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Lost in translation: Struggling with laying down the putonghua

By 24 June 2009 No Comment

One of my biggest concerns, before coming to China for the first time a few weeks ago, was how I would negotiate the Chinese-language barrier. A traveler should learn enough language to get by in any country they plan to visit, of course. But this time around, trying to graduate from college and the promise of interpreters to be provided by our study abroad program meant that I simply didn’t get the job done.

And yes, I paid for my lack of preparation. Something as simple as ordering a bowl of soup became an adventure in miscommunication. Alone at a restaurant one day, I ordered two dishes from an English-language menu, but by the time I belatedly decided to order my soup, the waitress arrived with my first dish. Try as I might, I could neither add to my order or get back a copy of that handy English menu. Needless to say, I went soup-less.

This led me to wonder how other foreigners cope in similar circumstances. So I asked Mike Melanson, a journalism graduate student, who is also in my Reporting China program, and who seemed to be gamely getting along despite his lack of Chinese.

“I figured I wouldn’t be able to communicate with people except for using basic sign language and charades,” said Mike. “It was pretty much what I expected [since] there are no common roots between Chinese and any of the romance languages” he’s familiar with.

But Melanson drew the linguistic line when it came to starvation. With the help of a phrase book and the occasional Chinese speaker, he said, “I figured out the basic words for pork, chicken, and fish, but you still never know if you’re going to get chicken livers or feet.”

Other non-Chinese speaking people who travel in China seem to adopt strategies similar to Melanson. Dan Bernad and Anna, who did not want to give her last name, are two recent University of Ottawa medical students who came to China on vacation.

“We knew there would be a big barrier before going, and that communication would sometimes be difficult,”Anna said. “But we have done traveling in other countries where there wasn’t much English and we always got by okay, so we were not too nervous.” Anna said they keep a Lonely Planet guidebook, a tour book, and a Chinese/English dictionary with them. Bernad said they would also point to things or use pictures when they needed to.

Of course, not all foreigners have it this difficult. Tom Thompson, senior product line manager of wireless infrastructure company PowerWave, was in Beijing on a business trip. He was accompanied by Chinese business partners for the duration of his stay. When I asked him how he coped with the language barrier, he replied “business associates and patience” – patience in waiting for someone else to do the translation.

But what if you are a foreigner who happens to have paid her or his dues to actually try learning Chinese? What challenges might such advanced linguists face?

Paul Mooney, a freelance correspondent who has lived in China for 14 years and studied Mandarin since 1972, said one of the biggest problems he encounters is that many Chinese refuse to speak to foreigners in Chinese.

“They either want to learn English, or don’t believe a foreigner can speak Chinese,” Mooney said, “and so when I speak in Chinese, they ignore [me] and respond in English. It doesn’t matter how good your Chinese is… This really slows down the language learning process.”

Consequently, Mooney said, it’s easier for Asian or non-Western people to learn Chinese. Asians, he said, tend to ‘learn at a much more rapid pace than Caucasians and I think it’s because Chinese treat you based on the way you look. If you look like a Westerner, many people will talk to you only in English, while if you can pass for Asian, or you come from a non-English speaking environment, people are much more likely to talk to you in Chinese. It’s amazing how fast Koreans, Vietnamese or even Africans pick up Chinese.”

But as I suspected at the outset, there are benefits for trying to learn the lingo. Andrew Browne, China Editor for The Wall Street Journal, said that Chinese conversationalists are generally very encouraging. ”If you speak halfway decent Chinese, people here are impressed,” he said. “They think the language is very difficult for foreigners, so they have respect for people who learn. If you make an effort, you get rewarded.”

Next time I visit China, I will take Browne’s advice to heart.

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