Friday, October 07, 2011

The myth about speaking English

In urban Taiwan, there’s been an increasing trend in the belief that being able to converse in English to a foreigners on a street is cool, and being unable to do so is uncool. If I had to speak to a white person, a black person, or an Indian looking person in Taiwan, I would first try in Chinese. Only when the other party doesn’t understand me, I’d try English. I have two reasons

  1. In the United States, people speak English to me. They won’t attempt in Chinese or Japanese just because I look like an East Asian. In France, people speak French to me. In Japan, people speak Japanese to me. So why must I speak English in Taiwan when speaking to foreigners? Chinese is the language of the land here, in other words, they bear the burden of speaking Chinese more than I bear the burden of speaking English. Therefore, Chinese has precedence over English. Conversely, if I were to work in the States, I’d speak English at work, even to those whose mother tongue is Chinese, when alone.

  2. If I were to automatically speak English to strangers of a certain demographics (say white people), the implication of such action is that these people are unable or unwilling to immigrate to Taiwan. In these days, district offices, township offices, and public schools in Taiwan offer activities to immigrant spouses of foreign origin. Most of the activities involve language learning. By doing so, it means the society accepts them, and has faith in their ability to integrate with the society. But if I were to skip over Chinese for strangers of a certain demographics, it implies that these people cannot be immigrants. Such subconscious assumptions, may it be that our society doesn’t accept them, or these people are unable or unwilling to immigrate, are not good.

Make no mistake, I do not oppose learning English. In fact, I encourage anyone to learn any language. That said, I must impart my personal experience of English learning. During the process, I witnessed how a dominating language slowly erodes a weak language. There was a time when I was active on Wikipedia. At the time I chose the English Wikipedia because editing the English Wikipedia makes the most impact. While doing that, I met editors around the world whose native language isn’t English. But they all joined the English Wikipedia for similar reasons, that was to maximize their contributions, or the Wikipedias in their languages were not mature enough. For these reasons, the English Wikipedia has become the largest, and is still growing at the fastest speed.

English is not the only language that benefits from being dominant. During the course of history, Chinese has also made other languages extinct. Soon after the Xianbei people established the Northern Wei Dynasty, they started sinicizing themselves. The Manchurians did the same after the founding of the Qing Dynasty. Now the Xianbei language is extinct, fewer than 100 can speak Manchu. The Han people never forced them to sinicize because the Xianbei and the Manchurians were in power at the time. They voluntarily did so. From this example, we can see how a dominating language rolls like a snowball.

I have made some Indian friends in the States. They told me that in India, some schools choose English as the medium of instruction, some choose Hindi, while some choose the local state language. I’m not sure which kind of school did my Indian friends attend, but I know many of them do not speak their mother tongues fluidly. They have to pause and think when I ask if they know how to say simple words like “math” or “taxi”. Most of the time, they communicate in English on Facebook, with occasional use of Romanized Hindi. I also happen to know many people whose native language is Chinese, who went to high schools or colleges in the States. They, too, often use English only on Facebook.

I encourage everyone to learn English. But I must remind everyone, the more you learn, the more responsibility you have to protect your native language.

Further reading: "我的孩子不會講中文" (My kid does not speak Chinese) by 張湘君 ISBN: 9867894219

Monday, September 19, 2011

East Asian Culture Comparison Table

Mainland China Taiwan Hong Kong S Korea N Korea Vietnam Japan
Lunar New Year Restored in 1980 Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes, but because of the time zone difference, new moon may be off by one day Only before 1873. Okinawa Prefecture and Amami Islands of the former Ryūkyū Kingdom still do.
Chinese zodiac Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes, but with rat, ox, tiger, cat Yes
24 solar terms Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes
Duanwu Festival Restored in 2008 Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes, but not a public holiday Celebrated on Gregorian 5/5. Transformed into Children's Day
Mid-Autumn Festival Restored in 2008 Yes Yes, but on lunar 8/16 Yes Yes Yes, but not a public holiday Yes, but not a public holiday
Pronunciation of the character "" wen2 bûn (Min Nan) man4 mun mun văn, von mon/bun/fumi
Is there a standalone word for 104 Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes Usually "mười nghìn", where "mười" means ten, and "nghìn" means thousand Yes
Uses Chinese (Han) characters Yes Yes Yes Almost none No No, only visible at historical sites Yes
1-char family names, 2-char given names are common Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes No
Basic sentence structure (the ordering of subject, verb, object) SVO (I eat rice) SVO (I eat rice) SVO (I eat rice) SOV (I rice eat) SOV (I rice eat) SVO (I eat rice) SOV (I rice eat)
Has level 1 municipality Yes Yes / Yes Yes Yes No

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Multilingualism in the Greater China Region

Although Han Chinese constitute as much as 92% of the total population, cultural exchanges between different ethnic groups are common through out the history, within today's political borders or otherwise. Linguistic influences in both directions are also widespread. Even some Han Chinese don't know that the modern word for "brother" (哥) is borrowed in the Tang Dynasty from the Xianbei language, which is of Mongolic. There is a Chinese idiom that roughly translates to "With great diversity comes greatness" (有容乃大).

