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Posts Tagged ‘Language’

When you’re not able to practice a foreign language, it gets rusty. The best way to practice, of course, is to surround yourself with native speakers. I have always spent a good amount of time doing this, and it always takes some effort. Even when I was studying in China, it took a little push to get out of the foreign student bubble at the university, and now that I’ve been back in the States a while, I’ve had to put in even more effort.

Those efforts led me to discover the Morgantown Chinese C&MA Church (摩根城華人宣道會). Let me preface by saying that although I was raised in a traditional Methodist church, I am not a religious person. A friend of mine needed a ride to church, and I was curious about the place and how it might differ from other churches I have attended.  What I walked into was a very traditional service that could have occurred in the church I attended as a child, save for the fact that it was bilingual.

Most of the hymns I readily recognized, though I was not confident enough reading the Chinese lyrics (projected on a screen up front in traditional characters) to attempt to sing with the congregation.  The sermon itself wasn’t necessarily my kind, it was heavily reliant on an analysis of a fairly long scripture passage, meaning that the Chinese was somewhat difficult and the English translations felt a little boring.  Other than the formality of the affair, the only particularly “Chinese” thing I heard in it involved a part at the beginning where a Chinese emperor was quoted — unfortunately I have forgotten the quote.

Of course, there was also the inevitable reaction of the Chinese congregation to the only white person in the crowd.  I was immediately singled out to introduce myself as a new attendee, and did my best to introduce myself explain my reasons for being there in Mandarin.  Afterward quite a few of the congregation came to me specifically to compliment me on my Mandarin (“你的中文很好 / Your Chinese is very good” was heard a lot) and didn’t seem to mind that I was more interested in language practice than religion.  Of course, I couldn’t help showing off by trying to read the bulletin (mostly in Chinese), just as much as I couldn’t resist talking to the little kids in the congregation.

Will I be going back to that church?  I may.  Perhaps not every Sunday, but once in a while it may be fun.  The bottom line is that often you can find cultural experiences where you would never expect in — in little pockets near where you live.  Get out and try it.

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There is an urban legent that the Chevy Nova had to change it’s name in Mexico because it could be interpreted as “no va”.  it’s a cute story, but it’s false.

Now, apparently there is a little claim going around that Bing, the brand name of Microsoft’s search engine in fact sounds like the word for “disease”.  And this is based on what?  A fortune cookie. Of course, the fortune cookie is right in this case (they usually aren’t bad, but never take them seriously), there is a character 病 that is pronounced bìng* and means “disease.”  However, one thing that you can always count on in Chinese, especially with single-character words, is that there are homophones and near-homophones that are just as likely.  Lots of them:

binginchinese

What matters is what characters you use to transliterate it.  It should be noted that Google could have been transliterated to mean “skeleton”, but the company wisely found a couple characters that could loosely mean something like “valley song” (in other words, a nonsense phrase with non-offensive characters).

Of course, Microsoft seems to just want to dodge it altogether.  Their China site has no transliteration of their name, just the name in Latin characters:

bingchinapage

Not sure if what the deal is there.  Maybe they expect Chinese people to pronounce it as pinyin and be done with it (ok for mainlanders, but what about Taiwanese people who don’t learn pinyin in school?)  In any case, if Microsoft has any Chinese speakers in their marketing staff, I’m sure they will never, ever brand themselves as “disease”.  Some nasty netizen might make fun of their name, but I don’t think there’s much chance of avoiding that in Chinese.

*the pronunciation may or may not be the same as various English realizations of <Bing> but I won’t get into that right now.

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Avatar

Last weekend I finally got a chance to see Avatar.  The film had been delayed in China until January 2, and from what I hear about it, it’s unlikely that I would have been able to see it at that time, if I had tried (as it was I just waited until I was back in the states.

I’d already read a few reviews of it, both positive and negative, so I knew what to expect.  The story was actually a bit better than I had thought from the reviews, but it was still very much suffering from the noble savage and white guilt tropes (those aren’t necessarily bad, though), and I do see why people have objected to the hero being a white American who not only assimilates into Na’vi culture but becomes better than them at everything they do in a very short time (the second bit is the key to the objection).  However, I had to agree with my brother who mentioned the Avatar body as being “liberating” for the paraplegic protagonist.

I was impressed by the depth of the world and the alienness of the creatures living there.  The world of Pandora is beautifully rendered and at no time did I detect a flaw in the CGI — in fact, I didn’t even think about it most of the movie.  Like others, I noticed the conspicuousness of the humanoid Na’vi on a planet where all other land animals have six limbs, a second pair of eyes, and breathing orifices on the underside of the body, particularly when much of the world uses realistic science to make fantastic landscapes (those floating mountains are not magical in the least).  I do, however, think it is a good alien design for the purpose — there are a few things that will take people out of their comfort zone (the neural link takes on a whole different meaning when you find it not only links to other animals, but is also used during mating — though in my mind it makes it more plausible as far as evolution goes).

