Language Learning: Like Wrestling with the Laundry

September 6, 2017 § 1 Comment

21012749685_f26e81aa31_z

I wrote the following in a newsletter a few months after moving overseas. That was a long time ago, but my thoughts on language learning haven’t changed much.

Our main goal right now is to learn the language, and we’ve been taking classes for almost three months. One of our teammates, who was here before we arrived, wrote a while back that learning Chinese is the hardest thing he’s ever done. As for me, I think I’ve done harder things, it’s just that I quit doing them after a couple hours.

Maybe you’ve heard it said that a difficult task is “like trying to nail Jell-O to a wall.” Learning Chinese isn’t quite like that, but it’s not far off. It’s more like hanging a king-sized bed sheet on a clothesline in a strong wind. (My apologies to everyone who’s only used a clothes dryer.) Every word or sentence pattern we learn is a clothespin that holds up another part of the sheet. With enough clothespins, the sentences and stories make sense. Little by little, there are fewer and fewer sags in the sheet as we pick out and are able to use more and more words and phrases.

The trouble is, on some days, the wind whips the sheet out of our hands. On some days we run out of clothespins or drop the ones we have. On some days it rains. On some days our arms are tired and hanging up sheets is the last thing we want to try to do. And on some days, the sheet just simply turns to Jell-O.

[photo: “auch Borkum,” by Erich Ferdinand, used under a Creative Commons license]

Advertisements

Language Learning for a Small World and a Big Introduction

December 11, 2014 § 2 Comments

Most commercials make me hit the mute button or click “Skip this Ad.” But some I like so much that I search them out on Youtube for a second, third, and fourth look. Here are two of those.

The first one, from Rosetta Stone Language Learning, begins with this: “Imagine the world if everyone learned just one more language. Imagine the stories we’d share.”

The second one, my favorite of the two, is from the American Heart Association. It opens with the words “Hello, Jack. Hello, Jack. I am your grandfather. I waited so long to meet you”—and ends with a nice surprise. (By the way, from what I can tell, the grandfather is learning his English from a Langenscheidt pocket dictionary.)

The Faith of a Bicycle

April 11, 2014 § 2 Comments

60328782_d8ad8b40c9_z

When we first moved to Taipei, we lived across the street from a park. One day, I was approached by three college-age students who asked me in English, “Do you know Jesus?”

“Yes,” I said.

“OK,” they replied. “But do you really know him?” This was a logical question, because while English has the one word for “know,” Chinese has two. The first would be the one in “I know who he is,” while the second means “I know him personally.”

I had the perfect response. Not only was I a Christian, but I was a missionary . . . and I’d been studying Chinese, too. So, I told them, somewhat smugly, in their language, “Yes, I know him. I’m a . . . bicycle.”

I wish I could say that the Chinese words for missionary and bicycle sound just alike, but they don’t. The first is chuan jiao shi, and the second is jiao ta che. I think I must have learned them on the same day, because they are forever confused in my mind. The young people in the park laughed with me and let me correct myself. “Chinese is hard,” they said. I didn’t argue.

Over the years, that encounter became a symbol to me for the good and bad times in Taiwan: Some days I was a missionary. Some days I was just a bicycle.

Flat Tires and Slipped Chains

In an article published by Christianity Today this month, John Wilson interviews British author Francis Spufford about defending the Christian faith in a post-Christian culture. Spufford talks about a chapter in his latest book, Unapologetic: Why, Despite Everything, Christianity Can Still Make Surprising Emotional Sense, that gives a summary of the New Testament:

[T]he reason why I have Yeshua, my de-familiarized Christ, saying, “Far more can be mended than you know,” which I think is actually true to the New Testament, is that I want mending. Not flying free, not transformation, but humble, ordinary, everyday, get-you-back-on-your-feet mending, to be at the center of the Christian story.

When the book was being translated into Dutch, the translator sent me an email: “This word mend, I’ve looked it up in the dictionary, and it seems to be the same word you use for repairing bicycles. You must mean something else.”

