Friday, December 18, 2009

My mother has a first tongue, it's E-N-G-L-ISH

Title to be sung to the tune of the Oscar Mayer jingle.

When I moved to China, I started to think more about English.

Ok, an apology: the biggest danger of moving to China and starting a blog (besides being interrogated by police officers and then imprisoned) is sitting down to write at the end of the day and finding yourself trapped in Great American Clichés about living abroad. It's strange but, somehow, just the same! All it takes is a smile! The world is small! We all "know" these are true, just like I "know" that they make me want to vomit. I find them both loathsome and comforting, which I guess is how people feel about pork rinds. I do not understand the appeal. (Oh my god, the Wikipedia article on pork rinds says that some pieces may still have hair attached. What? What?)

And yet, and yet, apology continues, I think in general great bloggers (and essayists/novelists/tone poets/whatever) don't bend themselves out of shape to avoid clichés, but consider them obsessively, turn them over and over again until their familiarity roughens and they resolve into something a little less apt, and the cliché catches, and holds.

Moving to a foreign country teaches me about English. This is a cliché. A bad one. This is the sort of thing that you would hear someone say at at a youth hostel, and then you'd have to say how true that is, man, and then complement them on how much use they've already gotten out of that Eurorail pass, and are you going to hit up Amsterdam?, because I hear it's siiiick. But it is true that you get to hear English with a foreign ear when you start teaching it to non-native speakers in a foreign land. When I texted "no prob" to a student yesterday, I first worried that she wouldn't understand it, then I worried that she might start to use "prob" in other contexts, like, "I don't understand the last prob on the exam" or "I have a prob with bullies at school." These are real concerns.

Wednesday mornings, we sometimes get to hear English dialogues played over the school P.A. system. My favorite dialogue so far this year involved a family sitting down at the dinner table. They exchange pleasantries. Then,

Father: "Son, can you think of a time when you were both angry and hungry?"

Son: "Yes, after my soccer game last night, I felt angry about our loss, but also hungry because I played really hard. So I was both angry and hungry."

Father: "Good! Daughter, how about you? Can you think of a time when you were both angry and hungry?"


No one thinks to give the obvious answer, which in my mind is "Shit yeah, I can think of a time. Let's say we start eating and stop discussing feelings that end in -gry." (I have been both angry and hungry at the same time, but I'm an angry vomiter. Not sure if this is universal.) I expect that next week Dad will ask the kids if they can remember a time when they held a profession that involved three consecutive pairs of double letters, or whether they are fans of Christian Bök.

That last set of associations may make sense only to me; if so, apologies.

One thing that gets me thinking about English is learning Cantonese, specifically because Cantonese speakers say many more English words than you'd expect them to say (zero). Mandarin doesn't actually have many loan words, and most of them are re-phoneticized past recognition. Cantonese people say English words all the time. The experience for a native English speaker is like day and 黑天.

I can give an example from my Cantonese text book. The vocab lists have a space for the new words, the pronunciation (in Cantonese), and then the meaning (in Mandarin). A normal entry looks like this.

唔该晒 (Phrase)
m4 goi1 saai3 (Pronunciation)
非常感谢 (Meaning)

(This means "thank you very much".)

But one entry in the same lesson looks like this.

say 声 sorry
sei1 seng1 so1 li4
说一声 “对不起”

Note that "sorry" is rendered so-li, and also that they give it tones.

Other useful popular phrases listed in our book are "好 cheap" (cheap), "see-through 装" (see-through clothing), "生 cancer" (get cancer).

They don't even bother making up characters for this. I am paying a woman 50 Chinese RMB an hour to teach me English. This is ridiculous. I'm a celebrity get me out of here.