Practice makes perfect

I’ve been chatting with a number of people in Mandarin, Taiwanese and Japanese today. After many years of neglect, my command of these languages is gradually improving.

My Mandarin is more or less fluent, though there are many gaps in my vocabulary, which I’m doing my best to fill. Some of the people I’ve been talking to told me that they thought I was a native Mandarin speaker, which is encouraging.

I only have a limited knowledge of Taiwanese, but that should improve with practice. I can understand the language to some extent thanks to many years of hearing it while in Taiwan, and when I hear people speaking it, it brings back lots of memories.

My Japanese is also gradually coming back to me. I can’t speak it particularly well at the moment, but can understand quite a lot. When talking to my Japanese contacts today, I was pleased to realise that I could actually follow most of what they said in Japanese. One problem I have is that I often find myself at loss for appropriate verbs when I get to the end of my Japanese sentences.

32 thoughts on “Practice makes perfect

  1. サイモンさんへ、

  2. I feel the same way about Taiwanese – or even just Taiwanese mandarin. I spent only a year in Taiwan, but whenever I hear Taiwanese or Taiwanese mandarin my ears perk up. When I hear Mandarin with other accents or other dialects of Chinese my ears find it rough. Except Hakka, I learned a little Hakka and I like it the most.

  3. I can only dream of one day being confused for a native Russian. The best I think any иностранец can hope for is to be thought to be from one of the former republics.
    I once evoked a surprised double-take from someone for flawless Armenian. I gloat about it to my wife to this day. 🙂
    The highest compliment I ever got in my Spanish pronounciation was that I sounded like an authentic Mexican used-car commercial – good enough for me!
    I know absolutely no one who speaks German so I’ve never gotten feedback and, consequently, my German withered on the vine, so to speak. I have noticed that I command little respect from German Shepherds…

    I really, really want to improve in Russian. Since I don’t want to travel there and I know few native speakers who are always reluctant to talk in Russian (must be a cold-war thing), I may have to bite the bullet and actually talk to strangers on-line.

  4. Alain – long verbs are the problem, I think. It’s usually the kun yomi of verbs and other words that I can’t remember or don’t know. I can often guess the on yomi, thanks to my knowledge of Chinese.

  5. I can almost never remember “kun”- although I like the sound of them much better. The only reason I even remember “on” readings is because they’re so short and practically invariable. It just seems like there’s always a REALLY good chance the reading is “SHI” or “SHOU” or “SHIN”. Plus, the radicals help out a little.

    To me, though, japanese verbs never really seem that long until they’re romanized… I dunno.

  6. On yomi readings are the most difficult for me. I’ve been struggling with Japanese for many years. I finally gave in to paying extra for a Japanese channel on cable TV just so I could have the practice of listening. Because kun readings are longer, the words have more shape to my ear. I can distinguish between words more easily when learning them. As Josh pointed out, there is lots of overlapping with on yomi. For me, who has no knowledge of Chinese, but wish I had, the on yomi are an enjoyable but very challenging pursuit. Your knowledge of Chinese is a real advantage, and it must be interesting to have insights into the linguistic legacy of Chinese on the Japanese system of writing.

  7. I agree with Travis that looking at how Chinese characters are pronounced in different languages s interesting. Having taken three years of high chool Japanese and now learning Mandarin, however, I am less than convinced of its utility. Just as interesting and perhaps a hair more useful is looking at syntactical patterns common within Mandarin, Japanese, and even Korean. For example, all three use measure words and specialized possessive particles in surprisingly similar ways.

  8. “To me, though, japanese verbs never really seem that long until they’re romanized…”

    That’s because you can bury lots of kunyomi syllables in a single character, with okurigana to get the form. Once you romanize it, you have to spell out all the syllables.

    “all three use measure words and specialized possessive particles in surprisingly similar ways”

    I think that’s because both Korean and Japanese borrowed the concept from Chinese. You only use them with the Chinese version of numbers in Japanese, for example (you wouldn’t add a counter to “hitotsu”, you’d use “ichi” or a variant — “ippon” for example… the “counter” version for people isn’t a counter, but an irregular form – hitori, futari, and only for those two – then you move to Chinese numbers — “sannin”, not “mitsunin”).

