Jan30200910:42 am

“Cody and his trilingual immersion program”

I caught this commercial last night while watching (I’m not ashamed to admit) American Idol, and it cracked me up. I’m also not ashamed to admit that I think the more American kids (or Americans of all ages, for that matter) that we have in trilingual immersion programs, the better off we’ll be.

I’m also going to take a second to commiserate with the Cheeto-eating lady’s scorn of those who haughtily use the term “Mandarin” to refer to the Chinese language (this has been a little pet peeve of mine for awhile). My venting after the break.

I hate—I mean, hate—when people smugly use “Mandarin” to refer to the Chinese language. True, saying “Mandarin Chinese” is the commonly accepted way to distinguish that dialect of Chinese from others, like Cantonese or Shanghainese. But it seems to me that most people who use “Mandarin” have no idea what they’re actually saying and only use the term (rather than “Chinese”) because they think it makes them sound smart. Like the girl who once admonished me, when I said I speak Chinese, that “Chinese is not a language. It’s Mandarin.” Seriously?

Chinese is very much a language, one that happens to have a large number of dialects. And unlike dialects in many other languages, Chinese dialects are typically so different from one another that the speaker of a dialect from one region is unable to understand the dialect of another region. In fact, a debate rages as to whether the dialects of Chinese are actually dialects at all, or rather completely different languages.

And this is where the term “Mandarin” comes in. A “mandarin,” as many people know, refers to the nobles and magistrates in the Chinese Imperial Court. Thus, as Wikipedia tells us:

The English term “mandarin” comes from the Portuguese mandarim or Dutch mandarijn, from Indonesian/Malay məntəri, from Hindi mantri, from Sanskrit mantrin (meaning councilor or minister[1]); it is a translation of the Chinese term Guānhuà (simplified Chinese: 官话; traditional Chinese: 官話), which literally means the language of the mandarins (imperial magistrates). The term Guānhuà is often considered archaic by Chinese speakers of today.

The English term “Mandarin Chinese” actually refers to what Chinese people today refer to not as guanhua but as putonghua, literally translated as “common speech.” Putonghua is the modern, standard Chinese language taught in schools and commonly used in business and day-to-day life (and is different than both classical Chinese and regional dialects). So while most Chinese can speak a dialect from the region in which they grew up, they all learn, speak, and employ “Mandarin Chinese” as a matter of course.

Now the reason I go into this detail, other than that I think it’s interesting in its own right, is to point out that people who derisively suggest you are wrong for saying you “speak Chinese” or “study Chinese” (”It’s Mandarin“) probably don’t know what the hell they’re talking about. Anyone who is familiar with the Chinese language knows that a foreigner studying the language is of course studying Mandarin, or putonghua. Learning a regional dialect first (with the possible exception of Cantonese) would be silly and impractical, like setting out to learn French only to study Creole instead. Once you’ve learned the standard Chinese language, you might later pick up a regional dialect, or at least a few words in that dialect (and usually then by virtue of living in that region). But in no instance have I ever heard of a non-Chinese studying anything but standard Chinese, or Mandarin.

What probably peeves me the most within this pet peeve is smug and haughty (and incorrect) uses of “Mandarin” in the media. I recently read an article in which the author admitted he couldn’t “read signs in Mandarin” while in China. Undoubtedly so, because while Chinese dialects are different in spoken form, all written Chinese is uniform. Hanzi, or Chinese characters, do not change from dialect to dialect. Thus, if you fly from Beijing to Hong Kong, you’ll probably notice that most people are no longer speaking putonghua, but rather guangdonghua, or Cantonese. But you’ll also hopefully notice that the Chinese characters all around you are the same as they were in Beijing (with the exception that Hong Kong still employs some traditional rather than simplified hanzi). So if two speakers of different regional dialects, both of whom can’t speak standard Chinese, meet, they might not be able to communicate verbally, but they would be able to communicate via the written language.

Of course I learned all of these distinctions by living in China, a wonderful privilege indeed. So I certainly don’t expect those who haven’t lived or traveled in the country to necessarily know this (I had no idea before I went there and still don’t understand most of the intricacies). But I do expect all of us not to pretend like we know something when we don’t. I’ve never traveled in Afghanistan or Iran and I don’t have the slightest clue whether I should be saying “Persian” or “Farsi” or who knows what when I refer to the language spoken there (maybe I should learn). But I do know I’m not going to pretend that I understand the difference just to sound worldly and smart, and I sure as hell hope that if I write a journalistic piece employing either of the terms, that I’ve done my homework and am doing everything in my power to get my usage correct

(Whew. That was definitely more than a second, but I feel better now. Rant complete. If anyone reads this and knows more about the Chinese language than me, which is probably a lot of you, you are obliged to point out all of my errors.)


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2 Responses to ““Cody and his trilingual immersion program””

  1. Ryan says:

    If anyone wants to see Mark’s head explode, you could find an electric Vertical Horizon song that refers to Mandarin Chinese. Imagine the rant that would ensue.

  2. Kenny says:

    I love how Rachael corrects Vanessa, when she calls her Rach! That cracks me up. This woman is so ignorant! I find this to be a hilarious commercial:)

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