Tag: languages

Foreigners, accents and broken English

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Foreigners, accents and broken English

(image: Floating market of Cần Thơ, Mekong Delta, Vietnam, from Doron. Used under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported License)

So technically I have other things to do besides writing a blog post (*cough* novel *cough* Christmas presents *cough*), but hey, what do you know.

Let’s talk “broken English” for a moment.[1]

It won’t surprise you that I have issues with doing accents or broken English for POC characters. That’s because the “broken English by POCs” stereotype is common and pretty harmful.

It’s almost systematically deployed with foreigners speaking English, to various degrees (generally people from Europe etc. get heavily accented English, and POCs from outside Europe get broken English with an accent to boot). It’s harmful because this becomes, whether the author intended it or not, the defining trait of ESL speakers and non-white speakers of “non-US/UK” English (roughly speaking, it gets worse the further away from the “First World” you get): I know it’s unfair, but by and large, the only thing that people remember from a given character is whether they speak “funny” or not, before they remember other quirks and traits, because not speaking properly erases everything else in the reader’s memory (and part of this, I feel, comes from the overly negative judgment passed on people who fail to speak English “properly”, which is a cultural thing and one that I personally find more than a little odd).

It perpetuates the notion that no one (or only the favoured few, which then takes on the mantle of the “civilised people” and all its attendant baggage) can speak English properly in XX Asian/African/other majority non-white country. It’s a Hollywood staple; it’s a feature in US/UK work that is, as far as I’m concerned, overly present (again, because of the overly negative value placed on not speaking English properly).

I’m not saying everyone in Asia/Africa/etc. speaks perfect, accentless English. There’s certainly some amount of not really great or accented English going around–but because of the underlying stereotypes, having this in fiction contributes to a narrative that I’m not very happy with.


[1] I make a difference between dialects and broken English: it’s a degree difference. Broken English is meant to be “not right”: it’s not gramatically correct, and it’s used almost solely to demonstrate that the speaker is not fluent in English. It’s not the same as, say, Singlish, which is English spoken natively by people who have a different idea of it. Though some times people will think that Singlish is gramatically incorrect and not “real” English. Let’s just say that’s very wrong, and very very hurtful to actual speakers.

On loss of language, colonisation and migration

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Two great articles, courtesy of automathic:
-Juliana Qian writes about being of Chinese descent in Australia. A lot of it is either uncomfortably familiar experience and/or strikes home quite accurately:

Our cultures are exotic, fashionable, fascinating and valuable when contained within or filtered through a white Western lens – then our cultures are glittering mines. But drawing from your own background is backward and predictable if you’re a person of colour. Sometimes white people try to sell me back my culture and I have to buy it. My China is as much the BBC version as it is the PRC one. There are things I want to eat but cannot cook.

-Rahel Aima on vernacular English:

Embedded within non-western English lies a parallel tension. The vernacular promises all the seductive freshness of exoticised difference, as well as the inherited anger of the Postcolonial Clever—the comfortably removed expat with a knowing gaze. There’s a certain expectation of kitsch, discernible authenticity and legitimacy, or at the very least, something to appropriate, please yaar? Or—something to awkwardly skirt out of respect to cultural relativism and because we are ostensibly beyond the myth of native English. Except then there’s also the orientalised yet unacknowledged elephant in the room: that the diasporic writer just might be the new bedfellow of cultural imperialism.

Author’s Notes for “Immersion”

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“Immersion”, like many stories, grew out of conversations–specifically with Rochita Loenen-Ruiz and several other Asian bloggers/writers.
I wanted to write a story about cultural domination; about how the cultural norms from the dominant culture also infect the non-dominant ones; about how globalisation and its products don’t necessarily make the world smaller and communications between cultures easier, but tend to foster a harmful atmosphere in which one culture or subset of cultures (US/Europe, to be specific) takes over the existing ones and remakes everything in its image. That the takeover is subtle, not done by guns but rather through commerce and the diffusion of media, doesn’t make it less visible or excusable: not all wars are waged with weapons and violence; and the more subtle and insidious version of cultural colonisation that’s currently going on in the world is a phenomenon with obvious and damaging impact (and also includes Western tourism in developing countries, which is often intensely problematic and fraught with coloniser attitudes).

The story is also very obviously based on our trip in Vietnam and my rants at the guidebooks which distill a culture in an outsider, monolithic (and many times wildly inaccurate) version: the immersers from Galactic to Rong are guidebooks V2.0. I also imagined their counterpart from Rong to Galactic, something that would make it clear that unbalanced cultural exchanges could lead to severe cultural distortion, as well as rejection of one’s home culture–a phenomenon that’s not always harmful, but is taken to its extreme in Agnes. I also tried to tackle how damaging the imposition of languages and standards of beauty could become, though through lack of space I had to go for a fairly caricatural version of it.