  9. True enough, BnB, for what I know of Japanese. Consider, however, Korean duge, saege, nege, etc. based on combining the native Korean counting system (equivalent to the Japanese hitotsu, futatsu, etc.) and the Chinese all-purpose counter (Mandarin ge). Crossing languages in the same word is enough to make one “hyperventilate”.

  10. I was interested to learn through Ben’s and BNB’s entries that Korean and Chinese use counters also. While the point of relating the languages via a few systems is applicable, I think the bond with Chinese must be more than skin deep. They are obviously at opposite ends of the language spectrum, but that did not prevent the ancient Japanese from assimilating elements from Chinese culture and language into their own. The result reveals the inimitable way the Japanese have of being able to squeeze a round peg into a square slot in a perfectly snug fit, without the light of day having any crack into which it can be absorbed. In the world of physics, that’s an impossible feat, unless the material is malleable, such as clay, wax, or chewing gum. Chewing gum… chuuin gamu in Japanese, is one of thousands of English words borrowed, used, or abused by the nation of the Rising Sun. But the encyclopedic list of assimilated Americanisms does not make Japanese a Germanic language. The traditional identity remains solid no matter how flexible the surface appearance. Japanese has assimilated Chinese elements in the similar manner that Yiddish enjoys the mitvah of Hebrew and Russian. A rich Ali Baba treasury of Arabic and Persian overflow their chests in the Turkish language. These are all totally unrelated languages nevertheless successfully blending in with their host. Japanese takes this a step further. In a land where the simplicity of nature is deeply imbedded in the consciousness, the culture outdoes itself in its degree of tolerance for the complex. The personality of the written language aptly reflects the involved social system. But imagine that Japanese had gone another history, and instead of adopting the influences of Kanji, had developed a simple system as easy to use as Romaji or the Kanas up to the present day. What would we think if someone, say from Omniglot, had proposed grafting Kanji, onyomi and kunyomi onto the Japanese writing system. Firstly, we might argue, what’s the reason for joining 2 such dissimilar languages? Secondly, the extreme complexity of the system would be so outlandishly difficult to learn, that we might consider it impossible for any human being to master… much less allow for the idea that an entire nation would depend on it. There is no doubt that this inventor would be classified as a genius in the artistic and poetic sense. However, Simon might have to add an Impractical Scripts category to the Constructed Scripts section to accommodate such an epic undertaking. So, it appears that Japanese is literally swimming in the crimson China ocean, yet retains its unique style and novel invention. Again, fitting that round into a square, the marriage and divorce from Chinese is simultaneous.

  11. Nice post, Travis. Chinese character seem to be the first writing system a nation learns, being supplanted to various degrees by subsequently more efficient systems. Don’t get me wrong: I love ’em, but God (tamada!) are they pointless.

    Written language seems to have an inertia all its own- we don’t lake to change how we write, whether or not it has any relation to how we speak.

  12. Ben, that’s a good point about languages wanting to hold onto their traditions. English is a prime example, as our spelling remains intact from an archaic pronunciation of earlier history. English spelling certainly has character, and I hold people who undergo spelling bees in high esteem. As for me, I am thankful for spell check in my computer program.
    I noticed in my kanji book that many of the characters from present day China have been simplified. You mentioned in another blog that you are taking Mandarin. I’m curious as to how students of Chinese deal with this. There is the complex old way, and the somewhat simplified new way of writing characters. Are you required to learn both? I don’t think the same is true for Japanese, and if there are some cases of simplification, it’s not an extreme measure. Japan has made the most enormous transformation in its culture the past hundred years… yet the writing system with its fathomless bottom remains steadfast as one of the mysteries and wonders of the world… illogical, impractical, yet it rhymes with the Japanese culture, and faces all that nature and history can throw at it, like a lone ancient bonzai somehow surviving in splendid beauty against a barren cliffside. The other languages of the world seem to have come in from the rain, or at least made use of an umbrella. The kanji fall onto pages like the thousands of rain droplets over the rice fields and neon cities, and the Japanese seem to sense the difference in each drop. It is their language.
    English, which is also traditional in its spelling, has a polar opposite history. It is one of the most linguistically economical languages on earth. There is not near the extent of grammatical self reflection that is found in most other languages: no accord of the adjectives, barely a trace of noun declension remains, no masculine or feminine inanimate objects, none of this, none of that… the emphasis is on the base line of the communication. The process of grammar cedes to the intention of meaning. But thankfully that’s not the end of the story. The respectable show of irregulars and the colorful spelling system of English differs from Esperanto’s homogeneous puritanism. Without this, I think language loses its heart, and becomes flat as an accountant’s ledger. Not that I have anything against Esperanto or ledgers… but I think the beauty of any language, real or invented, resides in its face and its blemishes. Maybe that’s one of the reasons why we refuse to change the system. And looking back on what I’ve written above, gives me pleasure to notice my own integration with the archaic play among the alphabetic cast of characters. I personally wouldn’t want it to change.

  13. Travis:

    There are currently two Chinese scripts, Simplified Chinese and Traditional Chinese. The former is used in mainland China and Singapore while the latter is used in Taiwan, Hong Kong and Macau.

    Modern Japanese Kanji is somewhere in between Simplified & Traditional Chinese in terms of “complexity”.

    The creation, or rather distinction between Simplified & Traditional Chinese was more political than anything else. Simplified Chinese wasn’t even officially adopted until the 1960’s I believe by PRC as in the early days of PRC, traditional Chinese was still used.

    Simplified Chinese characters have been used for hundreds of years, many derived from the calligraphy script of 草書 / 草书 Caoshu, and were used mostly for “unofficial documents” such as personal letters, notes… etc. All the PRC really did was made it “official”. In fact, many people in regions like Taiwan and Hong Kong today still occasionally write a few simplified characters when writing letters or quick notes.

    The difference between the two is much less significant than most foreigners would assume. Not ALL characters are simplified in Simplified Chinese. Because Chinese is character-based, as opposed to phonetic letters, most of the time one can guess the meaning of the characters either by its elements, radical or just by context. In general, it is slightly easier for someone who was educated in Traditional Chinese to learn the Simplified form, but it isn’t THAT much difficult the other way around.

    I personally was educated in TC and I picked up SC in matter of days. My girlfriend on the other hand, was educated in SC and she picked up TC in maybe two-three weeks? And this wasn’t in a classroom environment or anything, just living our daily lives.

  14. I am required to learn both simplified and traditional, at least for reading. Interestingly, I have found that first learning the simplified form actually makes learning the traditional form easier, I think by providing a relatively simple pneumonic representing its more intricate cousin.

    Although I might not put it as poetically as you, I too feel some attachment to both English spelling and Chinease characters, so I don’t believe in doing away with them wholly. Language is, however, about communicating ideas. The more phonetic a written language is, in general, the easier this becomes for all levels of language users. As such, I see a need for a phonetically-based international standard for each.

  15. Weili, thank you for the clearly laid out description of the Chinese systems. It’s fascinating to learn about its history and the character variations that were developed. I had no idea the simplified version had been in use for hundreds of years already, nor did I know that it was so logically based on the traditional system… though I suspected as much from such an ingenious culture.
    Ben, you put the hammer on the nail. Language is about communication ultimately. With a language that is so functional as to take second place to the ideas conveyed by it, comes very close to where English has evolved. It’s one of the no nonesense qualities that I admire about English. However, and there’s always a however, why is it, I wonder, that all natural languages have expressed degrees of illogical constructions into the soul of their utterances and writings? I think Polly sums it up admirably in the compact truth: “Isn’t that the universal tension of life? The practical vs.. the beautiful”

  16. All natural languages have been in existence for hundreds to thousands of years. Throughout this time, our society has evolved and changed, sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse. Whatever the case, our languages had to adapt, both spoken and written. After such a long time, it is impossible to keep everything logical.

