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The tower of babble

Owen is a language instruction company. When I came to China, I quickly realized that we have our work cut out for us.

English is a subject in Chinese schools, but most of the teachers aren’t native speakers. While that makes a little difference when talking about two fairly close languages, it’s a big deal when talking about languages as different as Chinese and English.

Out on the Street, the Roman alphabet is common. Most signs are printed in both English and Chinese. Granted, I’m in the heart of the city, amid the Canadian and a few other consulates. The English gets less common the further out you get. However, from warning signs to directions, it is almost always wrong. The locals call it “Chinglish”. This is the exact same term the locals use when you try to literally translate Chinese symbol by symbol.

My personal “Chinglish” comes from my approach to learning Chinese. I experiment and try to make mistakes. I use any translation as my own personal Rosetta Stone with the hope that I can learn something. This is how I learned that the English word “Jeans” is written in Chinese as “cow-boy-pants.” The “high-speed rail” is written as “High steel”. A popular idiom for “Traffic jam” is “car water horse dragon.”

When the signs get turned into English, it has a rather humorous effect. Every teacher I know has a photo collection of the various English around. My shopping center has a store called “Bag of Parody” which sells handbags. I would have gone with “Sack of sarcasm” myself. I’ve never been inside “Slippery flesh memories”, and I have no idea what they do, but I’m pretty sure they can take my money. One of my favorites is near my Campus reading “Carp ark exit” (So that’s how the fish survived the flood!) So close, yet so far away.

That’s part of the draw, English is cool. This extends to clothing. Back in the states, the words on your clothing are making a statement, and you want to know what that is. Here,, the statement is that it’s english, the meaning doesn’t matter. My Chinese teacher has a shirt that says “we went to the mountain for a picnic.” A grandfather of one of our students is a kindly gentlemen who wears a drab grey coat, military green pants, and a brilliant white Ball cap with the word “TAKE” written in rhinestones. It’s a fashion statement, I’m just not sure what it is.

Communicating with the locals can be frustrating because while Mandarin is the official language, most people speak a local dialect, “Chongqing-hua”. It’s close to mandarin, but not quite. This means that if your mandarin pronunciation is perfect, your average person on the street is going to have to think a bit before he can understand. One of the first things I learned here was to say “Ting bu dong” (Lit. “hear not understand”). The usual response is for the Chongqing-er to speak louder and faster to make up for lost time.

But communication is a two way street. I’m guilty of being beguiled by the universal cries of “I know, I know” that are not meant to signify understanding, but the effort and attention of the listener. When someone says their english is “very good” I foolishly take them at their word and begin speaking at my normal pace and vocabulary. For the privilege of communicating in English, I have to constantly adjust my level to be understood.

Because English is taught in schools, almost everyone has “Hello” and “Goodbye” down pat. This makes initial english conversation very friendly. When I see a young child staring at me, I like to make a big smile and say “Hello!” Parents will try to push their children towards me in the hopes that their kids will say a few words. These initial encounters are made easier by their predictability. I’m usually asked the same four “get to know you” questions for foreigners: “Where are you from?” “How long have you been here?” “Do you like hot-pot?”, and “Aren’t you cold?”

The Owen company has very high standards when it comes to the English of their Chinese staff. However, this does not make for a uniform English level. Many of my coworkers are nearly fluent, while others, while certainly capable, don’t get certain common idioms. As a person who wants to do their job right, certain details need to be clear in my head. Here, if there is a communication gap, it is my fault. So many times, the english skills of the Owen staff have tricked me into speaking in complex and fast sentences. I speak fast for a native, and I need to constantly remind myself to slow down.

The students learning English are always a surprise. Not a week goes by that I’m not surprised by the initiative that they have in seeking out new words and phrases. I usually ask the students at roll call “How are you?”, one girl said “I’m ecstatic” (a word found nowhere in the textbook.). Another student replied “I’m five.” as is to say “I’m five, how do you think I am?” I make a mental note to slow down and stress the difference between “How are you?” and “How old are you?”

Over the course of a class, similar mistakes keep coming up, which provided me with information about how to stop them early. All too often while learning colors, students are allowed to get away with “red-uh” instead of “red”; “bah-loo” instead of “blue”, Now I nip that in the bud. When learning places in town, the long words can be daunting, so I wind up hearing about the “Superdepartment story”

This makes for a linguistic malaise that most teachers don’t notice. Then came the magic day. I entered a cab, and the cabbie gave me the standard taxi questions. When I understood everything said to me by the taxi driver, and I was able to speak back quickly and clearly, it felt great. I was having a conversation in Chinese, and I was understood. I hadn’t noticed how much I desired to be heard and understood. He then immediately unleashed a flurry of observations on everything from the weather, the traffic, his health, and his family. I could only make out one word out of ten.

“Ting bu dong”

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