Plus, too much alienness in the Na’vi could have messed with one of the reasons I saw the movie: the language.  I’ve tried creating languages, or conlanging, a bit myself, and when I had read that a linguist consultant was hired to construct the language I knew I wanted to see the movie, and I think this language could possibly achieve its goal of “out-Klingon Klingon”. I have tried to find as much information about it ever since.  The consultant, Paul Frommer posted a sketch of the language at Language Log, and I know of a fan site that is trying to make sense of what materials have come out.  Certain bits of the romanization (which I hear were decided from above) irk me, (x marks ejectives when ‘ is being used for the glottal stop?) but I do think that the language has a beautiful sound to fit the beauty of the Na’vi while still being somewhat unconventional.  I would like someday to see a developed constructed language for aliens that actually used some non-human sounds, but I can understand Cameron’s desire for actors to perform their lines without manipulation.  In any case, don’t be surprised if you hear me calling someone a “skxawng” (if I can get the pronunciation down, that is 😛 ).

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I recently got into an interesting discussion at Ben Ross’ Blog about language competency and Huaqiao*.  The original post topic was on how to get a job using one’s Chinese skills, and the main point of it I am in total agreement on:  Unless you are specifically interested in something like translation, knowing a foreign language is not enough to get you a job.  Plenty of people have told me that my languages (English, Chinese, and Spanish) would make me a good candidate for companies that do international business and they will be valuable in getting a job, but as I approach graduation I have got to thinking that, while speaking more that one language is definitely an advantage and I would encourage anyone to learn a foreign language, I haven’t quite learned any skills that I can apply that language too.

But that’s for another post, what sparked the discussion was this:

What this means is that not even counting the hundreds of thousands of American currently studying Chinese as a second language, there are already over two million Americans, who by virtue of growing up speaking Chinese, speak the language better than you ever will, regardless of how much you study.

Myself and another commenter took issue with that statement.  While there are a large number of people in the United States who speak Chinese at home, their children are not necessarily going to be that good at Chinese.  Here’s a basic sample of what I put in:

I’m here at a special language program at Zhejiang University and have met several huaqiao here studying Chinese for one of two reasons:

1) They spoke a fangyan at home and had little or no exposure to Mandarin.
2) They can speak Mandarin, but never learned to read.

I think as more Mandarin-speakers move out into the diaspora and more Mandarin-language schools start popping up, there will gradually be more huaqiao that are competent in Mandarin, but it won’t necessarily mean they will all be better than a non-native. Language loss happens in a lot of immigrant groups — I also speak Spanish and I have met a few Hispanics with limited vocabulary or who never really learned Spanish at all (at home, that is), in the US the general rule is that immigrants lose their “mother language” in the third generation.

To expand a bit, I have met Huaqiao here who have no literacy in Chinese to speak of, and others who had noticable foreign accents or who spoke no Chinese at all.  Back in the states I have met Hispanics with very good Spanish ability, but also a Mexican American who did not learn Spanish until college and now speaks Spanish with a very noticeable West Virginia accent.  So, while there are definitely people back home that speak either of those languages natively, they wouldn’t represent the whole of the immigrant group, and even those who do speak natively may not have any professional vocabulary to speak of.  A native speaker of Mandarin would definitely have an edge on me — my Mandarin is still no where near it would need to be to actually do any kind of serious professional work.  A native Spanish speaker would to, if he has the professional vocabulary to back it up (and that still might not take much, as my Spanish is slipping through lack of exposure.

Ben later clarified that “expanding ones ideolect to include intelligent terminology and industry jargon is not one of the more demanding aspects of language learning.”  I tend to agree with that statement, once you know the language to a certain point, new vocabulary is not so difficult.  But native fluency is definitely not a golden ticket, just as having a second language in itself is not a golden ticket into international business.

Anyway, enough recap, if I haven’t bored you to tears and you are really interested in this stuff, read the original discussion thread.  Poke around on the other posts over there, too, Ben has a lot more experience than I have with China and Chinese learning, his stuff is a lot more informative than mine.

*Huaqiao 华侨 “Chinese diaspora” (#6 here)

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If you followed President Obama’s recent trip to Asia, you may have picked up on a story about different names for Obama used in Chinese. Essentially there are two competing versions of his last name: 奥巴马 (aobama), which is the officially endorsed version used by Xinhua and other news agencies in China, and 欧巴马 (oubama), which is the version used by the US Embassy in China for press releases and other information. The embassy claims 欧巴马 should be used because it more accurately reflects the pronunciation of the name, while Xinhua and most Chinese news outlets prefer 奥巴马 because that is the form that organically occurred back when Obama was a candidate. As for which version I would use, I’m not sure yet. I’m a big believer in self-determination when it comes to names, but Obama didn’t really choose that transliteration himself, he had Chinese-speaking aides do it. And there’s something to be said for using consistent spelling forms, if for no other reason that it makes it easier on search engines if they don’t have to recognize the variant forms (or users so they don’t need to remember to search both forms at once).

