A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers

Wednesday, 11 May 2011

I just finished reading this book: A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers by Xiaolu Guo.  Here’s the synopsis:

Twenty-three-year-old Zhuang, the daughter of shoe factory owners in rural China, has come to London to study English. She calls herself Z because English people can’t pronounce her name, but she’s no better at their language. Set loose to find her way through a confusion of cultural gaffes and grammatical mishaps, she winds up lodging with a Chinese family and thinks she might as well not have left home. But then she meets an English man who changes everything. From the moment he smiles at her, she enters a new world of sex, freedom, and self-discovery. But she also realizes that, in the West, “love” does not always mean the same as in China, and that you can learn all the words in the English language and still not understand your lover.

Drawing on her diaries from when she first arrived in the UK, Xiaolu Guo winningly writes the story in steadily improving English grammar and vocabulary. Freshly humorous, sexy, and poignant, A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers is an utterly original novel about language, identity, and the cultural divide.

While this book is fiction, it is jam-packed with observations about British versus Chinese culture and the English and Chinese languages.  One passage that resonated with me was this:

I am sick of speaking English like this.  I am sick of writing English like this.  I feel as if I am being tied up, as if I am living in a prison.  I am scared that I have become a person who is always very aware of talking, speaking, and I have become a person without confidence, because I can’t be me.  I have become so small, so tiny, while the English culture surrounding me becomes enormous.  It swallows me, and it rapes me.  I wish I could just go back to my own language now.  But is my own native language simple enough?  I still remember the pain of studying Chinese characters when I was a child at school.
Why do we have to study languages?  Why do we have to force ourselves to communicate with people?  Why is the process of communication so troubled and so painful?

Have you ever experienced this?  Do you have answers to the questions she poses?  Have you read the book?

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Learning English through Film

Wednesday, 4 May 2011

Many people credit watching films and television with helping them to learn a foreign language.  While this is definitely feasible, catchphrases from popular films can also help those learning English or trying to assimilate to live in the United States.

How many times have you heard yourself say “I’ll be back” when departing from a friend?
What about “we’re not in Kansas anymore” when traveling or experiencing something new and different?
Have you ever introduced yourself jokingly using your last name first as in “Bond, James Bond”?
I’ve strung together three things on more than one occasion à la “lions and tigers and bears, oh my”!

Do you know which films these are from?  Do these turns of phrase really have any significant meaning?  Would you understand them if someone said them to you?

Our speech is peppered with words and phrases like these which non-native speakers might be baffled by.  But making a concerted effort to learn some of these, incorporate them into your vocabulary or, at the very least, understand what they mean can have a positive impact on one’s language experience.

Which film catchphrases do you find yourself using?  Are there any you don’t understand?  Have you ever had a positive or negative experience where a lack of understanding inhibited communication?


Is Your Writing Giving You Away?

Wednesday, 2 March 2011

Do you know how to write in another language?  Sometimes just learning the alphabet or characters and how to spell the words isn’t enough.  Some languages have small differences that one might not take into account when first writing in another language.


In Russian, handwriting is written at an angle instead of vertically like English.  The picture above illustrates standard paper for children to learn their handwriting.  Children who are learning to write Russian use paper with slants on it to train them to write at an angle.  Often when I write Russian I write the characters, looping them together perfectly (another difference between cursive English and cursive Russian) but mine often stand straight up and down.

Anyone who knows about the Russian slant would immediately know I were a foreigner just by reading my writing, no matter who perfect my spelling or grammar.  Other languages have more noticeable differences.  Some languages are written left to right or even vertically.  As an English speaker I am not conscious of the fact that I’m writing right to left, it’s second nature to me.

What other differences could there be in languages that we never pay attention to?


To Curse or Not to Curse?

Monday, 14 February 2011

One of the first things many language learners enjoy discovering when learning a language is all the bad words.  While this can undoubtedly be entertaining, knowing bad words in a language can also be useful.  Knowing when someone is cursing at you is important if you want to avoid confrontational or even dangerous situations.  Knowing when to use an appropriately strong and effective word can also make a point when necessary.

But just because you know how to curse in a language, does that mean that you should? A recent article states that cleaning up your language can contribute to one’s professional success as well as make the world a better place.

While living in Russia the decision of whether or not to curse was one that I found myself contemplating.  I quickly learned numerous bad words in Russian and how to use them in everyday conversation.  But I also realized that there’s somewhat of a taboo against women using foul language.  Most of the bad words I heard were used by men and when I tried to speak using such words some people admonished me.  While I thought incorporating bad language was a part of learning the language and speaking like a native speaker, apparently some words aren’t acceptable even if other people use them.

