English vs. Chinese on BBC

What is the popular view of the Chinese language(s) in English-speaking countries? I’m interested in the answer, but I don’t think I have any good intuition anymore.

And of course there’s not just one answer. The popular view varies depending on where you look. At the Hanzismatter level, the perception is that Chinese is a bunch of mysterious strokes and dots and boxes. On the other hand, lots of folks in more international circles realize at least that Cantonese and Mandarin are different Chinese languages.

You might suppose a BBC radio program would be closer to the latter, so when Language Log recommended one recently, I decided to listen*.

But now I’m torn.

I want to like the program. It talks about nuances of Chinese that don’t get much air in the popular English-language media. For instance, it talks about Chinese computer input with Pinyin and about how kids start first grade by learning Pinyin. This is already way more depth than the “Chinese characters communicate meaning directly” kind of nonsense we usually hear.

And because of the subject matter, I’d be happy to ignore the hiccups. They mostly belong to the host anyway, not his guests, who do a nice job of correcting him. For example he says Pinyin is “the creation of one remarkable man” (周有光, Zhōu Yǒuguāng). His guest, Joe Katz of PinyinJoe.com, immediately tells him that Pinyin was created by a committee of which Zhou was part.

But, but… there’s one problem I can’t seem to overlook: What is the program’s overall message? In other words, what message does the average listener (assuming they’re curious but Chinese-naive) leave with?

My one-listen take on it is that they might leave with one of these conclusions:

  1. Chinese want to use English instead of Chinese
  2. Chinese are more and more using Pinyin instead of characters

You’ll have to listen to the program to hear why these might be the takeaways, but roughly the arguments sounded to me like this:

  1. Chinese lacks certain words that are necessary for modern communication, e.g. “presentation”
  2. Chinese learn Pinyin before characters and require it in school and in typing, etc.

The arguments are either false or trivially true. The conclusions strike me as utterly backwards.

I hope I’m wrong. It’s possible the main message is something more enlightened. Feel free to tell me that. As I said, I only listened to it once through. But if this is roughly right, it’s probably worth another post or two to show why the examples do not support the overall conclusions.

Then again, maybe I shouldn’t put so much time into a program that touts the “Global battle between English and Chinese”.


*I’ve also re-recorded the program so you can listen here, not because I want to flout copyright law but because the recording is only supposed to be available online for a limited time. I’ll leave it here until the attorneys tell me to take it off:

Part 1

Part 2

6 responses to “English vs. Chinese on BBC”

  1. On an unrelated note I like that Pinyin Joe calls himself 拼音舟 on his site. Or at least it’s on the site, if not his name.

  2. hsknotes says:

    Oh, cmon, were we really getting our hopes up to take the program seriously? The host is way beyond out of his element. The New York Times can hardly get its shit right, do we really expect a BBC podcast to hit the spot?

    Favorite parts:

    1. “so many things”, like what? “pretty”? 她很pretty.
    That’s her example of the pervasive influence of English? Girls saying “pretty” instead of 漂亮 or 美麗?

    With a guy like Mair on there you could have give at a decent accounting of what’s going on with replacements like that, prestige dialects/languages, class differences, etc, etc, but obviously the BBC has better stuff to do with their time. (This is a bit like Mair reporting on LL a while back, after surveying his grad students, that in fact “the new way” young people talk about sig. others in chinese is to simply use the english words “boyfriend” and “girlfriend”. About 10 seconds worth of comments quickly disabused him of that.)

    2. “lab” , really, “lab”? That’s your example? Such a can of worms that I don’t want even want to get into it here.

    But my absolute favorite is when Tamil gets turned into a “dialect” of “Indian.” “Indian Language is made up of many, many dialects”. In fairness, that guy from Singapore was at least swapping between calling Tamil a language and dialect. I just find it interesting (read: bad) that the chinese definition/use of term dialect from 方言 as what linguist and regular people refer to as “languages” gets to slip into english through the singapore channel. I look forward to the day when other giant traditional languages (russian, french, english, japanese) get to be called dialects too.

    I waste far too much time on this kind of stuff.

  3. Dave says:

    The media in Taiwan isn’t restricted like in China, the English abbreviations are commonely used.

    Highly educated people also commonly use English words throughout Chinese sentences, almost like an indication of Education.

    I saw some Chinese money a few days ago and noticed that the back of the notes have pinyin on them – really made me think that it must help when learning Chinese if pinyin can be found in lots of places. I wish the Taiwanese would put Zhuyin in more places to help with emphasising pronunciation!

  4. 我来串门 says:

    哈哈哈 这篇文章有点意思~

    pinyin 我觉得是一种很科学的注音方法。最早中国看到欧洲的发展迅猛,令很多人把国家落后的理由怪在了汉字上, 后来的 文 化 大 革 命 目的是废除汉字,用拼音代替。事实证明是不可能的,因为中文同音字太多。


  5. Julen says:

    I have to admit I don’t have the patience to listen to the show. But I am not surprised about the results.

    And not only because of the BBC showman, but because of a bigger, more general problem in the world of Sinology, IMO. This is, the large majority of sinologists have not lived in China for extended periods and they are not even close to fluent in the language.

    This explains many quirks like the strange obsession for pinyin in the Western sinologists world, as if it was a great deal that Chinese use latin letters to type in the phone. It even feels as if some sinologists draw pleasure from stabbing those old characters that they hate so much.

    The situation was understandable at a time when living in China was much more difficult. But nowadays, with all the thousands of Westerners coming here to study Chinese, the Sinologists of the future are going to look really dumb if they don’t get speaking Chinese ASAP.

    I was reading these days a famous (and very good) book on Chinese culture by the Uni of Columbia. To my disappointment there is not a single character in the whole book, so when I go and visit Chinese temples or read Chinese books I have no idea what they are talking about even for elementary words like 夏, 商, 周, 魏 etc.

    Oh well, whatever that was a bit unrelated I guess.

  6. Chris says:

    300 million speakers of english in china? come on…yes they learn english in middle and high school, but that doesn’t mean they speak it, 90% of chinese live in a 100%chinese environment, the only word they truly know is “Hello”.

    Singapore? a 700 square km strip far away from the mainland?

    Have to agree with Julen, most sinologists from the earlier age have not spent many years on the mainland and books without characters are frustrating for those interested in the matter from a mainland perspective.

    english is a sign of education nothing else, but amongst officials it is least of all pervasive, it is something most common among white collar workers in MNC’s .
    The examples from the university students are not at all representative, the program makers should have mentioned how long they have spent in England, for judging from their thorough accents they have spent a lot of time there. I would say more than 5 years at least, being university students they are more prone to becoming the future MNC white collar wokers hence supporting my earlier point.

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