiin Chinese).  

The example I had in mind was “hippopotamus” which is “river horse” in Chinese.  So, I asked her to translate, “Hippopotamus, zhōngwén, zěnme shuō?” following the format of “Foreign word, Chinese, how to say?”

She looked quite puzzled but, like the good student she was, obediently started to give the translation, very hesitantly, quite sure the teacher had gone mad, “How … does … a … hippopotamus … speak … Chinese??!?”

Example 2:  Denis sent in some homeworka translation of Chinese sentences into English.  His version said: “He only got up after the elephants got up.”  Maybe the sentence was about a lazy zoo keeper who liked a lie-in, but the source text was a mainland Chinese publication, whichin my experiencegenerally didn’t get to that plane of wackiness.  The original sentence turned out to be: 大家起床了以后他才起床.  The student had mis-read 大家 (dàjiā / “big family” / everyone) as 大象 (dàxiàng / “big elephant”).  Sixteen years on, the recollection still produces a chuckleand will for another 16 years to come, if my memory is still intact by then.  A much more interesting and memorable perspective than the grain production articles that a particular teacher tried to foist on her students at different places where she put students of Chinese through the mill (sorry, couldn’t resist the punand the meow).

Example 3:  Sixteen years on, and a much younger student, Daniel, aged 28 (versus Denis’s then 50), but the same hilarious, if a bit macabre, outcome nonetheless.  Last week, I was doing a Listening Comprehension piece with Daniel.  The section involved said, “I’m the switchboard operator.  With so many employees, I sometimes have to take over 1,000 calls a day.  Some of the callers even want to leave messages.”  The Chinese for “to leave a message” is 留言 liúyán / “leave-behind spoken-words”.  Daniel, as with lots of student beforeand undoubtedly afterhim, didn’t distinguish the tones so clearly, and ended up hearing yán (言 / “spoken-word”) as yǎn (眼 / “eyes”).  So Daniel’s version has these callers wanting to leave their eyes behind!  Infinitely more interesting!

PS: haha, talk about hilarious outcomes!  I was typing too fast, so “tones” came out as “toes”——“didn’t distinguish the toes so clearly”.  It’s getting surreal, this!  These linguistic misses are really catching!

Example 4: A beginner student doing one-to-one lessons with me back in the late 80s was taught in Lesson 1 that one way of softening the tone of voice in Chinese is to reduplicate the utterance, e.g., 谢谢 xièxie (“thank thank” / thank you) would often be 谢谢,谢谢 (thank you, thank you); 请坐 qǐng zuò (“request sit” / please sit) would become 请坐,请坐 (sit down, sit down).  Monosyllabic utterances might even be said three times, e.g., 来 lái (“come” / come on) would become 来来来 (come, come, come) when, say, urging the guest to eat more food or have another drink.  

The following lesson, I taught him another way of softening the tone of voice, which is to add the suggestion particle 吧 ba to a statement so that it doesn’t sound like a command, e.g., 再来一杯 zài lái yì bēi (“further come a cup-of/glass-of” / have another one) would become 再来一杯吧 (do have another one).  

A week on, I was trying to revise material already learned, so I went over the polite exchanges used in socialising situations, one of which was to urge the other party to have another glass of alcohol, a typical hospitality scenario at Chinese parties.  The student said, 再来一杯 zài lái yì bēi, which was correct.  I then said, “How about softening the tone of voice?”  expecting him to just add the suggestion particle 吧 to the end of it.  What I got was, “再再再来来来一一一杯杯杯!”

(London, late 1980s / 2012)