(mild spoilers, plus somewhat long rambles)
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Your hemi-semi-weekly Vietnamese proverb

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“Chở củi về rừng”: “carrying wood into the forest/jungle”. Doing useless things (like “carrying coal to Newcastle”, an English proverb I learnt at the same time as the Vietnamese one). Hahaha, that one is hilarious.

In other news, I have 3k words on the novel. One of my fave characters just showed up (great cook, good sense of humour, major temper. What’s not to love). Just one more scene, and I’ll be done with chapter 1!

Return of the killer Vietnamese

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So, just switched my language tapes from the course Mom and I are reading from, to the older Foreign Service Institute ones–which have the huge advantage of actually having a (60ies pre-war) Southern accent. And I finally figured out why I had so much problems with terminal consonants (which always have Mom shake her head at me). I’d worked out a while ago that terminal consonants in the Southern accent were not pronounced as you’d expect, ie by analogy with the same consonants in non-terminal positions (which is the case in Northern accent, incidentally). However, every time I opened my mouth, I seemed to come up with a different version of fail.

So, the good point: there’s a logic. The bad point: most pronunciations appear to have very little to do with what I expect as a French/English speaker. And they depend on the vowel immediately preceding the consonant, which explains why I could never work out a consistent system (I naively expected that one consonant=>one pronunciation).

To give you a couple of examples:
-“-p” (like in “tập”: volume, tome, episode): mostly sensible, pronounced like a “p”
-“-ch” (like in “thích”: love, like): always pronounced “t”
-“-t” (like “tết”: New Year, “một”: one, “cắt”: cut) much less intuitive. If after “i” or “ê”, pronounced “t” (except for the very particular diphtong “iết”, which is pronounced sort of like “beerc”). If after “ô” or “u”, pronounced sort of halfway between “p” and “k”. If after any vowel not previously mentioned (or after the aforementioned “iế”), then pronounce it like a throaty “k”.

And then you wonder why I could never work out terminal consonants… (and I have a suspicion this is an simplification to help language learners get it more or less right…)

*headdesk*

Your hemi-semi-weekly Vietnamese proverb

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“Có công mài sắt, có ngày nên kim”: “If you work hard enough at sharpening iron, one day you’ll have a needle” (literally “Put effort [into] sharpen[ing] iron, have one day in the end [a] needle”). Basically, insofar as I can tell, the closest equivalent would be that nothing is obtained without hard work. Again, I’m pretty sure of my translation, a lot less sure about my reading of the proverb.

Progress continues apace; I’m turning to vocabulary words that might actually be useful out there, namely: “nhà băng” (bank), “thông hành” (passport), and “khách sạn” (hotel). My vocabulary continues to be overwhelmingly focused on food, though: at the very least, menu-reading isn’t going to be a problem (nor is ordering, at least if they don’t answer back…).

Had last lesson before leaving; if nothing else, it confirmed that boy, I need to work on my neutral and short-descending accent (and my diphtongs and my “th”, and so on, and so forth). Should be fun…

That’s it from me. Don’t know how much internet I’m going to have over there (it’s not that there isn’t any, but rather that we might be busy). See you in two weeks?

Your hemi-semi-weekly Vietnamese proverb

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“Cái nết đánh chết cái dẹp.”: “Good behaviour trumps [lit. “beat to death”; I’m assuming it means “utterly triumphs over” rather than “bludgeon to death”] beauty”. Again, could be wrong; this was me with a dictionary and the vocab I learnt so far (actually, literally, I think it means something like “the good behaviour thing beats to death the beautiful thing”, but obviously it’s a little awkward that way).

Meaning pretty much self-evident.

Also, I managed to say the equivalent of “I speak a little Vietnamese, here are the words I know” over twitter and not get laughed at! (it did pose a funny set of problems, because the pronoun “I” depends on the perceived age of your interlocutor, and the pronoun “you” depends on their age and gender. Now guess what you do when you have neither? Flounder, quite obviously… [1]) It’s amusing how the internet generates new sorts of language problems that you never really think about…

Words learnt: 150 (plus stuff I don’t consciously learn, such as food and funky pronouns. See “mình”, the pronoun used between husband and wife, which also has the meaning of “body”). It has occurred to me that part of the problem with this %%% language is that it’s the first language I learnt that is so distant from French: English and Spanish both have a striking number of similarities with French, especially for newspaper speak. For instance, I can understand a sentence like “The Prime Minister of Great Britain declared that the crisis in the eurozone…” even if I didn’t know all the words, because so many of them are similar to French. Now, in Vietnamese, “prime minister” is “thủ thống”, “declare” is “tuyên bố”–and let’s not even get into “eurozone”… You do have surprise words: “súp” is “soup”, “phó mát” is “cheese” (aka “fromage”), “nhà ga” is “station” (aka “gare”. “nhà” is just “house, building”); but far fewer you’d have in Spanish (where I can fake understanding of a lot of words, because hey, Romance languages!). I have to reach for the dictionary every two words on a good day (and even more than that, because the grammar is so different from French and the whole act of translating really requires firing neurons in the right mindset. Kind of reminds me of Ancient Greek, actually. In worse…