Below you will find public signs that are written in many different languages, starting from the Northeast region, then counter-clockwise

Korean in Yanji City, Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture, Jilin Province

延吉市實驗中學 = 연길시 실험 중학 = Yanji Experimental Middle School

東北亞喜宴 = 동북아 희연 = Northeast Asian Wedding Banquet

Russian in Fuyuan County, Jiamusi City, Heilongjiang Province (where Russia is just across the river)

五金家電商場 = Амур бытовая техника --> Home appliances of Amur River
With some English

Russian in Aihui District, Heihe City, Heilongjiang Province (where Russia is just across the river)


Mongolian in Mongolian script and Russian in Manzhouli City, Hulunbuir City, Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region (where Russia is 5 km away in minimum distance)

電器維修 = ремонт магнитафонов --> Tape recorde repair
(магнитафонов is a typo, should be магнитофонов)

Manchu, Han Chinese, Tibetan, and Mongolian in Mongolian script at the Pavilion of Ten Thousand Happinesses, Yonghe Temple, Dongcheng District, Beijing Municipality

Introduction in Japanese, Korean, and Russian at Juyongguan, Changping District, Beijing Municipality

居庸関長城のご紹介 = 거용관 장성 소개 = Краткие сведения о Стене Цзюйюнгуань = Introduction of Juyongguan
With some English

Mongolian in Mongolian script, Mongolian in Cyrillic alphabet, and British English in Erenhot City, Xilin Gol League, Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region


Mongolian in Mongolian script in Hohhot City, Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region

With some English

Kazakh and Uyghur in Tacheng City, Tacheng Prefecture, Ili Kazakh Autonomous Prefecture, Xinjiang Autonomous Region

I cannot tell if the text above "中國農民銀行" (Agricultural Bank of China) is Kazakh in Arabic script or Uyghur. With some English.

Uyghur at the Id Kah Mosque, Kashgar City, Kashgar Prefecture, Xinjiang Autonomous Region (not far from Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan)

With some English

Uyghur and Sarikoli in Tashkurgan Tajik Autonomous County, Kashgar Prefecture, Xinjiang Autonomous Region (where Tajikistan is 19 km away in minimum distance)

With some British English

Tibetan in Chengguan District, Lhasa City, Tibet Autonomous Region


Arabic, Tibetan, and Han Chinese in Chengguan District, Lhasa City, Tibet Autonomous Region

Tai Nüa, Tai Lü, and Jingpho in Jiegao Townships, Ruili City, Dehong Dai and Jingpo Autonomous Prefecture, Yunnan Province (where Myanmar is just across the street)

I cannot tell if the text is Tai Nüa or Burmese

I cannot tell if the text is Tai Nüa or Burmese

Tai Lü in Jinghong City, Xishuangbanna Dai Autonomous Prefecture, Yunnan Province

With some English

Tai Lü and Lao in Mohan, Mengla County, Xishuangbanna Dai Autonomous Prefecture, Yunnan Province

With some English

Vietnamese in Dongxing City, Fangchenggang City, Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region

異國特產批發 = Bán buôn đặc sản nước ngoài

Russian and Korean in Tianya Town, Sanya City, Hainan Province

Portuguese, Japanese, and English in Macau Special Administrative Region

British English in Kowloon City District, Hong Kong Special Administrative Region

土瓜灣體育館 = To Kwa Wan Sports Centre

British English in Nanzih District, Kaohsiung City, Republic of China

高雄市楠梓國民小學 = Nan-Tzu Primary School, Kaohsiung

American English and French in Minxiong Township, Chiayi County, Republic of China

嘉義縣表演藝術中心 = Chiayi Performing Arts Center
法國春天藝術節 = Printemps, Français de Chiayi --> Spring, French of Chiayi

American English in Lugu Township, Nantou County

遊客中心 = Visitor Center

Romanization and Katakana at Din Tai Fung, Hsinchu City, Republic of China

鼎泰豐 = DIN TAI FUNG = ディンタイフォン
With some English. The Katakana "ディンタイフォン" merely denotes the pronunciations. In regular Japanese text, the name is still written as Chinese characters "鼎泰豊".

In addition to multilingualism in the Greater China Region, the language of Han Chinese is also widely accepted and used throughout the world.

Russian and Chinese in Zabaykalsk, Zabaykalsky Krai, Russia (where the border is 2 km away in minimum distance)

Mongolian in Cyrillic script, English, and simplified Chinese in Zamyn-Üüd, Dornogovi Province, Mongolia (where the border is 4 km away in minimum distance)

British English and Chinese in the City of Westminster, Greater London, England, the United Kingdom

Simplified Chinese and Burmese in Kokang (First Special Region), Shan State, Myanmar (where the border is 6 km away in minimum distance)

Chinese is the primary language at this place, which is politically and militarily unstable.

Thai, English, traditional Chinese, and Burmese in Mae Sai District, Chiang Rai Province, Thailand (where Myanmar is just across the river the Chinese border is 119 km away in minimum distance)

Malay, traditional Chinese, English, and Tamil on Penang Island, Penang State, Malaysia

Malay, traditional Chinese, English, and Japanese on Penang Island, Penang State, Malaysia

English, simplified Chinese, Malay, and Tamil in Singapore

Note that it is common in Singapore to mix traditional and simplified Chinese for everyday use. This example contains only traditional Chinese.

Lao and simplified Chinese in Boten, Luang Namtha Province, Laos (where the border is 1 km away in minimum distance)

Indonesian, two Englishes??, simplified Chinese, and French in Bandung, West Java, Indonesia

Vietnamese, simplified Chinese, and English in Lao Cai City, Lao Cai Province, Vietnam (where China is just across the river)

Vietnamese, traditional and simplified Chinese in Móng Cái, Quảng Ninh Province, Vietnam (where China is just across the river)

Note that traditional and simplified Chinese coexist on the same object

American English, Chinese, Japanese, Korea, Spanish, Filipino, Vietnamese in Bell, California, the United States of America

Traditional Chinese and American English in possibly Richmond, Virginia, the United States of America

Canadian English and traditional Chinese in Richmond, British Columbia, Canada

With the sheer number of Chinese, some mistakes are inevitable.

Possibly in Tainan City, Republic of China

台南海鮮 (Tainan Seafood) = Platform South Sea Fresh

Shijiazhuang City, Hebei Province

餐廳 (Restaurant) = Translate server error