Saturday, June 12, 2010

Language to make you dizzy

When I was a child, I thought America was on top of the globe and imagined the people of China had to walk around on their heads. Since I've been studying Chinese, I've started to wonder if I was right. These languages are extremely different. Any English speaker who studies Chinese will have a healthy respect for Chinese users of English. It's amazing our people understand each other at all.

Not only is Chinese a tonal language; its writing is not alphabetic, and its patterns of ordering words into sentences are mind boggling. I am increasingly able to make myself understood in restaurants and markets. My attempts make the locals giggle, just as so-called "Chinglish" amuses us (see examples. When I use my Chinese in public, colleagues here are embarrassed for me, and reflexively begin to translate. I cannot have them around when I want to practice.

The Chinese begin to learn English almost in infancy. Software displayed at the Beijing Sam's club features the ABC song. It is quite expensive in Chinese terms -- about 600 yuan, or nearly a hundred US dollars. Parents who probably cannot afford to buy it stand their children's strollers in front of a monitor as this familiar tune plays.

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