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Chinese verb structure creates immortality

Chinese_charactersTo prep for my trip to Guangzhou and Shenzhen next month (more on that later now at Writer, editor, pajama model), a friend and client suggested I read Tim Clissold’s “Mr. China.” It’s an interesting firsthand account of the business climate and culture in China when it was opening up to trade with the west in the 1990s.

Perhaps the most fascinating passage in the book, however, was this blurb on Chinese not changing verbs based on time (p. 132):

The link in China between daily language and the past is strengthened further by a lack of senses. In Chinese, there is no verb change depending on time. “Mao Zedong is a good leader” and “Mao Zedong was a good leader” are not distinguished in Chinese. Things that in our language are extinct remain alive in Chinese. Without the separation in language or thought between what “was” and what “is,” China’s past seems to merge into its present.

Confusing? Sure. But there’s something beautiful about a language allowing timelessness and immortality.

Photo: Flickr/kevindooley

Promoting the website for Maestro, an English language institute focusing on American accent development

Cara Fulton was the president of the Global Links Toastmasters club, which I belonged to when I lived in Washington, DC. Cara is also the owner of Maestro, LLC.

Maestro helps people learn global English, English pronunciation, and how to speak with an American accent (known as American accent development, reduction, or modification). Maestro also teaches students how to speak English as a second language (ESL). Instruction courses are offered online or in-person in Washington, DC.

And Cara is an excellent teacher and speaker, frequently winning Toastmasters’ contests.

I’ve been helping Cara optimizing the Maestro website for better search engine performance. So far we’ve

  • revised the text of the website to emphasize the keywords people use to find instruction on American accent development or mastering English
  • reviewed 33 search engines for possible inclusion of Maestro’s website (it’s interesting how many second- and third-tier search engines come and go)
  • created links to the Maestro website

While it can take a while to see the results of search engine optimization, there already has been an increase in the site’s visitors.

If you are interested in finding out how I can help your website become more visible in search engine results, please contact me.

The French consider getting rid of the semicolon

In her blog, Maitresse, fellow Gridskipper contributor Lauren Elkin details the possibility of France banishing the semicolon (no word on where it would go, although the obvious guess is the island of Elba).

I don’t speak French (and I have the report cards from high school and college to prove it, although I am about to study it again). But in English the semicolon, while often misunderstood and misused, serves a unique purpose (joining two independent phrases without a conjunction).

It’s also useful when writing a comma-separated list and some of the items themselves contain commas. (For example, “I have lived in Washington, DC; Boston, MA; and Winston-Salem, NC.”) So it’s interesting to contemplate what English would be like without the semicolon.

Also, before reading Lauren’s post, I had no idea that languages might treat the same piece of punctuation differently.

A non-native English speaker’s thoughts about English

Prajwal Sharma, who wrote about “Cleaning up your writing by avoiding these six common mistakes” as a guest writer on this site,” has a couple of good articles about English from his days writing for The Truman State Index (free registration required):

Both of Prajwal’s pieces, however, are insightful and worth reading. I usually enjoy reading non-native English speakers’ thoughts on our language. (Although I love the irony of one column saying that American’s mastery of English is dismal, yet the other piece encourages English speakers to share their knowledge with people trying to learn their language.)

Speaking the English

This afternoon I went to the post office to mail The Columbia Poetry Review, a Moleskine notebook (I love mine), and a book about selling poems to my friend in Iraq. I’d packaged them in an Amazon.com box I had lying around my apartment. I’d crossed off the company’s name on the sides of the box, but by the time I got to the post office the ink had dried and Amazon.com was visible.

When the woman behind the counter saw it, she told me that I needed to be more thorough next time. The words on the package could confuse a foreigner working in the Army mail room because “they don’t speak the English that good.”

Your lips move, but I can’t hear what you’re saying

A couple of weeks ago my brother and I went to Paris and then up to Holland to visit some friends I’d made when I backpacked through Europe last spring. Sitting in the living room of my friend’s parents’ farm on an overcast Sunday, listening to her family talk, my brother and I were immersed in listening to the sounds—not the meaning—of a language.

I thought back to when I visited London towards the end of my trip last year. After 12 weeks in non-English-speaking countries, I was again hearing my mother tongue. Here’s what I wrote in my journal that day:

Before this expedition I had only ventured out of the United States twice (to Montreal on a French class trip in eighth grade and to London two years back). This morning it was strange yet comforting to enter a city I already had visited.

More significantly, there was a weird greatness to hearing a language that I was fluent in. For the first time in three months there was no need to learn a few foreign words so I could pepper my speech with a little local flavor. Gracias, obragdo, merci, dank, danke, dekvji, grazie, sas efharisto, tesekkurler ederin, and thank you for that.

Last year about this time I was editing a med school applicant’s essays. As an undergrad she had majored in French. She also spoke four other languages. The gist of her main essay was that being fluent in a foreign language was comparable to understanding the human body— knowledge of both allows the beholder to enter a fascinating world that used to be verboten.

The admissions offices agreed—she got into several med schools. But having traveled through 14 countries that featured 12 different languages (Germans and Austrians sprechen sie Deutsche and the Irish speak some derivative of the Queen’s English), I’ve found that the opposite can be true. Yes, not being fluent in a language prevented me from understanding the conversation. But instead I was forced to focus on the sounds the people were making.

My ignorance lead to beauty.

When listening to English, we’re caught up in the meaning and are unable to just listen to the sounds. Is English beautiful? We English speakers will never know.

In Istanbul I was sitting at a restaurant in Sultanahmet, drinking hot tea, smoking a water pipe, and reading Thurber when the call to prayer from the Blue Mosque was broadcast. It was one of the most beautiful series of sounds I’ve heard. I had no idea what the imam was saying. The meaning of his words was irrelevant. Had I owned the key to the imam’s world, that experience wouldn’t have happened. All I would have heard was that it was time for me to unroll my prayer mat. A different door opened by not knowing what he was saying.

Is being fluent in a foreign language useful? Sure. Would it have added to my experience to communicate with the locals in their native tongues? Absolutely. Am I still planning on studying Espangnol when I return? Yep.

But there’s a lot to be said for not knowing what’s being said.