June 28th, 2004


Linguistic Elements and Foreigners

weather: sunny
outside: 20°C
mood: chipper
識小小﹐扮代表 (sik1/siu2/siu2/baan3/doi6/biu2*)

It's a Cantonese saying that means, "with a little knowledge, pretend to be an ambassador". It's used to deride someone for masquerading as an expert when in actuality, they know very little on the subject.

*ahem* =) That would be me, in linguaphiles. Occasionally, though, the questions and discussion are such that I can offer feedback. Something that always comes up is "how do you pronounce $THIS in Mandarin/Cantonese?"

Often, accompanying that question is "where is the stress in that term/phrase?" To which, I invariably answer, "the concept of 'stresses' and 'accents' doesn't exist in Chinese, everything is tonal." I've realized that this can be a pretty off-putting reply. It sounds like I'm dodging the question and/or being indignant about something...

And I feel bad every time the person says, "I have no clue about tones, I just didn't want to butcher it too badly."

Here's the deal: I'm enough of a "native speaker" that I don't hear the "stresses" across a few characters in a Chinese term or phrase. To me, the emphasis is dead even. But someone who doesn't hear the tones will tell me "oh, the primary stress is here and the secondary is here." And I go, *blink* *blinketty* *blink*. I have learned that, statistically, the first and fourth tones are more likely to be interpreted as the "stress"... just because. And I'm starting to figure out how to use this to get a more accurate pronunciation out of a non-Chinese speaker.

The Chinese language does not assign meaning to voice volume emphasis like English does. A native speaker likely does not hear the stress. Whenever our native language does not assign meaning to a particular linguistic element, we will have some degree of difficulty with it in a foreign language. Conversely, this would be why an English speaker will have problems with tones — we're listening for the emphasis and mostly ignoring the tonality. We don't completely ignore tonality, but it's a lot more subconscious and it expresses something very different in English.

This is precisely why the Japanese think that the United States has a federal erection every four years. The 'l' and 'r' do not make a semantic difference in Japanese.

We don't hear glottal stops in English. Do you hear the extra consonant in front of the word "apple"? Do you hear that it's missing when you say "an apple"? Very likely not. =)

Without training, native speakers don't naturally make the best teachers of a language for exactly this reason.

* Note 1: "baan3" is supposed to be "baan6"; "baan3" is "to hit or strike". "to pretend" has the same tone as "doi6".

* Note 2: if you save all those WAV files, duplicate the siu2.wav so that you have two of them and pull them into Winamp, it's amusing to hear her actually say the expression. =)

See my Word Collection


"Know Thyself"

weather: mostly sunny
outside: 21°C
mood: amused
This post has been brewing for a while =)

From time to time, I'll be accused of having a low self-esteem. I see a pattern in the worldviews of the people who say that though, so I'm not too worried... and that would be the nicest way I can possibly think of, to call them "cocky bastards" =D

I'm so kidding, of course =D =D In each case, they're my friends, I love them to bits, they mean well, but I don't think they quite understand me. =D

If I really lacked confidence that badly, I wouldn't be where I am today. Would I have been able to waltz into the department head's office and, in the middle of University cutbacks and layoffs, convince him to hire me for a job that he didn't know he needed? Would I be married to userinfoA Guy who has loved me unconditionally for most of my life, loves to entertain me, thinks of me first, respects what I have to say and even looks up to me in some ways?

I have a very realistic view of myself and my abilities. Being an INTJ, I know what I know, I know where I am compared to everyone else and, more importantly, I try to be competent enough to know what I don't know and what I'm not. I think the misinterpretation comes in because I'm more open about telling people where exactly where my boundaries are or where I make a guess at the point that my competence ends.

Modesty is a recurring theme in Chinese philosophy. Know thyself, as the Greeks put it.

Of course, everyone has a lack of confidence in different aspects of their lives and in varying degrees. But true low self-esteem repels others. Either you wouldn't want to be around the person for very long or you would never have found them in the first place. The ones you wouldn't want to be around are sometimes very belligerent and cantankerous (usually trolls in a forum where negative attention is better than no attention); sometimes whiny, pathetic, clingy, needy. The ones you wouldn't have known about are hiding from social interaction.

I'm not kidding anyone here, I'm not Ms. Popularity. But strangers find me and glom onto my journal. These are well-educated, intelligent, articulate strangers and decent people with their hearts generally in the right place. There are a few exceptions ("serial adders" and other annoying folk), but they're few and far between and I won't deign to acknowledge them.

The point is, these strangers wouldn't have stuck around if I were that pathetic. =)