Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Flight attendant's interpretative translation

I'm now once again back in the States again. My last flight, from Tokyo to New York, was a flight bound for Sao Paolo via New York, so all announcements were in Japanese, English, Portuguese, and Chinese.

While we were still in Tokyo, there was a bit of a delay after we boarded. One of the Japanese flight attendants came on and announced, in Japanese, that we were waiting for one of the passengers who had checked in but not boarded, and at the same time they were seeking to remove that passenger's luggage just in case that person didn't make it. There was a fair amount of detail in the announcement. This largely matched what was said in English as well, although there was less detail in English.

When we got to the Portuguese announcement, the flight attendant said what was going on in a curt, single sentence, saying the delays were based on "technical difficulties".

I happened to be sitting next to a Japanese-Brazilian, who noted that that's thanks to a cultural difference between the two. Whereas the Japanese will give you lots of detail about things like that, in Brazil you'll be much more likely to just get enough to keep you appeased. So the difference in "translation" here stands as one of many examples of how the culture of the language you're speaking might manifest itself in speech—or in a lack thereof.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Native speakers using foreign languages in their native tongue

Although the title of this post may sound oxymoronic, bear with me.

One of the Japanese podcasts that I listen to is 日本経済新聞<総合版> (Nihon Keizai Shinbun Sougouban), which focuses on economic issues in Japanese and is of course aimed at native speakers. However, after commercials, an American announcer pops in and says, "The news continues on Radio Nikkei." In English. For those of you who've spent any time in Japan, that's hardly surprising, but could you imagine the parallel in the States? If they threw the same thing into an English podcast in, say, Spanish, I'd expect that most people would have no idea what's being said and that's why it rarely, if ever, happens in the States.

I'm not convinced that everyone in Japan would know what's being said in this case, although I might guess that the subscribers to this podcast are probably a bit above average. Still, everyone in Japan has studied English; it's required in school. So, in theory, they should be able to understand it.

So here's an interesting question. If a foreign language becomes so well understood among speakers of a given language that they throw words, phrases, and even entire sentences from that foreign language into the dialogue when using their native language, has that foreign language actually become part of their own language? Think about it another way; if someone comes to Japan from, say, China, would they need to understand English to the same level as the Japanese do in order to understand what's going on in Japanese? They very well might. Indeed, the Chinese are a very apt example, because one of their trouble points in Japanese are words written in katakana, which are primarily from English and don't share the Chinese character roots that many Japanese words do.

Link: Nikkei Shinbun Podcasts (in Japanese)

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Language-learning linkwrap 2/17/09

On the Spot - Vincent of Street-Smart Language Learning: Yours truly was interviewed as part of Aspiring Polyglot's "On the Spot" interview series with language learners.

Sound patterns boost language learning - study: What would otherwise seem to be useless gibberish actually helps you learn a language.

开心宝贝_欢语 (in Chinese): If you're looking for music and stories for your kids in Chinese, this is the place to go, complete with links to lots of MP3s.

Take an eduFire Classe for Charity: While this isn't exactly a language-learning effort seeking to benefit the public good (see my earlier post Pro bono language teaching), it is education for the public good.

Different language learning methods serve various needs: Does RosettaStone have the best PR people ever, or is it just me? In an article noting how great immersion is, Rosetta Stone gets a nice blurb but no one notes how far it is from immersion. And don't even get me started on what Mark Frobose, author and founder of Macmillan Audio's foreign language audio line, says: audio CDs or downloads are "the single best way to learn a language". Seriously? So next time you have a choice between immersing yourself in a foreign country and listening to some CDs, go with the CDs! Riiiight.

Early Launch for Language: Money quote: "Children learn inductively, by example and by interacting with the environment around them, and adults tend to learn analytically and deductively." They treat this as a conclusion, but it's really just an observation. Ponder.

Learn how not to trip over foreign tongues: An article listing out numerous language-learning methods. Your mileage may vary.

Trouble switching between langauges

My Japanese father-in-law is studying Chinese. He's a major Sinophile, and I'm pretty sure that when he retires we'll be able to find him wandering around some obscure places in China. He's probably pretty happy that his daughter and son-in-law speak Chinese, and that our kids are effectively being raised trilingually, with Chinese one of the three.

I'm now back in Japan after a two-week stint in China, and I've come back with a suitcase full of Chinese children's books for the kids. When my father-in-law heard this, he wanted to see them, and he immediately grabbed one and started going through it, asking me questions about what they were saying.

He was asking questions mostly in Japanese but with some of his Chinese thrown in there. I found that, if he used Chinese, in replying to him I'd slip right into Chinese, even though I knew I should be using Japanese for him to understand. He might say something like 这是什么? ("What is this?"), and, knowing full well that if I just broke out in Chinese to explain it he probably wouldn't understand, my first reaction was nevertheless still to start off with Chinese. It was as if by hearing the Chinese my mind had switched into Chinese mode and I had to think consciously to switch it to Japanese.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Speaking in Hong Kong and Shanghai

I'm sitting in the airport right now on my way back to Beijing from Hong Kong. One thing I find to be quite interesting about Hong Kong is that, when I'm here, I can always relate to Mainlanders who come here and can't communicate with people. Today I spoke with two Mainlanders who speak English. We could relate to each other very well as we spoke about how taxi drivers here understand neither English or Mandarin, so we're left writing out characters for them to figure out what we mean.

I'm not often in a place where I'm surrounded by a language I can't understand, but when I am I get an overwhelming urge to learn it. Yesterday I was in Shanghai and got to hear lots of Shanghainese around me, which made me wish I knew more. I can pick out some things in both Cantonese and Shanghainese, but I'm certainly not at a point of having any meaningful communication in either.

But I can say that if somewhere down the line I find myself in either of those cities for a longer stint, which, I would say, is not entirely unlikely, I'm definitely going to squander some of my free time in an effort to learn the local tongue.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Darlie Toothpaste: Lacking in the PC department

There is a brand of toothpaste in China called Hēirén Yágāo (黑人牙膏), or literally Blackman Toothpaste. The particular man that they chose to serve as the smiling icon of the company is wearing a tuxedo and a top hat, but is only vaguely black. I couldn't help but feel like there was something decidedly un-PC about Blackman Toothpaste. However, they don't translate the name literally into English; the name they use in English is Darlie Toothpaste, which on the surface seems innocent enough, but I was always a little suspicious that that originates from "Darkie".

Well, about ten seconds of Googling just resolved all my doubt.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Chinese wordplay

I came across an interesting play on words earlier this week in Beijing.

不怕辣。(Bù pà là.)
辣不怕。(Là bù pà.)
怕不辣。(Pà bù là.)