But I didn’t tune in late to a discussion of Obama’s name just to opine on that. The fact is, learning Chinese, you have to learn new names for everyone and everything you might want to talk about to Chinese people. If you’ve ever studied another language you have some idea what I’m talking about. Even in European langauges, you’re likely to have to learn new country names, names of Biblical characters, and many historical figures (particularly those from the 1500’s or earlier), and maybe deal with a few mispronunciations of more recent names coming from monolinguals. In Chinese, every country, place, movie, book, or famous person has a “Chinese name”, whether that name is just a transliteration like 奥巴马 or 哈利・波特, some sort of translated name like 星际旅行, or in the case of many Chinese actors and celebrities, the actual characters of their name: such as 成龙 or 李安.

Historical figures have the same problems.  Of course, it won’t take long to learn that Mao’s full name is 毛泽东, but often figures in Chinese history are known by different pronunciation of their name from a different Chinese language (Chang Kai-shek for instance, is 蒋介石 Jiang3 Jie4shi2 in Standard Mandarin).  And of course, foreign historical names are prone to transliterations, which can be compounded by not necessarily knowing which language was the source for the Chinese phonetic pronunciation.

These things go the other way around, as well, particularly with older historical and literary figures.  You learn pretty quick that Confucious is usually called 孔子 (Kongzi) — the English name comes from an honorific title 孔夫子 (Master Kong), and you may later learn that his real name is thought to have been 孔丘 (Kong Qiu).

So what’s the best way to sort out these names.  Good dictionaries will have some of them listed, but I’ve found the best way to find the names is to use Wikipedia.  Most (if not all) people and literary works that originated in China will have their Chinese names listed in the introduction.  For those things that aren’t so closely related, look at the list of languages, hopefully you will see the a link saying 中文.  Thanks to some script magic, all Chinese Wikipedia articles are available in four versions:  Mainland, Hong Kong / Macau, Singapore, and Taiwan, so you can choose the character set that best suits your needs.  That won’t get you everywhere, but it’s a useful learning tool, or a resource you can use if you happen to be chatting online with Chinese friends and you want to know, “What do I call Obama him in Chinese?”

Anyway, hope I was helpful in some way.

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When learning another language, you will ultimately come upon words that are difficult to translate. This isn’t because of some magical insight or a concept that "English just doesn’t have", it just comes from that different people will express things in different ways, and because of this different phrases and constructions become popular. In some cases, those terms can get borrowed, though even in borrowings meaning sometimes change (which gives me an idea for another post). And less closely related languages and languages coming from far separated cultures are likely to have more of these differences.

Chinese, of course, is full of terms that don’t have a clean English translation. You could write a book on chengyu (成语), the literary idioms that appear often in print and occasionaly in speech (in fact, I hear there are chengyu dictionaries), or about the poetic dish names seen on many Chinese menus. Some of these interest me enough that I want to borrow them, either because they seem to fit into a broad space covered by many different English words or because they cover culture-specific ideas that aren’t as easy to deal with using native terms. Here are a few of those terms:

1 事(情) "shi4(qing2)" Often glossed as "matters", "affairs", or "buisiness". 事情 is basically stuff that you do, or that occupies your time. For example, if someone asks you to dinner, but you have other things to do (you have to work, study, see another friend, etc.) one response is 我有事 "I have shi", or 我有事情要做 "I have stuff to do". Shiqing can be used in other ways as well. Asking 什么事? "What shi?" is basically equivalent to "What’s up?" (In the more serious sense of "What’s wrong?" or "What do you need?", this isn’t an acceptable greeting, but that’s another post.) So in a way, it’s not just abstract stuff that you do (work, school, etc), but also abstract stuff that affects you.

2 境况 "jing4kuang4" Literally "circumstances" or "state of affairs". This is notable not so much in it’s meaning (which translates fairly well), but in usage. Chinese seems to use it a lot more than English, making a literal translation sound more formal than it actually is. One speech topic in my kouyu book was 说你家里的境况 "Talk about your family circumstances." Translated literally, that sounds like a psychologist’s question about family relationships, but in this instance it was really just basic information: How many siblings/children? What do your parents do? Where do you fall in the family tree? etc.

