Language


You may have heard of Engrish.com, which showcases the bizarre ways English is often used to “look cool” in Japan and China. Well, two can play that game: Tian Tang was inspired by Engrish to set up Hanzi Smatter, which is dedicated to the bizarre ways Chinese characters are used to look cool in Western culture (especially tattoos, heh heh).

In English, word order is really important. Consider the following:

  • I don't really like Celine Dion.
  • I really don't like Celine Dion.

Personally, I agree with the latter. (Substituting "Michael Bolton" doesn't change this.)

Are the Winter Olympics being held in Turin or Torino? Yes. Different media outlets are using different conventions: the Chronicle says “Turin,” while NBC and CBS Radio say “Torino.”

I find “Torino” to be a little jarring. We don’t usually use the local name for a city if it has a different English name: we don’t say Firenze or Köln or Moskva. Swedes don’t expect us to say “Göteborg” (pronounced something like yohtuhboree) instead of Gothenburg. Indeed, there was no reason to switch from Peking to Beijing, except that the Chinese government wanted us to (although I admit I like “Beijing” better).

And it turns out there’s another wrinkle to Turin’s name. According to Wikipedia, the area around Turin speaks not only Italian but another Romance language called Piedmontese. And in that language, Turin is called… Turin.

Even though the Japanese are polite and want to help you, it can be hard to communicate with them because their English is quite bad. Now, I don’t expect the entire country to be fluent in a foreign language. But, for example, Yodobashi Camera is a gigantic Japanese electronics store that makes Fry’s Electronics look like Radio Shack. They have announcements in English and Spanish, so they know they attract visitors from all over. But we were hard pressed to find one service person who could speak decent English in a store with six floors.

Taiwan isn’t that great either, but my Mandarin helped me out, so I didn’t notice it as much. In Hong Kong, you can get by in English without much problem — I consider it the world’s largest “Chinatown.”

By the way, before the trip, I thought I would be most comfortable in Japan and least comfortable in Taiwan, from a language standpoint, because I’m not “supposed to know” Japanese and I’m “supposed to know” Chinese. But it didn’t end up that way. I had failed to learn even the simplest words in Japanese, like “sorry,” “excuse me,” and “where is the…?” And since I am Asian, the Japanese would expect me to be able to say something, not my white friend Matt, who did more of the talking.

Meanwhile, in Taiwan, my Mandarin helped me out greatly, even though it’s very rudimentary and rusty. In fact, I was praised twice on the same day for my Chinese. It must have been my pronunciation, because they complemented me after they saw me forget very simple words (like “pork”). And I could finally communicate somewhat with my uncles and aunts, most of whom can’t speak English well. They all said how my Chinese had improved over the last time I was there (in 1997), and even my dad said it was better. If I were there for a few months, I’m sure it would get that much better. But I’d still watch CNN or the Discovery Channel in Taiwan anyway…

New York Times: Classes in Chinese Grow as the Language Rides a Wave of Popularity

With encouragement from the Chinese and American governments, schools across the United States are expanding their language offerings to include Chinese, the world’s most spoken tongue, not to mention one of its most difficult to learn.

Nothing deep here, just some stuff that interests me:

I don’t remember how I came across this, but… Singaporean English, or “Singlish,” has various particles derived from Chinese that are sprinkled throughout conversation, like, “You see my husband’s not at home lah,” or “There’s something here for everyone lah.” Even many Singaporeans can’t explain when they use it, but Mr Brown makes a valiant attempt. The English language is more diverse and complicated than I imagined.