written/non-written things by me (from 2005-2008)

Sunday, March 26, 2006

Speaking English

But, Because
Assignment: Fill in the blank.

I like to eat grapes because they are so so so so very very very small.

I want to rob a bank, but it's only a dream.

I want to climb a tree, but I do not live there.

Shall I....for you?
Assignment: Lily is a dolphin and she wants to go to the movies.

Lily, shall I buy a VCD for you? {VCD, meaning a pirated DVD}
Lily, shall I put VCD in a glass room for you?
Lily, shall I put glass room in the ocean for you?

At the Olympics...
Assignment: Fill in the blank

At the Olympics, I want to be an environment bodyguard.
If it rains I will have the largest coat. The sports heros will go inside it.

"Nei ge" literally means "that," but I suspect that it is the Chinese equivalent of "umm.." Despite a limited vocabulary, some of my 8-10 year old students desperately seek to express themselves outside of giving the most obvisouly correct answer. I know that something clever is coming when a student repeats the phrase "nei ge, nei ge, nei ge" stomps their feet and beckons over the chinese speaking co-teacher to ask for that one special word in english that they only know in Chinese. But most of the time they cull from that limited range of words they do know and arrange something that can be more expressive than knowing every word in the world. I think that is one of my favorite delights in speaking or speaking with a person that does not have fluency: the "misuse" of a phrase or word can lend an otherwise unconsidered statement a less direct, more nuanced meaning.

A tiny example: When Haiyan calls me to dinner from my room instead of calling out "It's ready" she asks "Is it okay?!" To me, though surely it's not intentional, it seems to express both her request to come eat and simultanesouly her modesty in presenting the food that she has cooked for me.

It has also struck me that the translation of even the most basic phrases can reveal subtle differences in cultural perceptions. Another tiniest of examples: I have been sick with a cough lately. Many of the chinese teachers, as well has Haiyan, have suggested that I "eat some medicine." When I ask them what kind of medicine, I am surprised to learn they do not mean traditional Chinese types of medicine, but rather western medicines of which I would be familiar. It is the subtlety carried in the verb "eat" that leads me to such a conclusion. Typically, in standard English, we "take medicine." Medicine is thought of as chemical, artificially created, something unlike food, even though we put it in our mouth and swallow it. Chinese medicines, however, are, if not whole foods themselves, such as funguses, roots, etc, or essences of foods, no different than everyday foods that one would eat at a meal. They are just consumed in different arrangements when one is sick. So, it would be reasonable to assume that one would "eat medicine". It makes more sense to me, than the phrase "take your medicine." Take it where?

My name is Hannah Pierce-Carlson