Although I can’t say there were any negative repercussions because I used the words sparingly and among friends, I can see the potential for the use of bad words to cause problems.  So, when in doubt, no matter what language you speak, don’t use bad words.  It’s not a bad idea, though, to educate yourself about this aspect of a language so you can understand what others are saying or to know which words to avoid.

What experiences have you had learning bad words in another language?  In your culture is it acceptable for some people to curse and not others?


How Names Influence Intercultural Interactions

Tuesday, 7 December 2010

Whether positive or negative, a person’s name is a big source of their identity.  They might be named after a loved one or have a famous surname they’re proud of.  Or they may have an unusual or hard to pronounce name which leads to teasing or bullying.

When you live abroad or engage with people from another culture, the issue of names can cause uneasiness, cultural gaffes or communication problems.  Depending on a person’s native language and culture, their name may be difficult to pronounce.  Many immigrants to the United States were known to Anglicize their surnames in an attempt to assimilate.  While living in Russia, I met several Asians who went by Russian names simply because theirs were too difficult for Russians to say correctly.

I also had slight problems pronouncing my friend Natasha’s name.  Likewise she couldn’t say my name 100% correctly.  I got used to hearing my name pronounced a myriad of ways.  I also found that no one called me by the nicknames that were used with my family and close friends in the United States.

In Russia the use of different names is used to show respect.  For older people one should address them using their first name and patronymic.  For close friends, it’s appropriate to use nicknames to show affection.  In other cultures, surnames are more important than first names.

Some names aren’t easily translated because certain sounds don’t exist in another language.  Or perhaps a name is similar to a word in another language, lending itself to humor.  For example, an Australian friend and colleague in Russia named Scott was ridiculed because in Russian “skot” (скот) means “cattle” and can be used pejoratively.

Hearing your name or nickname pronounced correctly can lend a sense of comfort, a feeling that you are at home, among friends.  Therefore it’s easy to see how names can raise some interesting intercultural issues.

What other issues can arise from misunderstandings or differences in names?  Have you ever had any mishaps that stemmed from one’s name?  How are names used in your country?


Do Language Nuances Provide Comfort?

Monday, 29 November 2010

I recently wrote that people in cross-cultural transition need to hear their native language spoken.  However, is it enough just to hear the language no matter who speaks it?  I’d like to amend that by adding that people need to hear their language spoken by another native speaker of their language, preferably someone from their own nationality.  The reasoning for this is that certain nuances provide a sense of comfort and remind us of home.  Also, speaking our native language with another native speaker allows us to let down our guard and relax.

In Russia I spoke English with my Russian friends and students but realized I was constantly grading my language.  I also never used slang  and spoke slower than usual so I could be understood.  Consequently, I realized I always monitored my speech instead of letting it flow freely.  When I returned to the United States, I visibly observed a relaxation in my speech that was both comfortable and comforting.

Not having to worry that you’ll be understood and being able to be yourself linguistically is something I always took advantage of.  When I’m speaking with other Americans there is the bond of language that comes immediately and is instantly recognizable when you meet another person of your nationality, especially when you both live abroad.  Elizabeth Gilbert made a note of this in her book Eat, Pray, Love when she commented that she was able to speak “American” instead of English due to the nuances of American English.  While she referred to slang, there are other nuances that seem go go unnoticed until we no longer have them.  These include accent and speed.

Which linguistic nuances provide you comfort when you speak your native language with another native speaker?  Have you experienced this feeling?  Has it made you appreciate your language more?


Accent: Help or Hindrance?

Wednesday, 24 November 2010

Is having an accent while speaking another language ever positive?  I always used to think so, but then I came across Sofia Vergara, an actress from Columbia.  Although she may be known for previous roles, I recently discovered her on the TV show Modern Family where she plays a Columbian and speaks English with a strong accent.  In fact, her mispronunciations of certain words are often used to provide humor.  So it dawned on me that perhaps her accent contributed to her professional success.  After all, would she have been cast on the show if she didn’t have an accent?

In a recent article she spoke about how difficult it has been to get rid of her accent, stating, “I’ve been here for 16 years but I can’t get rid of my accent.”  She attributed the problem to being too old and said her accent is getting “worse and worse” the longer she stays.

According to her IMDB trivia page, Vergara is also a natural blonde who dyed her hair darker to look like a stereotypical Latin so she would get more roles.  Based on her success, this seems to be working for her professionally which goes to show that having a strong accent may not always be a bad thing.

Other actors who are known for strong accents include Arnold Schwarzenegger, Antonio Banderas and Penelope Cruz. It seems their accent has been worked into their image and losing might be detrimental to their career.

So are there certain situations where having an accent can actually help?  Would you encourage these actors to try to lose their accents?  Why or why not?