  17. Hi Weili,
    That’s true most of the time. There are exceptions. Sign Languages of the Deaf spontaneously have developed where communities of the Deaf are to be found all over the world. In these languages, which develop into full systems of communication, irregulars also take shape. While the fingerspelling handshapes and a good number of the signs themselves originated from France, the Deaf took the bones of an import and turned it into a real language in a very short period of time. American Sign Language has some degree of standard, but enjoys a rich variety of regionalism. But what I was originally talking about wasn’t so much in reference to why irregulars pop up liberally in languages, but how they take such exotic forms. I know they are the veil of their cultures, and as you pointed out, this can carry over for centuries. Some languages see chairs, roads, and roofs as being masculine, feminine or neuter. But then they may assign the opposite sex for its adjective. Turkish, speaking about veils, dresses itself in layer upon layer, and unites the whole poetically through vowel harmonization. Japanese carefully negotiates the use of the personal pronouns, avoiding being too direct. Their keigo system of linguistic politeness is woven with interchanging complexities, yet it continues to stress the indirect expression. So I’m not all together convinced that languages are satisfied with a purely logical base. Something of a deeper cultural expression purposely seems to need its place in our mode of communication as well as the communication itself.

  18. What’s “exotic” to one may not be to another. I know many Westerners find anything Asian to be “exotic” but to Asians, their own cultures and languages are not exotic at all as it’s something they all grew up with. The opposite is also true.

    With that said, we must keep in mind that until the recent centuries, human cultures and languages developed regionally and only influenced and/or were influenced by their close neighbors. Therefore after thousands of years, it’s no surprise that one culture or language may seem “exotic” to another.

    Another thing we have to keep in mind is that natural languages, both spoken and written, were developed over the course of many generations. It’s very seldom, if ever, that a natural spoken or written language was invented by one person or even a small group of people. This fact also contributes to natural languages not being completely logical.

  19. Weili,
    I’ve been giving thought to this discussion. It’s interesting to consider the variety of points of view that the study of language naturally provides. Your comments stay with me a while before I agree or disagree with them. It’s stimulating to consider what has been mentioned. I still maintain a preference towards the artistic or craft-like aspects of language. I agree with what you say about the development of languages. But it seems simultaneously true that design for the sake of beauty is also at play. Then perhaps ‘beauty’ or ‘ornamental design’ or ‘cultural color’ would have been better choices of description than ‘exotic’ for my previous entry. Utility certainly plays a major role in language, after all, it is a tool of communication. A visit to the tool shed in some garden might assist in my comparison. When the door is opened to the corroded structure, the array of dirty garden implements may look as ancient as a museum display of ancient weaponry. Examining the pieces in most cases reveals no surprises. These are down to earth practical necessities for digging, raking, transporting, and more variations. A good tool has a universal appeal, in that a broom sweeps as well here as it does there. When the tools’ shapes are analyzed, they are clearly fashioned for specific purposes. It can be argued that a spade and a sickle are equally un-exotic to those who use them daily. But look a little closer at the items in that shed and there might be some surprises. Somewhere in there, a hammer with a blue head, a tool box painted bright red with a well designed logo on it, and screw drivers with transparent yellow plastic handles as dense as amber will surface. The colors didn’t have to be there. But it feels good to handle something that goes beyond necessity. For instance, what does this blog on your computer screen look like? What is the frame of the application window like? It is a practical tool, but the way the colors are coordinated, and the arrangement of the icons are all part of the company’s best efforts to make the presentation as clear as possible, yet aesthetically pleasing for the viewer. Tools are practical above all else, but they are far from being segregated from beauty. Flatware is usually decorated, as are plates and dishes, televisions, automobiles, tooth brushes, windows and doorways with countless variations of molding, postage stamps, money, fish scale cobble streets, car tires and their hub caps, etc… I believe that most people like to experience something attractive while doing menial chores. Machine-like practicality has little place in our choices even when it comes to everyday tools. In my opinion language appears to share this phenomenon. It is a tool with inbuilt artistry, like the patterns or weave on the blanket that keeps you warm for the winter.
    Perhaps most people don’t think of their native language as a thing of beauty. Yet most are aware when something fine or inventive occurs, such as the case of poetic license. Poetry itself is the irregular shadow of common speech, as irregulars in language give the edge to grammar. English is my native tongue, and most of the time I’m not aware of the English I speak. That doesn’t stop me from admiring it when I do become aware of its special features. All languages have their personalities. I shouldn’t say that English is exotic to me, but it contains many historic puzzles and finely constructed curiosities that I find as beautiful as its ability to communicate directly. Without the quirks, I think language would suffer a disconnect with human psychology. Our tools reflect our needs, attitudes about life, service, space, and expression. I really believe you can find all of that in a spoon.