3 厉害 "li4hai" This is a favorite term for a lot of foreigners. When you look up 厉害 in a bilingual dictionary, some of the first translations are "difficult", "terrible", or "hard to deal with", which confused me slightly the first time a Chinese told me 你很厉害. in reality the meaning is much broader, basically just "extreme" in whatever way makes sense according to the context. So a test that is lihai is probably very difficult, but for a person it could be they are very talented, smart, or athletic depending on what exactly you are complementing. For instance, I have met an Australian guy here who speaks Mandarin fluently (to the point that he can tell funny stories and people laugh — I can’t do that) and knows several forms of martial arts. He is lihai.

4 功夫 "gong1fu" Everyone knows Kung Fu refers to Chinese martial arts. However, in Chinese the meaning of gongfu is much, much broader than that. It actually means "skill" or "hard work". For instance, you may hear a Chinese person say 我花了很多功夫… "I spent a lot of gongfu…" to mean that it took a lot of effort to reach whatever goal he was reaching for. You can also talk about your "soccer gongfu" (足球功夫) or "calligraphy gongfu" (书画功夫), or any other skill that must be improved through lots of time and effort (as such, Linux Kung Fu seems to use the term in the Chinese sense).

5 关系 "guan1xi1" Most people familar with China and Chinese culture already use this term. Literally it translates as "relationship", but when borrowed it’s usually used for a more specific meaning something like "connections". I think all cultures have some concept of using connections or personal relationships to get things, but in Chinese culture it has a certain emphasis, partly stemming from the importance of interpersonal relationships in Confucian philosophy and partly because of a society that still lacks somewhat in government services and rule of law.

6 华侨 "hua2qiao2" "Chinese diaspora" or "overseas Chinese". -桥 can be added to any single-character nationality (and maybe some phonetic multi-character ones) to refer to people from that country or with ancestry from that country living in other parts of the world. Many of the friends I have made here are huaqiao, raised in Germany, Italy, or the US but born to Chinese parents. Some of them are more Chinese and others are more German, Italian, etc, for various reasons.

7 方言 "fang1yan2" Often translated as "dialect", though I have read an interesting argument for translating it as "topolect" instead. It most commonly is used to refer to the "regional dialects", or rather the various Chinese languages and their local variants in different cities. The reason I bring up the "topolect" translation is that if you mention a fangyan you’re probably referring to a particular place. Not as many people will know about Wu or Min than know about Shanghainese or Suzhouhua (both variants of Wu), or Fujianese or Taiwanese (Min variants).

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ICANN, the international organization that maintains Internet domain names has announced that they are going to begin allowing domain names using scripts other than the Latin script to be used for top-level domains (that is, the extensions such as .com, .org, etc). Up until now, domains have been restricted mostly to the 26 letters of the English alphabet plus the 10 numeral glyphs of the Hindu-Arabic number system. CNET has a good write-up on all this:

IDNs will allow domain names to be to be written in native character sets, such as Chinese, Arabic, and Greek. In charge of managing domain names, ICANN has argued that IDNs are necessary to expand use of the Web in regions where people don’t understand English. Since its inception, the Internet has been limited to the Latin character set used by the U.S. and many other nations.

To expedite the new plan, ICANN will launch a Fast Track process on November 16. At that time, the organization will begin accepting applications from countries for new top level domains, or Internet extensions, based on each nation’s character set.

Initially, the change will apply only to local country codes, such as .kr for Korea and .ru for Russia. Major top level domains (TLDs) such as .com, .net., and .org won’t see non-Latin editions just yet. But ICANN is pushing to make progress on these major TLDs and hopes to include them in the IDN system before long.

This is definitely an important event in the history of the Internet. Evan Osnos of the New Yorker predicts a new .中国 domain (zhong1 guo2 = China), though I hope for simplicity’s sake they keep it .中. According to Wikipedia the effort to allow more character sets other than the basic ASCII set began with a proposal in 1996, and started bearing fruit in 1998. However, though they list several domains as accepting Chinese characters, I have yet to ever see a second-level domain (the main part of the URL) using them, usually I see them with domain names and pinyin. If Chinese-character top-level domains, that may cause them to be more used, as Chinese users won’t need to switch out of their IME’s to finish the address.

Still, I wonder how many of these new domains we’ll see used, other than companies grabbing their own brand names to make sure they have them. Many Chinese speakers do not use a "Chinese keyboard" to use a phrase used by a Tom Merrit on Buzz Out Loud‘s commentary, but instead a pinyin-based IME, most of which have an "English" setting for typing Latin characters (the default Windows IME works this way), and you still have to switch the punctuation type, unless ICANN finds a way to map 。 to the Western-style period (.) they use as the "dot" in "dot-com". Still, convenient or not, I think Osnos has a point that nationalism and cultural significance will drive Chinese sites to use and advertise their Chinese-character domain names.

Final note: I am by no means an expert on any of this. If I’m off base in saying there aren’t so many character-domain names, or if I have misunderstood something about the availability of Chinese character domains, please call me out. I’m still a little confused about the history here, so I might be off on some things.

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