Thursday, September 03, 2009

Language thoughts

My kids are really into secret codes right now. They have a code book, and have actually made up their own code that is a combination of as many of the different codes in the book as possible. Yeah, it's complicated. I'm not even sure the CIA could crack this one. But hopefully the neighborhood kids will understand - that's the point.

Sometimes when I speak in Chinese, I feel like I am speaking in code. And that the person I'm speaking with has learned the same weird code, only better. Then I remember that the other person is just talking, without really having to think about it. And that I probably sound really funny to them.

Why do I sound funny? I sound funny for several reasons (I did a very Chinese thing just then - make a statement, question the statement, answer the question. If I can't speak the language at least I can be culturally relevant). First of all, although I try to use correct grammar, I'm sure I'm probably on par with a preschooler or so. I realize this when people say things back to me like, "So what you're saying is . . . ?" then proceed to repeat back to me what I've just said but in a more complex way. I'm sure my words come out all out of order, with random words stuck in like "snake" instead of "snack."

Second, my vocabulary is limited, so many times I am talking around my subject. Like this morning at the pharmacy, when I said, "I'm not sure how to say it but I need medicine for when you have little insects in your stomach" and wiggled my finger for emphasis. It would have been easier to say, "I need pinworm medicine." I am the master of talking around.

And I think I sound funny because after nearly 10 years of hearing and speaking Mandarin at least sometimes, I've been told I have a decent accent. A few times I've tricked my Chinese friends (unintentionally) when I called them, and they thought I was Chinese. Not hard to do when all you say is, "Hi, is Cindy there?" I've learned things like how to say "How much does it cost?" in a very colloquial way (saying the "sh" of shao like an "h" instead) that conceal my lack of vocabulary beyond it. Now imagine someone you know from another country who has lived in the US for a long time. When they speak English, they have a decent American accent, but their vocabulary is similar to a child's. You'd keep thinking that they should know more than they do. Imagine the frustrating conversations that would ensue. You're imagining many of my conversations. I once had a taxi driver say to me, "Your Chinese is so good!" then launch into a long monologue during which I tuned out because I couldn't not possibly follow him. He ended with a question about what he'd said. I'd been faking that I understood, and in response to my blank expression he said, "I don't think your Chinese is as good as I thought it was." Yeah, that I understood.

Ah, language. It's a funny thing.

1 comment:

Lisa Anderson said...

Hi Gina! Good post! I always enjoy your writing.

I wish I didn't know this, but fresh pineapple is a great killer of pinworms. Must be fresh, not canned, though. Don't know if you can find that this time of year?

Good luck with the language... and parasites!