Posts Tagged ‘language’

I just finished reading Deborah Fallows’ Dreaming in Chinese. I am just fascinated with the Chinese culture, and her book addressed some of the issues I had encountered during our time in Taiwan. For instance, some of the Mandarin phrases seem too blunt, but what may seem rude to me is not all considered rude in China (and I assume, Taiwan as well). For instance, ‘Bú yào’ was a phrase we used frequently during our time in Taiwan. It means ‘don’t want’ and is typically used to say you are not interested in something, or to turn down food or other offers. It would seem more appropriate to me to say, ‘no, thank you.’ However, this is an acceptable and standard way to turn down an offer. She goes on to say that she learned the Chinese find Westerners use ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ too often and that to them, the overuse of using those phrases may be considered impolite:

“My Chinese friends say…we use way too many of them for Chinese taste. A Chinese linguist, Kaidi Zhan, says that using a please as in “Please pass the salt” actually has the opposite effect of politeness here in China. The Chinese way of being polite to each other with words is to shorten the social distance between you. And saying please serves to insert a kind of buffer or space that says, in effect, that we need some formality between us here.” – Excerpt from Dreaming in Chinese

I probably said ‘xiexie’ (thank you) a thousand times while we were in Taiwan. No one seemed offended…and many seemed appreciative we even attempted to speak the language.

Another chapter talks about the evolution to a national language in China and the use of simplified characters instead of traditional characters. She said the changeover to simplified characters in the People’s Republic of China was part of an effort under Chairman Mao Zedong to improve literacy rates. I did not realize that some characters in Mandarin may require up to 20 strokes to write. One of the issues with choosing a national language was the different dialects and accents spoken in China. However, the written language is the same so everyone can read the same characters. This is apparently the reason the Chinese news broadcasts always have the captioning on the screen – even if you cannot understand what the news anchor’s dialect or accent, most people can read the characters. (Taiwan uses the traditional characters, not the simplified characters.)

Fallows and her husband were living in China during the horrific earthquake in 2008 in Sichuan. It was interesting to hear her perspective of the event as she observed changes in the way the Chinese media reported on the rescue efforts in the week following the tragedy:

“There was something unusual about the TV programming and the TV language during early coverage of the earthquake. The programming was ragged and unpolished, and the language was unrehearsed and plainspoken, more like normal street chatter. This was a far cry from the usual carefully scrubbed and scrutinized productions, with their official jargon and heavy words. Everyone agreed, at least at the beginning, that the government was allowing ‘unprecedented transparency’ in media coverage.” – Excerpt from Dreaming in Chinese

This book, while not about Taiwan, was fascinating to read. It definitely helped me understand and appreciate some of the cultural differences.

Before our last trip to Taiwan, we spent several weeks meeting with a tutor from Taiwan and learning some of the Mandarin language through Fluenz.

Fluenz language program

My husband also used ChinesePod to learn some phrases. It was a good thing – because we were surprised how few people spoke English in Taiwan. My husband was our primary communicator, mostly because he had spent more time learning the language before we traveled.

We used taxi cards frequently in Taiwan. These business cards were written with destinations in English and Mandarin. Our adoption agency and other adoptive families provided several cards prior to our travel. Without them, we would not have been able to communicate with taxi drivers. We picked up a few business cards in each hotel lobby where we stayed, so we always had one to give to the taxi driver for our return trip. Usually the hotel staff had at least one person working at the front desk who could speak some English. That person would write out restaurant destinations and other places we wanted to visit.

It was in restaurants, stores, markets and the train station where our mastery of the Chinese language was tested. I wish my language skills had been better, because it would have been fun to engage people in more than just the very basic of conversations.

Here are some of the phrases we used often in Taiwan, and ones I will be re-learning in the weeks to come. I wrote the Pinyin translation next to the ones I remember, but left the tone symbols off because I don’t know how to insert them. The tones and their correct pronunciation are crucial to the meaning (and interpretation) of the words spoken in Mandarin.

Hello · Ni hao
Thank you · xie xie
I’m sorry/excuse me · Duibuqi
Do you speak English? · Ni hui shuo Yingwen ma?
I want. . .menu, water, coke, etc. · Wo bu yao . . .caidan, shui, coke
I don’t want… · Wo bu yao…
Counting numbers – it was helpful when shopping or buying food (ie. 2 cokes)
Where is the bathroom?

When shopping (helpful at the SOGO Department Stores – the sales clerks are very attentive and stand next to you waiting to help)
I’m just looking.
How much is it? (In the Jade Market, the vendors often use calculators to show you the price of an item – you just have to be able to convert NT dollars to US dollars.)

When at a restaurant or trying to order food:
I want the menu. · Wo yao caidan
I want that, or I want this (usually pointing to food on a menu) · zhe ge, na ge
Check, please?

I think people appreciated our attempts at speaking the language in Taiwan. If anything, we provided them with a little humor from hearing our botched tones and accents. There were a few times I received bizarre looks after I said something – I can only imagine what I may have said. Maybe this time I will be able to walk into Starbucks and confidently order my customized half-caf, tall, non fat, no whip mocha – of course, it may need to be an iced mocha, depending on how hot it is in Taiwan when we travel.