  20. Hi Weili,
    Thank you for your comment. Actually, my point is rather simple, but I may have smothered it in too much wrapping. I’ll try this: “When language is thought of as a practical device, I feel that its essence is being passed by.” Kind of like a surgeon performing a bypass on someone’s heart. The doctor cares about saving the patient’s life, but knows little or nothing of that heart. If someone pressed me to classify language as either a science or an art, I would unhesitatingly choose art. Meaning that languages are periodically willing to deviate from their tools which were conceived for clear communication in favor of an atmospheric display of culture where the grammar and vocabulary insist on getting as much attention as the subjects they describe. So while I agree with you about the role history and time play on any language, I also believe unique features may be brought on by a need to express something at once philosophical, ornamental, and extralinguistic… along with the logical and linguistic. At least that’s how it strikes me. Hope this was clearer, and also hope that you have a great New Year.

  21. Rereading my entry, the metaphore may be better stated this way: The doctor is EFFECTIVE in saving the patient’s life, but knows little or nothing about that heart.

  22. Maybe languages today, at least most of them, have evolved to a stage where it’s more “art” than “science”, but it hasn’t always been so.

    Language, as most of us would agree, is ultimately a tool for us to communicate with each other. It’s only after it has achieved that goal does it become an art.

    If you have ever trained dogs, or any other trainable animals, you’d know that it IS possible to communicate with these animals through language alone but they must be kept very simple, such as “sit, shake, and stay”. At the same time, these animals will learn to communicate with you. For example, my dog knows that when she wants to go out, she’d just sit by the door and look back quietly at me and I would let her out. She did try barking when she was younger but I ignored her so she learned barking doesn’t work but being quiet does.

    Point is, when languages first came into form, it was undoubtedly very simple and straightforward and was meant to be nothing more than a tool so humans as a group can function more efficiently. But as we evolved as a species, our languages started expanding and became complex enough that we can do creative things with it.

    Look at how computers have evolved for example. When it was first invented, it was nothing more than a machine that was made out of boring metal boxes. Today, you can buy computers that come in all shapes, sizes and COLORS. I believe most consumers buy computers base on the APPEARANCE as much as its specs. This can also be said for any object that was first invented as a “tool” only later that it became an art.

  23. Weili,
    You trained your dog well. Can you do anything with my parrot? Things are in reverse here. I’m the one who has to behave at the door before she lets me go out for the day, otherwise, I’ve learned, there’ll be no end to her complaints when I return. Nevertheless, your point about simplicity works both with your dog and my bird… the rules are straight forward, the communication yielding the desired result, the language coming from the smallest common denominator.
    I think it’s about time now for one of my predictable ‘however’s. Taken the fact that languages develop their first baby steps as simple modes… perhaps ‘give’, ‘don’t’, ‘come’, ‘eat’, etc… and the original sentences most likely followed this pattern of immediacy, there’s another aspect that would play into the story of language development, even from these earliest stages. What you or I call simple, and what simplicity ancient people had at their disposition, would be very different animals. Superstition, awe, ingrained hierarchy, lack of individualism, no fear of germs, dances with mountains, nights dripping with the milky way’s glow on things that can eat you in the upgraded shadows, a clock face with only 4 hours on it: summer hour, fall hour, winter hour, and spring hour, etc… their simple world so long ago couldn’t have been so plain after all. To them it may have seemed practical and basic. We think in terms of full sentences, perhaps they thought in terms of foot print metaphors, demon fires, and bear breath union. I once read that a theory proposes the probability that percussive rhythms with rocks and wood predated spoken language. Artistic or creative invention may have arrived on the scene before nouns, verbs, and adjectives. By the time language showed up, rhythm would forever remove any hope of starting anything from fundamental scratch. I would imagine then, that languages were born with inherent adventure and impurities from their first breath.

