Thursday, September 06, 2007


If you've had the experience of being a "foreign-looking" person in China, you have heard one English word over and over: "Hello." It's so common to have this word shouted at you as you walk past a business (or a group of young dudes playing basketball) that some China guidebooks and websites recommend strategies for "dealing" with it, including:

- Ignore
- Say "hello" back
- Pretend you don't speak English
- Reply in Chinese (if you know it)

Although English has become a cornerstone of Chinese education in the last ten years or so, most Chinese of a certain age don't speak it, and many who have been educated speak very little -- but everyone knows "hello." Consequently, I've been thinking about this word a lot lately, especially in the Chinese context.

One thing I really can't wrap my brain around -- a curse of most monolingual people, I think -- is how to understand the relationship between relatively equivalent expressions in two languages. Like the idea that "ni hao" and "hello" might mean the same thing. My brain is perfectly able to process the meaning of this sentence:

"Ni hao" means hello. (Which it doesn't, of course. It literally means "you good.")

But the reverse feels almost absurd to my monolingual brain:

"Hello" means ni hao.

So far, I can't get that to make sense. And I don't think I'd be able to unless I were bilingual.

Coming next time:
A brief report from the local "English Salon."
And after that: Stuff about how I am now a real ESL teacher!

(Have you noticed that this blog has begun to live up to its name? I'm "doing" applied linguistics in real life!)

No comments: