Language confusion

After our mom left when we were little, our 外婆 (wai po, maternal grandmother) continued to live with our dad and us for several years, I suppose out of family obligation and to take care of us. We are both very thankful for what she did for us and taught us (gardening, embroidery, knitting, cooking, etc.), but there is one funny thing she left the two of us with: a general confusion about proper Chinese.

Our parents emigrated from Shanghai, which has its own very different dialect: 上海話 (Shanghainese), which we grew up hearing and sometimes speaking. We also learned Mandarin Chinese at a Taiwanese-run Chinese School, which meant that we learned Zhuyin (an alphabet of sorts, if you want an analogue) and Traditional writing, rather than Simplified. Between those and English, we were already confused enough and mixed up our own sentences, but our grandma had yet another Chinese accent and said words that, when we repeated to other Chinese friends, elicited looks of “huh?” and “what are you even speaking?”. Some prime examples: our childhood best friends’ mom looking at us funny because we always used the Shanghainese word for trash can (she spoke Mandarin, Cantonese, Taiwanese, and I think even a little Fukkein or similar); still remembering that day in middle school when I finally learned the English word for drawer1.

Last night we watched Please Vote for Me, a documentary about a democratic election for a class monitor at an elementary school in Wuhan, China.2 I actually missed the part where they mentioned the location, and spent the first 20 minutes or so thinking to myself “man, these people really sound like my grandma”. I vaguely recalled that she or somebody on that side of the family was born in Wuhan, so I thought I’d ask my mom.

She told me that, first, she was proud that I have such good ears for language and sounds (yay), and that I was correct: she and her sister were born in Wuhan, and their mom, my grandmother, lived there for 15 years and absorbed the local dialect and accent in order to excel at her job (locals preferring locals and all that). My grandma was apparently never very good with language and between various dialects and accents from other places she had lived (Changzhou, Nanjing, etc.), she would mix at least three and up to maybe about five different dialects per sentence. My mother and aunt were apparently especially embarrassed by this as kids and would never let her go to the parent-teacher meetings at school and teased her often.

I like this kind of knowledge/story from my family. It helps me (and my sister) understand why we were often so confused as children and even today when it comes to Chinese and its various accents and dialects. It also feels really good to know that we have the ability to discern even slight differences in sounds. Then again, add this background to later studies in Latin, Spanish, and German along with diction in French and Italian and let’s just say that I get confused aurally quite often, especially if I start listening in the wrong place or expecting a different language3. So, if you’re ever speaking to me and I get lost/confused and have to ask you to repeat, this is probably why.

Bonus: a non-Chinese girl speaking Shanghainese really well! Shanghainese people are so proud of being from Shanghai – even my mom laughs about how if I’d grown up there, I’d be expected to marry another Shanghainese. Makes this girl learning the dialect and speaking it so well even better.

  1. Which I still have a really hard time saying, between learning it late and drawling a little.
  2. Review: It was interesting. Watch it.
  3. The same goes for if I start listening to a piece of music on the wrong beat or expecting a different key. Extreme confusion.

Read 3 comments

  1. Now I wanna know what they were discussing in the video. :D Food? Was that noodles or bread?

    Tangent: this reminded me of speaking to my grandfather towards the end of his life. He had hearing loss as well as the beginning of Alzheimer’s. I often had to repeat myself and correct him. :-/

    But if I spoke with a British accent? He understood me a LOT better.

    • They’re called “you tiao” (yo tyow phonetically maybe?), which literally translates to “oil stick”. I guess they call them cruellers in English – just a fried stick of bread-type dough, more like savory than sweet. They are SO GOOD when they are fresh off the street.

  2. My wife and I try to guess the origins of people with southern accents. The southern U.S. is rich with dialectic and aural distinctiveness. The difference between a North Carolina accent and a Tennessee accent is as striking as the difference between a New York accent and a Boston accent.

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