Friday, November 27, 2009

Learning English in China

One of the striking things about my visit to China was how interested the Chinese, young and old, were in learning English. They were particularly happy to hear me speak English with my American accent. They said they wanted to learn that rather than a British accent. Some visitors to the Conservatory, while I was there, were from New Zealand; the Chinese students said they had difficulty understanding their accents.

Accent among English speakers is something I've noticed, but except in a few instances it hasn't prevented my understanding. I spent my first 15 years in the US above the Mason-Dixon line, and then my family moved South, to Atlanta, where I went to high school. More important than differences in accent were differences I found in sociability. Southern hospitality was new to me; the new habits of social interaction were more difficult to assimilate than differences in food or accent. When I began to listen to blues, while in Atlanta, the deep southern accents of the African American singers made sense to me. Years later, when transcribing blues lyrics for my dissertation and for my second book, any difficulties I had in making out the words were due more to the poor technical quality of the recordings, and to the occasionally specialized vocabulary of Black English, than they were to accent. Listening to British speakers presented no challenge to me, apart from occasional differences in vocabulary. Australian and New Zealand speakers seemed to speak a regional British form of English. I could understand, though, how for Chinese, sensitive to intonation in language (theirs is a tone language), and used to British accents, New Zealand speakers could be a challenge. 

Since the death of Mao, increasing numbers of Chinese have been learning English, to the point where for the last 20 years it's been the chief foreign language taught in the schools. Chinese students are diligent, and although the two languages are very different, they are able to learn English, particularly how to read it. Pronunciation is more difficult. I noted a marked difference in the English proficiency of Chinese under about 25 and those above 35. 

I was walking along the streets of Beijing one afternoon and I came upon a group of middle-aged men and women, perhaps a dozen of them, clustered around a young man with a large artist's sketch pad in his left hand. With his right hand he wrote English words and next to them, Chinese translations. Boat: 小船. Coat: 外套. Throat: 喉头. Vote: 表决. Seeing me, he realized I was probably an American or a European, and possibly a native English speaker. He asked me if I would pronounce the words in English for them. I said I would, if they didn't mind an American accent. He said they would prefer it. And so I did, and they pronounced the words after me. From the English teacher I learned that these middle-aged people had each paid the young man the equivalent of about 25 cents for an hour's lesson in English, right there on the street in Beijing.

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