Thursday, September 04, 2008

Why Chinese can't speak English and why Singlish rocks

Swaminathan Aiyar offers an explaination:
I was asked once by a Chinese magazine for a ‘short’ article of 3,000 words on the Indian economy. I protested that 3,000 words was much too long. ‘‘No,’’ said the Chinese editor, ‘‘when translated, 3000 English words will shrink to just 800 Mandarin words.’’ 

Every letter in Mandarin is a full concept. That gives Mandarin a totally different structure. So, it is truly difficult for the Chinese to master English, and for the British to master Mandarin. For similar reasons, the Japanese remain weak in English. Some Chinese speak excellent English, but they are so few [..]

It’s much easier for Indians to learn English. Sanskrit (the root of Indian languages) and Latin (the root of European languages) belong to the same group of ancient Indo-European languages. When a Swaminomics column of 800 words is translated into Hindi, the translation is also around 800 words. [link]
Sinhala (and Tamil), like Hindi, have the same Sanskrit roots, which is why Call Centres could have become big in Sri Lanka, had the Sinhala nationalists not abandoned English driven education.  

Swaminathan dedicates the rest of the article to talk about how Hindi-speakers directly translate Hindi to English, producing more than a few chuckles. Sinhala-speakers do much the same. It's common for Sri Lankans to ask 'so so how how?' a direct translation from ' ithin ithin kohomada', a reference to how someone is feeling. 

My favorite phrase comes from my 12th grade physics teacher. One day in class, a friend of mine has not done his assignments and was giving an elaborate version of the 'dog-ate-my-homework' story. Ms.Kumudini listens for a while, but soon looses patience, She cuts him off mid-sentence and yells, "Niroshan! enough! you're lying horizontally and vertically!"

3 comments:

kasun said...

yes sinhala and hindi have roots in sanskrith, but Tamil does not. Tamil is not a indo-european language.

Deane said...

Right, my bad. Meant to say influence of Sanskrit with respect to Tamil, possibly the influence isn't that much either.

Anonymous said...

In my experience most Chinese have a serious attitude problem with learning languages. They view it as an annoying necessity, and decide that they are unable to learn it even before they try.