February 16, 2006

If I were emperor of China, my first act would be to abolish the second tone

There's an article that I can identify with up today on the Guardian:

Empire of signs

There are countless justifiable criticisms of foreign correspondents, but the one that hits home hardest is that many of us are less than fluent in the languages of the countries where we are based. [...]

I must confess that after two and a half years in Beijing my Mandarin remains the butt of primary school children's jokes, invoking disbelieving frowns from strangers and straining the patience of friends and colleagues.

My efforts have not been entirely in vain, however: in a restaurant I can get by, as long as they have the five dishes I know how to order; in a taxi I can flawlessly describe the route between my work and home; and in a market I know the three phrases needed to barter with the best of them. [...]

Never mind. One thing I learned in Tokyo is that language study is like mountaineering: you reach one crest, only to discover you are still in the foothills; you scale the next big peak only to find another, far higher one further ahead. But for exactly the same reason, it can be very satisfying to look back at all the ground you have covered.

Although locals make allowances for foreigners, a mistaken tone can be humiliating and expensive. I could never be a broker: depending on the tone, "mai" can mean "buy" or "sell". A tiny slip and billions could be lost.

Face, too, can be lost. In one of my first lessons, I was studying colours, and to practise my new vocabulary I asked my teacher what was the colour of her pen (one of the only other words I knew at the time). She blushed crimson, laughed, and quickly moved on to the next page of the textbook. The reason, I found out later, was that I had slipped from the third tone to the first - which had turned "pen" into a sensitive anatomical term.

At least I am not alone. Even the best foreign speakers of Mandarin sometimes get their rising tones mixed up with their undulating tones. "If I were emperor of China, my first act would be to abolish the second tone," said Ed Lanfranco, correspondent for UPI and one of the best linguists among the foreign journalist community of Beijing. "I just can't pick the second tone."

By comparison, learning the characters is easy. This merely involves constant repetition rather than musical talent (which I suspect is something you have to be born with in order to master tones).

But, dammit, there are an awful lot of them. My only consolation is that I am not a pupil at a Chinese school, where the demands of education must be among the toughest in the world. As one taxi driver put it (and I paraphrase because I may not have understood him exactly, my Mandarin being what it is), "We are the oldest, biggest and most literate civilisation in the world, which means a lot of hard work for our students. [...]

Given that studying the basics of Chinese identity is likely to take up so much of the curriculum, it is easier to understand why so many people here are so nationalistic: they simply do not have much time to study the outside world.

China is a writing system as much as it is a country. That was one of the most insightful comments I was given before I arrived in Beijing, and it was proferred by one of the few foreign journalist who remained here throughout the Cultural Revolution, a veteran China hand. Forty years of covering the country had taught him that this was an empire united by a set of ideograms and not an awful lot more.

In terms of ethnicity, geography, religion and income levels, there are huge differences among the population. Each province is big enough to be a separate country, and there are countless different spoken languages. But what people have in common is their citizenship and - if they are educated - an ability to read and write thousands of ideograms. [...]

Japan's most famous film subtitler, Nobuko Toda - who is also a very refined lady - used to say that the hardest things to translate were swear words, because a long string of English expletives could only be rendered by a single Japanese word, "baka" (idiot). She had particular problems with gangster films and anything by Joe Orton.

Chinese subtitlers are unlikely to face such problems, if the language used at their football matches is any guide. I doubt that even the Guardian's relatively liberal guidelines would allow the main chant to be used here. Suffice to say that it is a lot terser and cruder than "the referee's a bastard".

But I can, perhaps, share an expression that my Chinese teacher recently taught me, which shows that vulgar words rarely used in Japan even for insults are sometimes used in Chinese for praise.

If you really think something is great, she said, you call it "niubi" (cow's vagina). I was astonished and childishly amused. The adult in me asked for the etymology, but she had no idea. "It is just a trendy term," she explained. "I don't know where it comes from."

I hadn't noticed it before, but sure enough, now that I have been taught the word, I keep seeing and hearing it: in conversation, on blogs, everywhere in the informal world - everywhere, that is, except in references to my Mandarin. I can only dream of the day that someone describes my Chinese as "niubi": Then I will have really arrived at a linguistic peak; then I will be on the way to being a half-decent correspondent.

I have to confess that my biggest issue in Mandarin pronunciation is the typically Anglo problem of telling the second tone from the fourth. I can tell the tone's changed - distinguishing them from the flat first tone is easy - and the change from falling to rising in a fully pronounced third tone is not hard to grasp. But telling tone 2 from 4 is a real bitch.

But Jonathan Watts, the author of this article, does his readers a yeoman's service by describing Chinese largely accurately and identifying the thing that most pisses me off about most foreign correspondents. I'm glad to see the Guardian behaving better than most of global press, and nearly all of the Anglophone press, by expecting its stringers to actually know the languages of the places they work. He avoids almost completely the great myths about the Chinese language, most of which disappear not too long after one starts actually learning the language. I kinda wish he'd gone a bit deeper into "China is a writing system as much as it is a country." There's something important there.

I can also identify with "losing face" through language errors in Chinese. Many years ago, when I first started with Chinese, I mixed up the words for "boyfriend" and "girlfriend" leaving my prof - some guy from the hickest part of outer Anhui - to blush, then respond "I understand this sort of thing happens in the West." It took a while before I realised that he thought I was gay.

BTW, for those interested (Hi Mom!), I got my Chinese midterm back. It was better than my last Dutch grade. I feel like I suck in Chinese, and get okay grades. I feel good about my Dutch and get mediocre grades. I think I need to stop expecting much from my expectations.

Posted 2006/02/16 15:47 (Thu) | TrackBack

the typically Anglo problem of telling the second tone from the fourth

Interesting. Do you mean there's known variation among speakers of different non-tone languages? I can't imagine why that would be, but it surprisingly fits my own data point. Not being a native speaker of English, I will sometimes mistake a quickly pronounced third tone for the fourth, or even the second tone for the third at the end of an utterance, but I don't remember ever confusing the second and fourth tones.

Posted by: Michael at February 19, 2006 22:50
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