Thursday, July 26, 2007

Ice Cream by Any Other Name . . .

If you've ever bought an ice cream bar in China, then you know that it is something distinctly different from the same experience in North America, or elsewhere in the English ice cream eating world. Ice cream in China seems to be much more akin to Ice Milk. And asking for an ice cream (冰淇淋 bīngqílín) is even more different than you'd encounter in North America.

Despite these very clear differences, it seems like there are a number of similarities where words that are shared from one language to another.

For language learners this is a tricky thing. It is not something you can just count on freely and hope it exists. Just trying out the English word when you don't know the native word will get you nothing but puzzled looks and only further confuse your listener. This is mainly because when one word is borrowed into another language it kind-of adopts the sounds of that new language rather than retain its purely native pronunciation. Knowing just what native sound it has adopted isn't something you can just guess at. Believe me, I've tried.

There seem to be far fewer instances of shared vocabulary between Chinese and English than there are between Korean and English, and between Korean and Chinese. Yet they do exist and it seems to me that the best way to use this truth it to see it as a way to faster vocabulary acquisition. You might have your preferences (words that sound like your native tongue, or words that are completely different) when it comes to language learning, but the fact is that many words have already migrated from one language to another, like it or not.

What am I talking about, you ask? Take a very universal word like Ice Cream. In Korean this is 아이스크림 a-i-su-ku-rim, which if read out directly sounds very much like the English. Battery in Korean is 배터리 bae-to-ri. There quite a number of loans from English to Korean, but I can't just walk down the street and try to add Korean pronunciations to all the English words I know and be understood by anyone.

Chinese and English contain less of these shared words, most of them loaned from English into Chinese. It is hard to tell, however, whether these are direct loans from English, or whether they came to Chinese from English, by way of Korean or Japanese. Card is an example of a word that exists in all three places. Credit Card in Chinese is 信用卡 xìnyòngka. Xìnyòng is Credit, and the last part seems to be card, with the final sound dropped off. In Korean it is 신용카드 shin-yong-ka-du. a striking similarity in Chinese-in fact this American cannot hear the difference when they are spoken in either language.

Library in Korean is 도서관 to-so-guan. Library in Chinese is 图书馆 túshūguǎn. Sadly the same is not true for English. Sugar in Korean is 설탕 sol-tang. In Chinese the sweet stuff is 糖 táng.

Because of the Chinese tonal systems, it is next to impossible for 'English adopted Chinese' words to be understood by native Chinese speakers. There are even fewer loans from Chinese into English. If I walk into a restaurant in America and ask for Tofu (豆腐 dòufu) using the Chinese pronunciation, I won't be understood. I also cant use 'tofu' with the soft 't' that we use, when in China.

In fact, as a general rule, anytime you opt to mix two languages when trying to speak to someone who only speaks one, you've only hurt your chances of being understood. So what good is all of this if I cannot double up on vocabulary, sort of save some HD space for other words? It seems that memorizing the words might be a little easier if you know it sounds like the word in another language that you are already familiar with. This does not mean that you still don't need to "relearn" this word that is strikingly similar to the one you already know. Too bad!

There may be more to come on this.

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