Sunday, June 14, 2009

Language Disconnect: Dialect Woes Edition

This is in response to bossymarmalade's submission to the 2nd Asian Women Blog Carnival.

She wrote this in particular:
For a long time, when we talked about Indian things, I would call them by my words and she, who can speak Hindi and Gujarati, would "correct" me. "Oh, you mean ____!"

"I guess so," I'd say, embarrassed by my country bookie mangling of proper Hindi.
This totally reminds me of my own language woes whenever I try, at home. In particular, last Christmas, when I was in the same car with an aunt.

I'd pointed out to her, "if you look there's eu tchar kwai."

She gave me a long puzzled look, and then exclaimed, "eu tcha' kwei!"

YES, the slight vowel differences matter! Because "yau tchar kwai" is Cantonese, and "eu tcha' kwei" is Hokkien, and because I'm familiar (somewhat) with both, I inadvertantly mixed the two together.

It's gotten to the point where I've started giving ESL students some slack. In my Teaching ESL certificate course, we were taught a game called "Computer". Basically, if a student had trouble saying a work, or mis-pronounced a word, we'd simply repeat it, and they'd imitate it, and we'd repeat it, until they were comfortable with their pronunciation (keep in mind, THEY decide when).

I hated that game. If I can hear them and understand what they're saying? Fuck it if they have an accent. It's okay for them to have an accent! People have accents! It reflects where they come from! Do we play it when British people talk around us? No!

All that matters is that they're understood, even if it takes us a couple of moments to get it. I tutored a Chinese student in Canadian Lit (she took the course because she wanted to understand English better) and she had difficulty with poetry. Of course she would! And it's not because she didn't understand English - it was because the cultural cues were vastly different from what she was used to.

When she spoke, she had a thick accent. I had to pay attention. Paying attention, ya'll, is not something I'm very good at sometimes! Especially when it comes to pure auditory stimuli (hence why I turn on closed-captioning and subtitles on TV and DVDs).

I'm not mad at my aunt for my feelings of utter inferiority, but being in that situation more and more makes me even more mad at the standards held against ESL students who're studying a language that's known for stealing from other languages' vocabularies and having several ways of pronouncing one word.

Anyways, back to my dialect woes - this is one of my big problems in learning Chinese, because I would very much like to learn a dialect, not the pu-thong-hwa. Something like Hokkien, or Cantonese, or Hainanese, because these are specific to my heritage.

But mostly? I'd like to just be understood when I try to speak Chinese.

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