I wrote back, “No. No. No. I want the bicycle-repair word.” What I absolutely want is to suggest that before it’s anything else, redemption is God mending the bicycle of our souls; God bringing out the puncture repair kit, re-inflating the tires, taking off the rust, making us roadworthy once more. Not so that we can take flight into ecstasy, but so that we can do the next needful mile of our lives.

We all need that kind of mending from God. I guess being a bicycle isn’t so far from being a Christian—and a missionary—after all.

(John Wilson, “Faith for the Post-Christian Heart: A Conversation with Francis Spufford,” Christianity Today, April 3, 2014)

[photo: “Bicycle,” by Marcella, used under a Creative Commons license]

Language Study: Live (There) and Learn

September 3, 2013 § Leave a comment

3797213895_8586cd8e5e_nMan, I really should have studied French harder in college.

That’s how I ended my last post. Actually, I did study hard, got good grades in my three French classes, and was only three hours short of getting a French minor.

The reason I didn’t get the minor was that when I showed up for the first class of The History of the French Language, a 3-hour class taught in English, I realized I was in over my head. It was in the fall, after a summer full of not speaking French, and the girl in front of me asked Professor Honeycutt if he would teach the class in French. She asked this in French, and the girl next to her nodded in agreement. The teacher said he couldn’t do that, but I dropped the class the next day anyway.

It was one of the best decisions of my college career. I’m so glad that today I don’t have to tell people that I have a French minor but about the only thing I can still say is “I speak a little French.”

The problem wasn’t that I didn’t study hard enough. The problem was I didn’t need to use it outside of class. And inside of class, what I said didn’t matter as much as how I said it. You know what I mean: If your teacher asks you to tell about your pet, and you have a dog, but you’ve forgotten the word for dog, but you remember the word for cat, suddenly you have a cat. The professor isn’t asking you because he’s concerned about the animals in your life, he simply wants to see if you can put sentences together.

It’s not a silver bullet, but putting yourself in a place where you need to use a language in a meaningful way is key to learning a language. That’s one of the foundations of Education First, named the official supplier of language programs for the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi. EF was founded in 1965 by Bertil Hult in Sweden, “on the principle that cultural immersion was a superior way to study a language.”

Below are five EF commercials about people learning a language where it’s spoken. Granted, they glamorize the whole expat experience, but they are commercials, not documentaries.

I just wish that I could become fluent by watching cool videos about cool people living in cool places—and not have to worry about conjugating verbs.

The commercials are called “Live the Language.”

(By the way, who knew that speaking Australian and Canadian was so easy? Almost as easy as what they speak over in England).

(“About Us” and “EF in Brief,” Education First)

[photo: “cafe,” by  pim van boesschoten, used under a Creative Commons license]

The Britishisms Are Coming! So Are the Americanisms! Is Any Language Safe?

November 27, 2012 § 8 Comments

In his new book, All the Countries We’ve Ever Invaded: And the Few We Never Got Round To, British historian Stuart Laycock claims that Britain has attacked more nations than any other. In fact, according to Laycock, Britain has “invaded, had some control over, or fought conflicts in the territory of something like 171 out of 193 UN member states in the world today (and maybe more).”

Of course, Britain’s incursions aren’t limited to the military variety. Who hasn’t heard of the British Invasion, when the Beatles and Rolling Stones came to American shores? And now those sneaky Brits are at it again.

It’s Enough to Get One’s Knickers in a Twist

This time they’re assailing something as personal to us Americans as our English language. (Yes, yes, we originally got it from them, but we’ve made it our own.) The headlines speak for themselves:

We have Ben Yagoda, a professor of English at the University of Delaware, to thank for keeping track of the incursions. Such is his acumen, his work is sourced in each of the articles above. Yagoda’s blog, “Not One-Off Britishisms,” keeps track of the invasion as it occurs, one word and phrase at a time. Britishisms such as spot oncheekychippy, and have a look have already taken up residence within our borders, and it looks as if there are more to come, what with Harry PotterDowntown Abbey, and Doctor Who helping with the assault.