    Your quote: > I like what you say about computers. They did start as a tool in its most severe definition. They were created to do the one thing a human is incapable of performing: functioning in pure logic. As a bonus, the computer does this without yawning. The attractive streamline appearance complements its full popularity in modern societies world wide. I might add, that not only is the computer itself evolving along our aesthetic needs, but its usage is expanding into outside applications as well. You can make movies, music, art, conversation via IM and video communication, etc… The same is true for the telephone, which is now sharing its functions as a television, internet appliance, calculator, etc… and all the while being at the cutting edge of design. Electronic devices have become versatile if not schizophrenic. What I would point out in the comparison you make between computers and human language is that computers are better sports. Macs and PCs don’t make war, their distributors do. Therefore, I think the machines and their manufacture, might not fit in the category of language or ride alongside the definition of linguistic evolution since they are the tool themselves and not the initiation of ideas behind them.

    Weili, now it’s late and I’m getting ready to turn in for the night. Had I gotten an earlier start 8,000 years ago, I would have seen an unpolluted ceiling sky filled with a band of milk or forest eyes. I’d use my lap top sparingly to preserve the battery, as the next recharge is millenia off. But I would have witnessed the birth of language first hand so I could report back with certainty.

  24. In my post above, I wrote: Your quote>… but the transfer onto this blog ate it up for some reason. I was referring to your 5th paragraph about computers. Strange things happen when blogs are posted at midnight. Maybe computers are more anthropomorphic than I give them credit.

  25. I believe what we disagree on boils down to WHY language was created 🙂

    I believe language was created because humans needed a tool to communicate, you on the other hand, believe language was created as a way to express art. Please correct me if I’m wrong.

    I am no linguist and all the statements I made here are based on my own knowledge and personal experience. Although I’ve studied a bit about various languages and their development, I don’t believe I’ve ever read anything that specifically deals with WHY languages were created.

    Perhaps you, or someone else could shed some light on this?

  26. Are you sure you’re not a linguist? Your description of the Chinese writing system was masterful. Weili, I don’t disagree with you that the WHY of language is to communicate. Just using your description of Chinese as an example, it was brief, clear, and instructive. Nothing could be removed from that paragraph, nor was it in need of more details in order to answer the question you were addressing. The delivery of information was in perfect proportion to its context. So let me distinguish here that I wouldn’t suggest the WHY of language is more artistic than communicative. I just see we human beings as a mix. What we call communication is inextricably linked to our artistic and philosophical sides… or in other words, our illogical and creative cultures. A machine such as the computer works on direct principles. We breathing creatures are more complex. Everything we say has multiple meanings tied into personal histories. Layer upon layer of subtext goes into a simple ‘hello’. Saying hello is not as clean as the computer’s equivalent of being switched on. When you turn on your computer or flick on the TV, washing machine, or lamp, that’s the equivalent of saying ‘hello’… the introduction is then complete. On the other hand the outcome of a conversation with another human being with the word hello will depend on how you say that word, and what lead up to your using it in the first place. A fast hello, an indifferent one, an inviting one, a seductive one, a curt one, a snobby one, a happy one… The communication, or lack of it, to follow the introduction will be equally involved in opinion, need, and personal history. Again, taking your description of Chinese as an example, the entry ended on a note showing your and your girlfriend’s education in Chinese. My computer has yet to reveal anything personal with me. While I worry if my computer gets too hot during a long session of use, it has never reciprocated by inquiring about my health.
    I don’t feel a disagreement with you on the WHY. I think it has more to do with the HOW.
    May I take a stab at your question about why languages were developed? It really got me thinking. I’ve often wondered how languages came into being, but not why. So, just throwing out ideas before going to work, vague as they may be… I would imagine language existed before words were created. Humans are a system, our bodies as well as our society. All living things are part of a system. The parts of the ameba cell communicate with each other to function. So our blood, neurons, and every cell make up the system we call ‘me’ and ‘you’. Then there is the non cellular system of the species, how we relate to one another. I think the various modes of language are an extension of that universal binding to systems. It supports and reaffirms life. Have you come up with ideas about that question?

