Friday, December 25, 2020


How do foreigners sound when speaking someone else's language? Sometimes it depends on the language. And, being clumsily multi-lingual, I am probably in a better position to explain that than most other people. My two native languages are Dutch and English, and I have been complimented by monolingualists in either tongue on how well I speak "their" language.

"Oh stewardess, I speak jive."

Sincere compliments, but unintended insults.

I also speak Indonesian (like a Dutchman) and Cantonese. And with those two there is such a huge range of acceptable accents that I can largely get away with it. Yet I cringe whenever another American tries to say anything in Dutch, English, Indonesian, or Cantonese.
Reason being their accents coupled with mispronunciation.

In Chinatown speaking Cantonese often helps break the communication barrier. I suspect that some of the folks there think "good lord he sounds horrible, but at least I can understand what he's saying, and he's clearly reading the characters on the menu, so at least we don't have to explain anything or venture into that other hard to pronounce speech". I've shifted the ball onto their turf, and consequently they can say more and say it better than if they had to venture into English. Which some of them do not as yet speak confidently or well.

American born Chinese may feel at a disadvantage, though. Because I do read and write significantly better than many of them. And literacy is a plus point, especially there.
But my accent probably kills them a little bit with every word I say.

Speaking Cantonese with the English-able is mostly not worth it. Not for them, not for me.

On the phone I can usually pass for someone who is also Chinese, albeit from some place where Cantonese is not the native language, and sometimes face-to-face people will assume that I must speak Mandarin better than bad Cantonese, leading to the usual "ni hao? Hen hao-le, xie xie, ni hao?" exchange ..... before both of us gracefully swith back to Cantonese, because, after all, the point is actual communication.

At eateries and crocery stores I always use Cantonese. There are no universally accepted English equivalents for many things, and even if there were they wouldn't be well known enough to matter. Plus people aren't accustomed to thinking of such things in English.

At the bank and the clinic, after initial pleasantries, we switch to English. My Cantonese is not good enough to easily talk of health or monetary business.

The correct word can be a shifting target.

撕脫傷 ('si tyut seung'): avulsion.

士多啤梨 ('si do pe li'): strawberry ("gentleman many beer pear").
朱古力 ('jü gu lik'): chocolate ("vermilion ancient strength").
威化 ('wai faa'): wafer ("pompous change").
存款 ('chuen fun'), 存入 ('chuen yap'): bank deposit.
電匯 ('din wui'): to tranfer funds by wire.
自動轉賬 ('ji dung juen jeung') : direct deposit.
信用咭號碼 ('sun yong kaat hou maa'): credit card number.
財神咭 ('choi san kaat'): credit card ("god of wealth card").
餘額表 ('yu ngaak piu'): balance sheet.
尾數 ('mei sou'): balance due ("tail enumeration").
剩錢 ('jing chin'), 結餘 ('git yu'): account balance.
拆息 ('chaak sik'): daily interest.
心臟病 ('sam jong peng'): heart disease or attack.
尿素 ('niu sou'): urea ("urine constituent or silk").
痛風 ('tong fung'): gout ("pain wind").
風濕 ('fung sap'): rheumatism ("wind wet").
皮膚乾燥症 ('pei fu gon chou jing'): xerosis cutis ("skin dry ailment").
潰瘍 ('keui yeung'): ulcerate ("flooding infection").
存在主義 ('chuen choi chü yi'): existentialism.
肖恩康纳利 ('chiu yan hong ngaap lei lei'): Sean Connery.
莎士比亞悲劇 ('saa si bei ngaa pei kek'): Shakespearean tragedy.
約斯特·範·登·馮德爾 ('yeuk si dak·faan·dang· fung dak yi'): Joost van den Vondel, Holland's most famous poet ("appointment such unique pattern rise gallop virtue thus").
豆豉鯪魚 ('dau si ling yü'): tinned fried dace with salted black beans.
The dace or mud-carp is a tasty riverine fish found in Southern China and Vietnam. Yellow-labelled tins of fried dace are in every grocery store, and every larder. Though it looks somewhat like herring, it does not taste similar. It is, never-the-less, good eating.

鯡魚 ('fei yü'): herring.

Some things just don't translate very well. No, I will not ever try to discuss Dutch poetry and literature in Chinatown. Sadly, that's almost impossible even in English.

And I shan't (can't) talk about credit and collections in Dutch.

So how's my German? Better than my Hindi.
Which is better than my Mandarin.

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All correspondence will be kept in confidence.

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