Saturday, April 21, 2012

Fumbling with Language

I thought, for the general amusement of all, that I would share from my ever-growing list of mistakes I have made while learning this lovely, entertaining, confusing, frustrating, and delightful language (yes, Chinese is all that and more):

What a Difference Tone Can Make!
The undisputed winner of "Most Humiliating Chinese Mistake Ever" is the time that I accidentally said my first (and, hopefully, last) Chinese obscenity.  My friend Linda (who is Chinese) was quizzing me on characters and held up the flashcard that I had written 草 on.  In my excitement at recognizing it, I shouted out "cao" . . . but with the wrong tone. When you say it with the third tone, it's a nice, innocent word that means grass or plant.  Say it with fourth tone, as I inadvertently did, and you make your very closest friend in China turn incredibly pale from shock!  Her eyes widened, her jaw dropped, and she insisted that I, "Say it again, right now, exactly like you just said it!"  After Linda's horror died down enough to explain what I had said, she was able to inform me that I had just discovered the equivalent of the 'F' word in Chinese.  哎呀!

We All Have Our Hobbies . . . 
Another classic is the time, back in the early days when I was just learning pinyin, that my teacher (Jackie, at the time) wanted me to say "I like birds."  With the correct tone, the sentence should be “我喜欢鸟” ("wŏ xĭ huan niăo").  However, ignorantly using the wrong tone on niao turned the sentence into “我喜欢尿.”  To the untrained Western ear, the two sentences sound the same.  But to the ear that knows Chinese, I confidentially informed my teacher, "I like to pee."

I Suppose It Could Be a Legitimate Thing to Study
When I first started with my teacher Theresa, she was asking me what I like most about Chinese, after delightedly discovering how much I love learning this language.  I meant to tell Theresa that I really love to study 汉字 (hànzì), which means Chinese characters.  Naturally, I used third tone on zi instead of fourth and instead said that "我爱学汉子" ("wŏ ài xué hànzĭ"), which actually means "I love to study men."  I don't think I have ever made Theresa laugh so hard!

It's Raining Stephanie
Recently, when telling a friend in Chinese about my experiences with gardening as a teenager, I was relating the tragic experience I had with a beautiful yellow rosebush.  Yellow is my favorite color, and I had been so excited to find this gorgeous plant.  I did everything I could to make it happy and thriving, but the rosebush repaid me by dying.  I meant to tell my friend that the death of the rosebush made me cry, but I accidentally mixed up 哭 (kū) with 雨 (yŭ) -- so, I instead told her that "I rained".  She was quite amused at the mental image.

The Ice Might Get in the Way . . . 
In my lesson with my weekend teacher, Lulu, today, I was supposed to be discussing things that people can enjoy doing in the wintertime.  I meant to say that I really enjoy ice skating in the wintertime, but for some reason, I said "huá shuĭ" instead of "huá bīng".  So, the sentence that came out of my mouth was, "In the wintertime, I often like to go water-skiing."

You Really Shouldn't Eat Those
When discussing food with some (Chinese) friends, I was talking about some of the things that I really enjoyed eating when I lived in Korea.  In particular, I was very fond of the Korean pancakes (not the delightful fluffy breakfast treats that spring to mind; these are a completely differently but nevertheless incredibly delicious type of pancake).  Sadly, I yet again made a mistake with my tones.  As soon as I informed my friends that one of my favorite dishes in Korea was "lăo bīng," the look of confused horror on their faces proved that I had made an error.  "Oh, wait, I used the wrong tones!" I realized aloud.  "I meant to say, lào bĭng."  "Oh, good," one of my friends laughed.  "I am so glad to hear that you do not like to eat veterans!"

Perhaps I Should Just Make My Own Language!
And then there are the times when I get all the words right, but I just can't get the grammar correct.  When checking over a short story that I had written entirely in Chinese (my first such attempt), Lulu suddenly laughed aloud.  As it turned out, I had used Chinese words with perfect English grammar.  Smiling, Lulu remarked, "You know, Stephanie, you and I are so much alike.  I speak very good 'Chinglish' and you speak very good 'Englinese'!"

No comments:

"Passage—immediate passage! the blood burns in my veins! Away, O soul! hoist instantly the anchor!
Cut the hawsers—haul out—shake out every sail!
Have we not stood here like trees in the ground long enough?
Have we not grovell’d here long enough, eating and drinking like mere brutes?
Have we not darken’d and dazed ourselves with books long enough?

Sail forth! steer for the deep waters only!
Reckless, O soul, exploring, I with thee, and thou with me;
For we are bound where mariner has not yet dared to go, And we will risk the ship, ourselves and all.

O my brave soul!
O farther, farther sail!
O daring joy, but safe! Are they not all the seas of God?
O farther, farther, farther sail!"

~Walt Whitman, "Passage to India"