Tuesday, February 21, 2006

L'Affaire Grapefruit: In Your Pants

There's this thing we call "Language Interference" in the English Teaching biz. Person X is a native speaker of Language A, and is trying to acquire language B. Unfortunately, habits from Language A continue to interfere with the production of language B words. One common example is when people from Spanish or Italian backgrounds pronounce English with an odd staccato rhythm. That's because those languages are syllable-timed: every syllable is pronounced with the roughly the same length. English isn't like that at all. It is stress-timed: the time between stressed syllables is roughly the same, and unstressed syllables are shortened accordingly. 

You can test this at home, folks. Try reading this out at home with every syllable the same. ("Try rea ding this out at home with e ver y syl la ble the same.") Now read it in your normal voice. Do you hear a difference?

Language interference happens when people learn other languages, especially tonal ones. English has its own intonation guidelines: raise the pitch at the end of  yes/no questions, but drop the pitch at the end of statements. People are able to vary the pitch to express emotion or irony, but it won't change the meaning of the words. Now imagine a English speaker learning Vietnamese (or any other tonal language) - habits learnt in a lifetime now obscure what they are trying to say. Odd as it seems, that's why I found one of the hardest tones to handle was the "không dấu" tone - or no tone at all. My natural tendency was to dip it at the end, which wasn't correct; I had to train myself to keep my pitch completely flat. 

What does that have to do with my earlier Grapefruit post? Enter "Buddhist with an attitude" who confesses "Sorry for the blog whoring but check out my blog on the same subject." So I added her to the blogroll.And I just have to quote the last two paragraphs. They're a cracker:

I'm posting this text from Reuters as a joke, but any Vietnamese reader would tell you that the situation is not that simple. «'Buoi' can mean either a grapefruit or slang for penis» says Reuters. Well, actually, no. 'Buoi' doesn't mean anything in Vietnamese. A grapefruit is «bưởi» and a penis is ... uh.. look, all you need to know is: it's not spelled «buoi». Same thing with pigs and vaginas: not only are the tones different, the spelling is completely different. The real problem is that the domain registration system is based on the Latin alphabet and therefore cannot accomodate languages like Vietnamese that use a modified romanized system of writing.

But I've got to admit, learning to recognize and reproduce accurately the different tones is not an easy task for people used to non tonal languages. During the Vietnamese/American war in the 60s, the national TV station in Saigon used to broadcast a show hosted by American «advisers» who would laboriously read the daily news in Vietnamese. The show was very successful, if only for its comical value, because once in a while, the poor anchormen would use the wrong tones, with hilarious results, of the pigs = vaginas variety. I remember one of their most frequent mistakes was to pronounce «quân» neutral tone (troops, soldiers, etc.) as «quần» third tone (pants), so they would announce that the pants did this, the pants did that, we're expecting more pants next month, etc. And hilarity would ensue in Vietnamese households.