Wednesday, 12 August 2015

Chinese Need to Get Used to Being Spoken to in Poor Chinese

Like the majority of people working in an organisation which employs people from around the world, I am used to conversing with people who have a strong accent when speaking English or make incessant grammar errors - 'feedbacks' is used so often it is almost being adopted in English itself.  Unlike the character on 'The Fast Show' I do not pick up every error and I make an effort to comprehend the accent.  This is because I am grateful that the person is speaking to me in English and not expecting me to know Thai, Turkish or even Spanish in order to have a conversation with them.  This is a price British people have to pay for being so poor at learning foreign languages and indeed having a schooling system which increasingly does not even teach them.  The 13-year old boy who lives in my house stopped learning any foreign languages at the end of Year 8 (12-13 year old class), having done French just for two years.  He is an intelligent child going to a school of 1200 pupils but there is so little language teaching that it is a minority subject.  Reports show a steady fall in language learning in the UK:  with fewer pupils taking even European languages let alone Asian ones.

Now, I am constantly meeting Chinese people.  I have no idea how many Chinese are currently visiting or working in the UK.  The bulk of the ones I run across are students.  However, of course, because of the UK have had a colony in Hong Kong, there are people with Chinese heritage, predominantly Cantonese rather than Mandarin speakers and generally thoroughly integrated into British society.  I am not discussing Chinese assimilated in the past, but people from mainland China who are in the UK.  Now I spent 18 months learning Mandarin.

I was poor at the writing but pretty good at the language to the extent that I could say where I came from, talk about my family, ask directions and order a complex meal.  I honed my accent by using CDs and copying dialogue in movies.  Thus, I would expect that I would speak Chinese with an English accent and probably sound quite a bit like the Chinese equivalent of those people I speak to regularly from a range of countries, who have a strong accent and make errors.  However, every time I try please or thank you or excuse me, I get a blank expression from Chinese visitors as if rather than attempting their language I have gone into Ukrainian or Somali.

I used the common Chinese phrase 'shi bu shi' [pronounced 'shur boo shur'] it is a phrase attached to the end of a sentence to make it a question 'yes or no?'.  Mandarin word order does not change, it is subject-verb-object all the time, so you need question suffixes to show you are asking a question rather than through moving the verb around as often happens in English.  The quote was relevant to the setting but the Chinese man turned to me and said - 'what is that, something in English?'.  He did not recognise it as a basic phrase from his own language.

I  know that the Chinese are a proud people who value their culture.  I know that they row with the Taiwanese over who speaks and writes 'proper' Chinese.  However, I have yet to meet a Chinese person who is willing to put in the effort to comprehend other nationalities speaking their language in the way that English speakers often do on a daily basis.  This runs contrary to the schemes to introduce Mandarin to schools and to open up Confucius Centres to promote the teaching of Mandarin.

If the efforts of people who have taken time to learn the language are simply dismissed then there is no incentive to learn let alone develop skills in the language.  It seems I will never even reach a workable level in my lifetime.  I know there is all this argument about the fact that an outsider can never be fluent, but I am not looking for fluency, I am looking to work at the level many people use English when speaking to me.  It may not be perfect, but we can function.

Why does this matter?  Well, the Chinese population is only 25% of the global population so they are going to meet a lot of people who speak something else.  China has a public relations problem.  It is both noted as being one of the only remaining Communist dictatorships yet is also operating as a neo-colonial power particularly in Africa and Central Asia.  To be so frosty to those trying to speak the language is to put even more distance between the country and those others it has to deal with.

I do wonder if there is a delight in the exceptionality of the use of any Chinese language in a Western context and that Chinese visitors like the fact that their hosts cannot comprehend what they are saying.  It seems that they worry that if they give a centimetre of recognition that someone else even knows a bit of their language, they will have lost that privileged position.  It is like the Russian nobility speaking French when the servants were around.  I have also noted a similar phenomenon with Afrikaans and Flemish speakers.  They get very upset when you reflect back some of the details of their language to them.  It is as if you have broken the 'code' they are using and thus are suspicious.

I have no idea whether Chinese visitors will change their attitudes.  However, I am sure their government, given the money it has put into promoting Mandarin skills in the West, would wish that they were not so dismissive of the efforts of other countries to speak their language and at least be as accommodating as many British are when people speak to us regularly in 'bad' English.

1 comment:

Jonathan said...

I working Hong Kong for some years and picked up some Cantonese and I have Chinese relatives in Hong Kong. They all speak Cantonese. There's significant annoyance there at the imposition of Mandarin by the mainland authorities, it's recently become the language of school instruction. So, children are being taught in a foreign language, and people are expected to interact with authority in a foreign language. Back when the Brits where in charge at least then 85%+ of the civil service were local Cantonese speakers and even most of the Brits in authority spek Cantonese and didn't force you to speak English to get anywhere.