Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Colloquial English, Scourge of the ESL Sea
For the past week or so, this Chinese menu has been making the internet rounds. It is so hilariously mistranslated some people declared it had to be a hoax. Fortunately, the friendly linguists at Language Log were all over that, with Ben Zimmer's post, Engrish Explained. Zimmer cites a comment left by an anonymous Chinese prof in defense of the authenticity of the horribly mangled item names, who gives an example explanation for one of the items. Part of his explanation states:
Finally: "gan si" meaning shredded dried tofu, but literally translated as "dry silk." The problem here is that the word "gan" means both "to dry" and "to do," and the latter meaning has come to mean "to fuck." Unfortunately, the recent proliferation of Colloquial English dictionaries in China means people choose the vulgar translation way too often, on the grounds that it's colloquial.
Note my added emphasis. I'm sure many ESL teachers are groaning. How many times do we hear that our students want to learn colloquial English? How many times do we have students proudly use their newly acquired phrases in horribly inappropriate situations, under the impression that it makes them sound more "native"? How many times do we find ourselves striking through "wanna" and "gonna" in formal academic papers? I grant you, this leads to many a hilarious classroom story* with which to entertain our friends, but it's hardly a good educational or linguistic goal. I wish students would believe me when I tell them that they don't really want to use colloquial English as much as they think they do.

I am all for students learning to recognize and understand colloquial expressions and idioms. I'm not even really against students using them if they understand the correct social context in which to do it. But often, second language learners end up sounding really bizarre, stilted, or comical without meaning to. I had a coworker in Japan who would watch Larry King on SkyTV, print out the transcript, and then bring it to me with all the idioms highlighted to demand explanation. I spent one very surreal afternoon of trying to explain the phrase "He fell out of the stupid tree and hit every branch on the way down," all the time being horrified by the thought that this poor man with absolutely no hint of natural prosody in his English would try to use it when speaking to a native speaker.

The idea that there are now people out there trying to use colloquial dictionaries to teach themselves more "native-like" speech is horrible. They should be plastered with warnings like "For receptive use only!", "Use with extreme caution!", or "Consult native speakers for correct use!" Why in the world anyone ever thought to use such a dictionary to translate a menu is beyond me. I'm not sure if this is better or worse than students who simply use whatever translated word is listed first in their electronic dictionary, leading to my mother getting emails thanking her for her "precious speech" at a conference. I wish more teachers would emphasize proper dictionary use in the early years, before I end up with college students who can't be separated from their electronic dictionaries, nor dissuaded from the idea that longer words are always better.

*Hilarious Classroom Story

During my first semester at MSU, I was teaching Level 1 in the intensive ESL program. We were working on descriptive language, so I had the students do short Show and Tell presentations about an item of their choice. One student brought in a keychain. His presentation was this:

"This is a keychain. I borrow it from my roommate. It is very funny. When you squeeze the ass, the shit comes out."

He was entirely correct. When you squeezed the ass of the plastic pig, it pushed out a little plastic balloon of "shit". However, it also lead to a mini-lesson on word choice for in-class presentations vs. talking to one's roommate.

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