As I’ve mentioned before, all of my classmates in Shanghai were from Korea. And, naturally, all of my teachers were Chinese. None of the teachers spoke Korean and this was a beginning-mid level class for Chinese, so communication was difficult at times. They all spoke at least a little bit of English (English seems to be the common language whenever you have people from different places interact), and I, the only native English speaker in the room, had the great pleasure of hearing them speak to each other.
Before I continue, I would like to say that any time someone has the guts to try speaking a new language, they deserve respect. A pat on the back, a hug, a cookie, a raised glass, a high five. Speaking a foreign language is difficult and scary, especially when you’re near a native speaker who will pick up on every single mistake you make. As an inherently shy person, it took me a long time to overcome the fear of speaking to people in general, let alone in a new language that I was sure I was butchering with my hideous American accent. The people who are brave enough to reach out, even at the risk of sounding like idiots, deserve some recognition. Anyone who makes fun of a non-native’s mispronunciation or bad grammar is just downright mean.
That being said, the conversations I overheard were hilarious.
My teachers and my classmates all had pretty heavy accents when they used English, but I was able to understand them without much trouble. This is because I’m a native English speaker, so my brain has had upwards of 20 something years of practice sorting out Englishy sounds and making sense of them (native speaker powers, activate!). And as I had more time to get used to their accents, I was able to decipher them more and more quickly.
My classmates and teachers didn’t have this luxury.
Have you ever been learning a new language and had to speak to someone who used an accent different from the one you’d been studying? It’s hard as balls. It’s even harder if it’s a foreign accent, not just a different dialect of the same language (I’m studying in Argentina now, and I’ll just say that Rioplatense Spanish with a Japanese accent confuses the shit out of me). This is what my classmates and teachers were going through every time they tried to speak to each other.
Korean student: Lao shi, wei shen me ni mei you yong rrr? (Chinese for: Teacher, why didn’t you use “le?”) (‘le’ is a Chinese word used to indicate past tense, and she wanted to know why the sentence was considered past tense without it.)
Chinese teacher, confused because “re” and “le” are two completely different words (‘re’ means hot): Zhe ge mei you re. (This one doesn’t have ‘re.’)
Korean student: Zhi dao rrr, dan shi, wei shen me? (I know hot, but why?) [Zhe dao le would have meant “I know”]
Chinese teacher, switching to English: In zait suntence, way are nout a talking about ze taimpraturr. (In that sentence we weren’t talking about the temperature).
Korean student, frustrated: Why you don’t-uh use rr ata enda dat sentence-uh? (Why didn’t you use “le” at the end of that sentence?)
Chinese teacher: So soray, I cannota understaind you meaning. (I’m so sorry, I don’t know what you mean)
Korean student, gesturing in the air to draw the character: Bu shi! No ees rrr. I wanna know rrr! Why you don’t-uh use rrr! (No, not ‘re.’ I’m asking about ‘le!’ Why didn’t you use ‘le?’)
After a while, when they each realized that they had no idea what the other person was talking about, they would all look at me.
Korean student, to me: You unnerstan-uh me? You terr herr! (Do you understand me? You ask her!)
Chinese teacher, to me: You know what she trying to saying? (Do you know what she’s trying to say?)
They ended up appointing me as the interpreter, but all I did was take what they were trying to tell each other in English and reword it in better English.
This makes me wonder what the exchange students here in Argentina sound like to the natives. I imagine that somewhere on the Internet there’s a blog about how hilarious it sounds when American and Japanese students try to speak Spanish together.