American Offensives and Offenses

In all fairness, though, as an American, I must admit that my country has done its fair share of invading over the years, militarily and culturally. And evidence suggests that this most recent verbal offensive by the British might actually be a counter offensive.

Take, for instance, the following from Alistair Cooke’s 1984 radio broadcast, Letter from America. The host of PBS’s Masterpiece Theater for 20 years, Cooke had one foot planted firmly on each side of the Atlantic, being born in Lancashire and later becoming an American citizen. Letter from America ran for 58 years, and the BBC has just recently put over 900 of Cooke’s audio installments online.

The “letter” of note is “Americanisms,” in which Cooke discusses American words that have made the jump across the pond. There’s caucus and pow-wow (both of which came initially from American Indians) and hunky-doryparolescientist, and awful.

French and Chinese under Siege

French has not been immune to the encroachment of English, as well. (Granted, this isn’t all the fault of us Americans. Maybe we should consider it a joint invasion from the US and Britain.) An article in Les Echos gives several examples of Franglais in the French business world, which now “has French people talking about ‘addressing’ problems, ‘delivering’ solutions, attending ‘meetings’ and ‘workshops’ and ‘conf calls.'”

Finally, we can’t ignore the awful things that American English is doing to the Chinese language. According to Jin Zhao, of the blog Things You Don’t Know about China, online Chinese have latched onto Oh my Lady Gaga!—a phrase from the TV series Ugly Betty and a variation on the globally ubiquitous Oh my God. (Now there’s a phrase I wish we could put a stop to.) And then there’s “Chinglish” like geilivable, a combination of the Mandarin gei li, meaning “give” and “strength,” and the English adjective ending able. The result means something like “cool” or “impressive.”

Chinese innovators have also created new words completely out of English, such as antizen (from ant and citizen) for “college graduates who share a small apartment with several roommates, working hard, yet making little money,” and smilence, meaning “smiling silently” to show mutual agreement.

Is the government of China taking this lying down? Of course not. Two years ago, China’s People’s Daily Online reported that the General Administration of Press and Publication had declared a ban in official publications on geilivable and other forms of “abuse of foreign languages, including arbitrary use of English words; acronym mixing in Mandarin and coined half-English, half-Chinese terms that are intelligible to nobody.” “All these have seriously damaged to [sic] the purity of the Chinese language,” says People’s Daily, “and resulted in adverse social impacts to the harmonious and healthy cultural environment.”

Maybe It’s Nothing to Be Gobsmacked About

So what are we to do? What is the world to do? Maybe we can learn from Alistair Cooke, who says, given time, it will all be OK. “The invasion of Americanisms into Britain is never a problem to any generation born after a particular invasion,” he asserts, “since they don’t know they were invaded, but only to the generation that can see the invaders offshore.”

So no worries. Carry on.

(Stuart Laycock, All the Countries We’ve Ever Invaded: And the Few We Never Got Round To, History Press, 2012; Alistair Cooke, “Americanisms,” Letter from America, BBC Radio, February 24, 1984; Philippe Bertrand, “Franglais: How English is Ruining the French of the French,” Worldcrunch, July 21, 2012, translated from “Le Français, l’Anglais et Notre Crise d’Identité” Les Echos, July 19, 2012; Jin Zhao, “‘Oh My Lady Gaga! This Is So Geilivable!’: Chinglish Entering Globish?” Things You Don’t Know about China, June 4, 2011; Li Mu, “Authorities Ban Mixed English Words ‘Ungelivable’ in Publications,” People’s Daily Online, December 21, 2010)

Thanks to Chris WoolfClark Boyd, and Patrick Cox of PRI’s The World, whose stories pointed me towards much of the the source material above. Well played! I say. Well played!

[photo: “250th Fort Necessity,” by ryanophilly, used under a Creative Commons license]

Where Am I?

You are currently browsing entries tagged with Chinese at Clearing Customs.

%d bloggers like this: