Native fluency: Racially inspired response

Posted on Sat 22 Oct 2011 @ 3.23pm UTC

THE ESTEEMED SUBSCRIBER, who inspired my dedicated response “Native fluency: A naively native response” to an earlier article, has put in another brilliant comment — again deserving of another dedicated post!

You now have empirical proof of the astoundingly high quality of Learn English or Starve and its readers. Quality of life just improved by knowing this. Srsly.

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Perception of own culture affects perception of outside cultures affects language uptake and language performance, resulting in social blunders

“Diving into the comments about race a bit, I’m reminded of the time a good friend of mine came to visit me in Beijing. She’s Chinese American, both of her parents having emigrated to the United States from Guangdong in the 1970s. I’ll call her Lucy.

“When my girlfriend and I introduced Lucy to my friends and co-workers, everyone immediately began speaking Mandarin Chinese to her, as if to quiz her or attempt to trigger some vestigial (non-existent) knowledge of the language buried in deep within her subconscious.

“NEVER MIND THE FACT that I had just informed them that (a) she’s American and she speaks English and (b) her second language is CANTONESE, not Mandarin.

“Of course, this didn’t stop them from telling her that she ‘speaks English very well.’ This same situation was even worse to experience when we were out in the city interacting with strangers who refused to believe that our friend couldn’t speak Mandarin. Take for example, this conversation I had with a cab driver in Mandarin while our friend was visiting us:

Me: Hey, can you take us to this place near the International Club?

Them (staring directly at Lucy): Where do you wanna go?

Me: Sorry, she doesn’t speak Mandarin. We really need to go to the address I gave you … we’re meeting someone there.

Them (continuing to stare at Lucy): Of course you speak Mandarin! What kind of joke is this?

Me: She’s American, but her parents are from Guangdong.

Them: American?! She’s not American, she’s Chinese!

“And so on, and so on…”

LEOS writes:

If I were to meet Lucy knowing she’s the daughter of Cantonese emigrés, my automatic reaction would be to speak to her in … English! C’mon, Lucy is American — am I going to be naff [BrE: stupid, lame or unpalatable] and speak to her in French or Lebanese Arabic???

Linguistic maps of Mandarin in China/Taiwan/Hainan

Mandarin speaking in China (via Wikipedia)

(Okay, okay, maybe Cantonese after the requisite introduction, smalltalk and a couple of glasses of Chianti.)

That scenario very precisely and effectively highlights the perceptual hangup that most Chinese mainlanders have about born or raised overseas Chinese — and in many ways also highlights the perceptual problems mainlanders have about the world outside their land.

I make no apologies for saying this, but the fact of the matter is the 1,300 million souls of China live in a small cultural bubble. (We all know the hows and whys of this, so I shan’t go into it.) Without even delving into the overweening sociological crap about Chinese society, everybody who’s lived close enough (or inside) China knows Chinese social culture is pretty uniform throughout the country. Thirteen thousand million porcelain tiles of one or two shades does not diversity make.

Even language-wise, there’s a steady stream of hot air about Chinese being a ‘big’ language (and, lately, an ‘important’ one too). That’s a little misleading, since the assertion rests solely and exclusive on the strength of 1,300 million Chinese people ‘speaking’ it (99% of whom live inside China).

It depends what we mean by ‘big,’ doesn’t it?

We could spin the roulette wheel and wait for the marble to fall either on big by numerical superiority or on big by extent. (Business studies and linguistics majors may choose to describe same as scale vs. scope, if that helps.)

When a country that cuts off 99% of the World Wide Web from its people and turn it into China Wide Web, we just have to wonder if their ‘big’ has the same meaning as our ‘big.’

Map of sinitic languages

Sinitic languages (via Wikipedia)

Chinese is a small language. It’s just one bunch of people (the Chinese) who speak Chinese. Japanese is a small language — only the Japs speak it. Thai is a small language. Vulcan is a small language — only Trekkers speak it (if at all).

By contrast, English, French, Spanish and Arabic ARE all big languages — all manner of strange cattle round the world speak, write and otherwise ‘use’ them on a daily basis for work, rest and play — including while getting laid.

Rainbow-coloured Yanks speak English (mostly) and Spanish (semi-mostly) in the USA. The Lebanese, Algerians, Moroccans and nearly half of deepest, darkest Africa speak French as they ‘daytime’ first language. Spanish is spoken everywhere in Central and South America (even in Portuguese-speaking Brazil) — and they’re a bunch of rainbow-coloured people as well. Arabic is spoken in half the known world by many odd shades of people who are and are not Arabs (some are not even of the human species, I’m sad to say).

Oldtimers in Somalia can handle Italian like your icky ice-cream-gulping mafioso down in Sardegnia (English: Sardinia). Even older oldtimers in Indonesia speak Dutch, like they are still on the payroll of the Dutch East India Company.

Just to be über-topical and a little bit racist, I actually know quite a handful of homegrown Taiwanese old fogeys who are excellent Mandarin speakers but wouldn’t dream of speaking anything at home with their 60-ish children and 40-ish grandchildren other than old-fashioned Japanese (which is actually more Korean than Japanese).

People who talk about this, that or the other language being ‘big’ need to get a grip on their understanding of the word big.

As a twist the scenario, I’ve actually witnessed decidedly out-of-this-world scenarios like my German-born/bred Singaporean-Chinese friend meeting a Hong Kong-born German — Singapurina spoke German and the Sauerkraut comes back in Cantopop. Warp Factor 5 Mindf@#k just occurred just by knowing this actually exists.

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Reverse ethnic sanitisation, if you can, when you can

“It’s amazing because when you’re in China you’re constantly hearing about China’s 56 ethnic groups. For anyone who’s done any sort of guided tour in the Celestial Kingdom, you’re bound to have seen them trot out the ‘ethnic’ performers in their pretty costumes accompanied by their ‘strange’ music. ‘China is very diverse,’ they’ll say. This idea of cultures and nation-states being diverse immediately dives off a cliff whenever someone from another multi-ethnic society is met.

African American: “Are you from Africa?”

Chinese Canadian: “How is your English so good?’

Dutch Korean: “They sounded strange. I think maybe their English is not so good.”

Side note: I’ve also heard this said about white Brits and Europeans who speak English fluently:

Native Americans (or First Nations): “Huh?”

Mexican American: “You mean like the Mexican Wrap at KFC?”

Foreign Service Brat who grew up in China: “Wow, you’re very clever!”

Just to be incorrectly political and politically incorrect, I dub those reactions the sociocultural version of erectile dysfunction.

It’s a kind of reverse ethnic cleaning, isn’t it?

In the blue corner, we have hard-sell of ethnic diversity (in a sea of same-looking, same-behaving, monkey-see-monkey-do Mark II robots). In the red corner, we have it that everything ‘outside’ is lumped into the one-size-fits-all specification. We’re diverse; y’all the same bunch of lamefags.

Translation of Chinese map of Mandarin dialects

Mandarin dialects (via Wikipedia)

Truth be told, this business about Chinese society being ‘diverse’ with several dozen ‘ethnic groups’ is like a bad joke fermented the wrong way — anyone who’s anyone with some knowledge of Chinese language and experience of Chinese society can tell us that the ethnic groups are culturally quite uniform as the mainstream ‘Han’ group right across China. It’s like reverse engineering and calling Muslims an ethnically uniform bunch of people.

(Only the sociologist or the sociolinguist would dispute the uniformity. But then again, sociologists and linguists are uniformly retards anyway and have an academically acquired inability to pay attention to published information not ‘academic’ in nature or in academicspeak (see Glossary).)

For the life of me, I see no ethnic looksin those ethnic actors and actresses — lovely and fetching as they usually are with their brilliant, TV commercial-quality white teeth, Farrah Fawcett-straight noses and Katy Perry-esque cleavage. To me, they just look like any other Han Chinese but for their fairer complexion and a sexy film of almost-porn-quality fuzzy blondish fur on their skin. Brrrr! Rawr!

Honestly, I too can go ‘ethnic,’ don a burqah, and look every bit like a Muslim housewife doing fundamentalistically Islamic groceries in downtown Cairo. The only difference I see ethnics vs. Han is the ethnics all seem to speak better Putonghua than the Hans! WTF.

Right now, memories of grandpa come flooding back to me. He once told me many of these ethnic groups are semi-fictitious anyway: their factual origins go no further back than the 1600s or 1700s (during the Ching dynasty). That’s what grandpa said. True or not, 56 ethnic groups does sound a bit sparse. The Philippines have literally 100 such groups, India and Indonesian several hundreds each, and Papua New Guinea has around 2,000.

Having done biology to hospital labtech level myself, the huge Han group seems somewhat suspect because, if you look at the Han gene pool and genomic expressions, the Han is actually less homogeneous than it’s officially pitched. That’s diversity, right?

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The prodigal son returns … to be dissed by kith and kindred

“Notice that when people of Chinese descent grow up with English as their first language and go back to the country of their ancestors to study or work, their native English is immediately suspect, as if there was some trick to becoming fluent that they were hiding from everyone. ‘What classes did you take? How often did you study? How could you possibly speak English that well?’ Whereas the foreigner who speaks Chinese fluently because they’d grown up in a similar situation is ‘clever.’ ”

“Even though there is mounds of evidence to the contrary, people still seem to believe that Americans, Canadians, Europeans, etc, are all white and that those who aren’t are somehow an aberration that should be ignored rather than appreciated.”

All the scenarios above happen quite a bit too in Hong Kong (albeit in not so naff a way) — a bilingually educated ex-colony whose people’s exposure to foreign stuff is higher than high than the rest of Asia.

Unitary Perception - The End Of Conflict

(Image by infomatique via Flickr)

If that happens in Hong Kong, we can bet the perception difficulties will be more accentuated in a basically monolingual, unicultural society like China’s or Korea’s or Japan’s.

Japan and Korea are open societies so that helps their not reinforcing cultural difficulties, whereas locked-down China is.

Indeed, some Chinese guy back in the 1970s whose name escapes me now wrote a book or two about this ‘Chinese’ problem, but he got revolutionarily binned for it because it ain’t nice to take about one’s own country like that. See what I mean now?

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(hat tip again to NiubiCowboy for the comment)

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