  27. I absolutely agree with you, now that I understand more about your point 🙂

    I think it boils down to “language came into existence before ‘words’.” 🙂

    I am FAR from being a linguist 🙂 I am interested in languages, but that doesn’t make me an expert. Aside from Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Vietnamese and English, I know next to nothing about other languages 😉

  28. Weili,
    You have a solid foothold in the Far East… and also in the Western perspective of communication by virtue of your English. I understand what you are saying about not having the training as a linguist, but what term describes someone with as deep a natural interest in languages as you have in East Asia. “Enthusiast” doesn’t seem strong enough. In any case, your scope is enviable… and I’m sure also very enjoyable.
    Last night I had an interesting encounter with a Deaf friend who I hadn’t seen in many years. I have had next to no exposure in sign language for over 10 years. I had been an interpreter, but was a little worried that I would bore my friend to tears with my compromised current abilities in silent communication. I was signing awkwardly to begin with, which was embarrassing. I used to have the reputation of ‘magic fingers’. Fortunately my guest had a lot to tell me, so I didn’t need to do much ‘talking’. The odd thing was that I understood him better last night than I ever had before. Much better in fact. The explanation of a word was rarely necessary. My own signing improved over the course of the evening, but not without a forced effort.
    You and I have been discussing the degree of art in language. Last night, as Chuck told me his story, like all deaf signers, he conveyed it through the skillful dance of the arms extending to the highly activated fingers. As you may know, sign language uses its vocabulary visually. If a person is moving from here to there, you take your sign meaning ‘person’, and move him or her a foot or two in an intended direction to show the long distance traveled to Colorado. And if your car goes up in flames, you show that car sign whirling into smoke up up up above your head, following with your eyes, and coming down to meet my eyes with the appropriate expression of “all gone”, and a fast sign of your chosen emotion. These pockets of pictures have always intrigued me. I told Chuck about our discussion on languages, and if he knew of irregulars in sign language. He didn’t know what irregular meant, and was also unaware of the picture clusters he himself was producing, as being different from English. I gave him a demonstration of a signed picture sentence, then said that in English, the same would be conveyed by a string of many words. He smiled, and his eyes got big with interest. I don’t think he’d thought about that before. Interpreters and most hearing people are educated in what is best described as Pigeon English while communicating with the Deaf. So, we sign word by word, almost like a code. The Deaf adapt to our needs. It would be like rendering Japanese into our pigeon system. Here’s an example:
    English: Yesterday, I saw my friend at the post office.
    Japanese (please excuse any mistakes I’ve made here in Japanese): Kinou, yuubinkyoku de watakushi no tomodachi o mimashita.
    Pigeon: Kinou watakushi mita watakushino tomodachi ni wa yuubin kaisha.
    Yes, it’s actually that severe. This is how the Hearing have handled the languages of the Deaf. But they have adapted to our laziness. When they speak among themselves, the language is truly palpitating. Chuck used a combination with me, but mostly pigeon. When he got on a roll, and forgot I was Hearing, he slipped into Ameslan, and I was there treated to a blossoming of imagery supported by signs. I didn’t interrupt, he was so involved in catching me up on his recent history that I decided to let the issue of language dissolve, and ‘listen’.
    By the way, I’m not trying to make a point about anything here. It’s just something that I enjoyed last night. Truth be known, it rekindled my interest in sign language. Hope you have a great New Year’s Eve.

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