[1]Not totally true. There is a neutral and uncomfy pronoun “I”, “tôi”, which I can use for those cases. And, if the speaker is around my age bracket, “bạn” (friend), has the advantage of being genderless (but it’ll piss off someone much older than me really fast). Bit awkward, but hey.

Progress, and travel plans

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Hue Imperial City

So… My understanding of written Vietnamese is definitely improving (in the new lesson, I understood what they were saying to each other with just a few well-placed explanations from Mom); my pronunciation still kind of sucks. Let’s not speak of my spelling, which has got Mom going into fits semi-regularly. She’ll say a word, and I’ll write it down, and know that I got it wrong. The “this pronunciation translates to this accent” isn’t happening so well right now, whereas the “this accent translates into this pronunciation” is a little bit better ingrained. I can repeat fairly accurately; I can’t really manage unprompted unless it’s very simple things (“hello”, “thank you”, “please give me a bowl of phở” *g*). Not surprising: I’ve always been more visual than auditive (yup, writer. Why do you ask?) As I was saying to Mom, the main thing where I’ve improved is that I’m reasonably sure that I can read and understand a Vietnamese menu with close to no help (barring the odd unknown vegetable, though Vietnamese is very kind by providing classifiers: “rau” for herbs, “cây” for leafy things, “trái” for fruit, “củ” for tubers…). I *might* possibly be able to order, if I steel myself not to follow the path of least resistance and speak English.

Why does this matter, you ask? Weeelll… The first two weeks of February, the H and I will be traipsing through Vietnam. Specifically, through Huể (high time I visited the imperial capital, or what’s left of it), Hội An, Sài Gòn, and the South around Sài Gòn (yes, I know it’s HCMV now. Never quite got used to it). I’m down to two people warning me the accents of the Centre are horrible–that I should be more than adequately equipped to handle Southerners, might possibly manage to understand Northerners, but that the Centre is a law onto itself. Given that I can barely make myself understood by Southerners, I can’t help but think that the Huể/Hội An section of the trip is going to be so much fun… (Sài Gòn will be better, both because, hey, Southerners, and also because Grandma/the uncles will be around)

Three more lessons to go before we leave. Ouch.

Your semi-hemi weekly Vietnamese proverb

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“con rồng, cháu tiên”: “child of dragons, grandchild of immortals”.
This one refers to an old tale: according to legend, the Vietnamese people are descended from the union of the dragon Lạc Long Quân and the immortal Âu Cơ: they had a hundred children together, but because they were so different (he was a dragon from the deep seas, she was an immortal and only felt at home in the mountains), they ended up separating. Lạc Long Quân, summoned home by his mother, took half the children and went towards the sea; and Âu Cơ took the other half into the mountains. This was the origin of the Vietnamese people.

I am currently learning preposition and interrogative words (the words that you tack on the end of a sentence to signal that it’s a question. Yup, it’s a tonal language, which means that raising your voice at the end of a sentence just results in your mangling the last words by giving it a rising accent…). Not exactly fun, but necessary.

Your hemi-semi weekly Vietnamese proverb

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“báo chết để da, người ta chết để tiếng”
A panther when dead leaves behind a skin; a man [lit. people] when dead leaves behind a name/reputation/words.

Pretty. Also, I learnt lots of new words 🙂

I’d like to think my vocabulary is improving, but 3 words a day isn’t very efficient to build up vocab (mind you, with me putting in about 15-30 min per day, I don’t reckon I can get more efficient than this). I got myself an Oxford picture dictionary English/Vietnamese; the unfortunate bit being that it’s for Vietnamese immigrants to Western countries, and therefore it uses English concepts: it’s OK for most everyday words, but it lacks Vietnamese syntax, and the concepts that are different just aren’t explained: the various kinds of uncles just get lumped under the same English word (yes, there are four words to describe uncles in Vietnamese: cậu, bác, chú, dượng respectively brother of mother, elder brother of father, younger brother of father, and any uncles that have married into the family rather than being linked to it by blood). So not quite what I want to be studying intensively…

In other news, work has started again on the novella that wouldn’t die (complete redraft), so I’m going to be scarce this week. And, hum, the week after (which is Christmas anyway).