Tag Archives: Shanghai

Are Chinese Kids Losing a Part of Their Language?

In China, authorities are worried that the technical ease of typing Chinese characters means that people are forgetting how to write them. As a result, they are urging schools to re-introduce mandatory calligraphy classes.

I’m learning Chinese, and so I have become accustomed to keyboard technology that does much of work for me. If I want to type out a sentence in Chinese, I switch my language preference in my word processing program from English to Chinese. Then I write the sentence in pinyin, the Latin alphabet version of Chinese. For each syllable, I am offered a variety of character options that correspond to a syllable or sound. For example if I type wo, I can choose between 我 , 沃, 握 and several other characters.

I must, of course, be able to recognize the character: I need to know what it looks like in order to choose the right one. But I don’t need to learn or remember how to write it. The computer does that for me.

The trouble is, it’s not just Chinese learners like me who are using this character-inputting shortcut. Native Chinese speakers do it too. If they have access to a computer, they don’t need to write characters. Naturally, many people are forgetting how to write. Others don’t adequately learn characters in the first place. So calligraphy, the traditional practice of writing characters with the strokes of a brush, is back as a mandatory part of the curriculum for many Chinese school kids. Without this, educators fear that many Chinese will never be able to write in their own language.

Abroad, it’s a different story. Across the globe, there’s an explosion of Chinese-learning. The government in Beijing is playing its part. In the past seven years, China has opened almost 300 Confucius Institutes around the world. Still, you might not expect to find an institute in Rwanda’s capital, Kigali. But there it is, offering Chinese language classes to (mainly) young Rwandans.

Rwanda does not have great stability in its language policies. Most Rwandans are native Kinyarwanda speakers. But many also speak English and French. In the wake of the 1994 genocide, Rwanda switched its language of instruction from French to English (there are suspicions among some Rwandans that the French were complicit in the assassination of the Rwandan President, that led to the genocide). Now some Rwandans are learning Chinese. More on this in Mary Kay Magistad’s blog post.

Another example of the expansion of Chinese soft power: the government-run China Radio International is seeking out new audiences in the United States.

The latest place you can hear it: WILD, an AM station in Boston. For much of the last four decades, WILD broadcast soul music and talk shows hosted by people like Al Sharpton and Tom Joyner.

But In June 2011, the station began leasing its airtime to an English language service of China Radio International.

CRI’s programs offer a mix that Voice of America listeners might recognize: news, programs on Chinese culture and society, cheesy, retro pop music programing, and the occasional Chinese language lesson. Nothing especially controversial, and absolutely nothing cutting edge. The very softest of soft power.

Listen via iTunes or here.


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Translating disaster and disastrous translations

In this podcast, Carol Hills and I pick a few stories that had previously passed us by. We dust them off and turn them into out Top Five Language Stories of the month.

5.Translating Iceland’s economic collapse into English. Iceland isn’t exactly an opportunity-rich environment for job-seekers — unless you’re an Icelandic-English translator.  There are a handful Brits, Americans and Canadians who live in Iceland, often married to Icelanders. Some are now extremely busy translating complex financial documents,  most of which make depressing reading at least as far as the Icelandic economy is concerned. The translators find themselves translating back into English expressions that in some cases had only recently debuted in Icelandic:  collateralized debt  obligation  (skuldavafningur, also known as skuldabréfavafningur), payment mitigation (greiðsluaðlögun), winding up board (slitastjórn) and other linguistic markers of a nation’s meltdown.

4. Bad translations rule.  So, outside of Iceland at least,  translation remains hit and miss — mainly miss, thankfully. Mexican President Felipe Calderon recently visited President Obama in Washington, but their joint appearance before the world’s media turned into a translation amateur hour. Calderon’s translator, apparently a sub for the regular guy, rendered Calderon’s clear Spanish into murky English.

In Shanghai, that murky English known as Chinglish is in danger of vanishing. Local leaders hosting Expo 2010 don’t want their city to be the setting for mirthful photo-exchanges of all-too-literally translated expressions. Beijing tried cleaning up its Chinglish ahead of the 2008 Olympics. Good thing there are so many other cities in China, and so much more Chinglish.  One Chinglish expert — a German as it happens –  told the New York Times that beneath the flowery craziness of Chinglish lurk clues about Chinese language and culture.

Above is a picture I snapped at Beijing’s (old) airport in 2006. Without  the documentation, this fine example Chinglish might have become extinct.

Another great place to find bad translations is at the Eurovision Song Contest.  This is the über-cheesy music competition that many Europeans hate to love.  Songs from each of the competing nations go up against each other, and an international panel of judges decides the winner.  The podcast has done segments on the Eurovision here and here. This time round, we focus on the magnificently mangled English coined by the lyricists of Moldova’s 2010 entry, as described here.

3. A language for communication with extraterrestrials.  Not English, not Spanish, not even Globish. No, none of these languages is good enough for extraterrestials. The thinking, or my excessively simplified version of it, is that the aliens, when they come are likely to be brainy. I mean, they will have actually made it here. So, we may need to put our best linguistic foot forward. Hence, a language of  electronic beeps that would indicate — in a more scientifically precise way than, say, English does — just what we humans are capable of.  That was the proposal of National Security Agency cryptologist Lambros Callimahos 40 years ago. Stephen Hawking, meanwhile, thinks that if aliens do visit, they might not be too friendly.

2. Arizona moves against accented schoolteachers. The state of Arizona’s  Department of Education is requiring that all schoolteachers teaching English Language Learning speak grammatically and without too heavy an accent.  That’s yet another controversial move in a state that is being cast as the most anti-immigrant place in America.

1. People with animal names. Costa Rica’s new president Laura Chinchilla is one of millions of people worldwide who after named after animals. Interestingly, chincillas do not live anywhere near Costa Rica: they are Andean creatures.  (just as people called Lion or Lyon don’t all come from sub-Saharan Africa). Still chinchillas are super-cute, for rodents at least. So, the name might have done its bit to get Laura Chinchilla elected. And yes, there is a facebook group for people with animal last names.

Listen in iTunes or here.

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