Chalkface: Tang-tied in China

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“I’m not a ploduckachee!”

“Plo-ducka-chee”  No, it’s pronounced “product.”

“Ploduckachee” Let’s try again shall we?

Pro “Plo” du “dah” ct “kachee”

I think that’s probably enough for the moment, don’t you Uncle Tommy?

(Actual conversation, March 2018)

There are a lot of really good English speakers in China. They’re often the ones who have started learning English at a young age, and despite the rote-style learning of school English lessons and dry-as-dust textbooks. They’ve beaten the odds of achieving fluency by overcoming such challenges. At some point, a good number of students would have enrolled in extra-curricular English classes, gone on to study English at university and retained much of the extensive vocabulary delivered to them during this time. There are also those that, despite limited academic opportunities, managed to gain fluency by chatting with any foreigner they could get their hands on.

Some youngsters from poor families became fluent English speakers while working in Western restaurants.

There are also a lot of people who can’t or aren’t willing to speak English in China. Reasons of shyness and patriotism are two examples. That’s okay. We don’t need to import cultural hegemonism here and demand that everyone speak English. That said, it can be fascinating to hear the English words emitted from their mouths:

“Bah-nah-xia”  What was that?  Oh – banana!  Great.

“Bu-la-la”

yellow banana fruit

This writer has butchered many a Chinese word over the past 18 years. People have generally been polite and smiled in a confused sort of a way. They nodded despite not having a clue about what had just been said.  Many of my students rolled about laughing whenever I translated my own classroom instructions. How about that for pronunciational motivation? Ask them to raise their hands and (mistakenly) say “pig feet, pig feet!”  Mispronounce traffic jam and get foot ache, ask them to wait but instead mumble something about murder – goodness! Talk about loss of face.

A few of the older folk can speak Russian, or bits of it. That was their foreign language of choice during 1950s China. They’re the hardest students to teach. You really can’t teach old (do we have to use the word dogs here?) “codgers” new linguistic tricks. My mother in law (64 at the time of this blog) can count to ten. So can her husband:

“wan-ah, too-ah, fee-ah, fo-ah, figh-ah, sick, say when, eh-ah, line-ah, tin!”

It starts slow and speeds up at number six and reaches an epic speed by ten. It’s as if by slowing down they’ll stop and forget everything. Like riding a bicycle, they’re going to fall over if they peddle too slowly. The in-laws speak Cantonese well and can use mobile phones with impressive ability. They’re handy with the wok and very efficient in their tasks. Both are punctual and never late. Most of their generation are the same. But as English students…..

The younger students have trouble with certain English sounds including the th digraph (a fancy way of saying consonant cluster – the t and h phonemes). You can repeat both the voiceless- (this, that, those) and the voiced- (three, throw) fricatives (more linguistic jargon) and end up with:

this = dis

that = dat

those = doze

And:

three = fee

throw = srow

Show them how to place their tongue between their teeth and watch the spittle fly! Encouraged by this, I created a nasty little tongue twister:

These three fleas have free fees

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Courtesy of Cambridge Connect 1 (textbook)

As the 2018 Soccer World Cup progresses, it’s a good time to learn the names of some  of the participating countries (“China is terrible at soccer” they all say – I don’t know, my country is currently ranked 120th, 40 places below China). Portugal, Peru, and Argentina are particularly tricky for many to pronounce. Australia is another difficult one.

They inadvertently swear:

“My father is a bastard” (actually – “My father is a bus driver”)

“I’m wearing a brown shit” (shirt)

These are easy mistakes to make though the prevalence of Western computer games and the assorted potty mouth language of the accompanying soundtrack has introduced a world of colourful slang to the vocabularies of many students. This is concerning when you’re trying to teach “We Will Rock You” by Queen. The word rock lends itself to naughty substitution.

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Some words and phrases are correctable. These include:

Hamburger politics (Happy Birthday), sanka yew (Thank you), of (for), for (of), mudder (mother), sheesh-atar (sister), older body bra (older brother – I kid you not).

Others are not so easy:

Prisonality (personality), present (parrot), pirates (parents), peasants (parents), parents (presents).

Yes I’ve poked a bit of fun at the locals today. Especially Uncle Tommy. My two year old has just overheard me enunciating “ploduckachee” and has begun excitedly running around the apartment yelling “PLODUCKACHEE!” My mother-in-law (her grandmother and uncle Tommy’s older sister) has no idea what she’s trying to say, thinks it’s impeccable English and time for a nappy (diaper) change.

On a conclusory note, it’s worth noting that I’ve heard and read better English from people here in China than I have from many of the populace back in New Zealand. There is something to admire about the determination and hard-work it must have taken to achieve this sort of fluency.

Thanks for the likes and the feedback. It’s much appreciated.

KJ.

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