I think everyone will agree: there’s nothing like the Olympics to get you thinking about toplects and regional variants in language usage.
Or is that just me? Oh. Ok.
Well, since I’ve spent more time during the Olympics thinking about prescriptive vs. descriptive linguistics than I have China vs. USA on the medals table, I thought I’d share a little anecdote that perfectly illustrates the need for better (descriptive) materials for learners of Chinese.
(For those of you watching Chinese coverage of the games you might find my Olympics Listening Guide from four years ago helpful and also out of date.)
I’ve watched some of the London 2012 games with two friends: one from England and the other from Taiwan. It was in the semi-finals of one of the swimming races that I discovered my friend from Taiwan didn’t know the Mandarin word I was using for “semi-final.”
What I was saying:
- bàn juésài 半决赛 = semi-final
The word she says:
- fùsài 复赛 = semi-final
Now, a quick click on the hanzi above will show you that BOTH entries appear in the MDBG online dictionary, but here’s my niúròu with the entries: there’s no warning that “bàn juésài” 半决赛 would not be understood in Taiwan.
Now, I don’t blame MDBG specifically. The Oxford Little English-Chinese Dictionary only has “bàn juésài” 半决赛 under “Semi-final” and there’s also no warning that it might not be understood everywhere. What I want is for it to say something like this:
I know I’m starting to repeat what I’ve already said in the Future for Chinese/English Dictionaries post, but we’ve got a real problem here.
Imagine I suddenly decide I want to get a job in Taipei. I already speak Mandarin to a reasonable level, but I need some materials to tell me ALL the differences I should expect to run into when I get there. Does this exist? Is there a dictionary of Mandarin Chinese specifically geared toward the variation spoken in Taiwan? I haven’t been able to find it.
Let’s compare for a moment the materials that exist just on Wikipedia for a learner of English who would like to know the difference between American and British English. Most people know about some of the pronunciation differences and the spelling differences (like “color” and “colour”) but there are also differences in grammar and vocabulary that are important.
Overview (including grammar):
Vocabulary differences :
- List of American words not widely used in the United Kingdom
- List of British words not widely used in the United States
- Lists of words having different meanings in American and British English
Even the way I pronounce “semi-final” in English is different from the way my British friends do (I say “semi” so that it rhymes with “my” and the British say it so it rhymes with “me”). But don’t worry. That’s listed here (do a CTL + F search for “semi” to find it quickly).
That is a lot of scholarship and painstaking list making that has been done over many years. Perhaps it’s not completely exhaustive, but it’s probably pretty close.
There are also dictionaries that show regional differences in spelling or vocabulary. For example, look at the (American English) Dictionary.com entry for “aeroplane”. It shows “Chiefly British” and a link to the American word “airplane.” The inverse is true of the Oxford dictionary’s entry for “airplane.”
That’s exactly what we need for Chinese. And we need it all in one resource. A little bit of scholarship has been done regarding Taiwanese Mandarin as we can see in this Wikipedia article as well various other small articles. But these only give a few examples. What we need are exhaustive lists. It would be exhausting for one person to make them, but if we work together online we can do it. That’s what the Olympics is all about!
And just to be clear, I don’t only want the variations listed for Taiwanese Mandarin, but also Canton Mandarin (coming soon on this blog), Beijing Mandarin, Singaporean Mandarin, etc. You name it. And I’d like to see that information go into the dictionaries.
It would also be great if you could get phrase books and dictionaries customized for the particular region you’ll be interacting with. This is where e-books / apps could really be awesome.
For example, imagine Chinese 24/7 gets made into an e-book (I’ve asked the publisher and it’s just too complicated with tables and graphics to convert it to an e-book right now). But imagine someone could order my book and had the option to order the Taiwan Mandarin version. How awesome would it be if every time “xīngqī” 星期 appears in my book it were automatically replaced with xīngqí (notice the tone of “qi” is 2nd / rising in Taiwanese Mandarin)!?
Or if someone checks the “Northern Mandarin” option all the 儿化 gets added in so “yìdiǎn” 一点 gets automatically replaced with “yìdiǎnr” 一点儿. You must admit that would be cool. (Feel free to steal this idea, make a lot of money, and just give me a little thanks on the website somewhere.)
And it would be great to have an online dictionary linked in with some print-on-demand publisher that could do the same thing. Oh you’re going to Shanghai for a year? No problem just click the “Shanghai Mandarin” option and get your very own English/Chinese dictionary complete with all the Mandarin words they use in Shanghai printed and mailed to you before you leave.
Chinese is such a tough language and there’s nothing more discouraging than spending a lot of time getting the tones and vocabulary for words just right only to find out “That’s not how we say it here.” With the right resources, and a whole online community working together, we could solve that problem. But I’m still not entirely sure where that one, central database is going to be. There’s still much to be done.