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Monday, February 10, 2014

Language Relations

Written in December during my time of not really getting anything up here. I have since found out that my math teacher's English is not, in fact, good, and that he doesn't use it because he's not good with it.

Thinking about China stuff. I've got very different relationships with different people I've met here. I've got a couple classmates in my materials science (semiconductors, metals, and some applications) who I eat dinner with after class every Tuesday and Wednesday. My math teacher (graph theory) lives practically next door to me, and we both take the subway home after class on Tuesday nights, so we tend to walk/ride together and talk.

There wasn't even a big event that got me thinking about this. It was a small event. Really tiny. I was walking from dinner with my classmates from materials science, heading towards math. Math teacher sees me, I see him, I'm like "Hi!" I say that I'm like instead of I said because this is all happening in Chinese. I believe I actually said 老师好, which is a greeting for a teacher. Yay cultural and language differences.

He (teacher) talks to me at a pretty normal speed. He's going to get dinner, so he might get to the classroom a bit later than usual (he's usually there about half an hour early, no, really) and can I stick his bag in the room? I say sure, he hands me the bag, he keeps walking, and so do I.

My classmates from materials science spend a good two or three minutes testing me on what the teacher said because they have a hard time believing I actually understood. Apparently the teacher was talking fast? At which point they are impressed, because yes, I do in fact speak Chinese and I understood the conversation I just had with my teacher.

Since stuff related to my math teacher is already on-topic, I mention that we talk on the way to the subway and on the subway, since we're basically neighbors.
Here's the thing that made me think.

The initial reaction my classmates had to this? "Your teacher's English must be very good."
I mean, I assume my teacher's English is, in fact, pretty good. He says that this is the first time he's used our current text to teach graph theory, and the one he used to use is in English. It's also the first time the class has been for undergrads. I think those two statements are related. So at the very least, I know he can read English stuff in his specialty. I may have tried to say major there, since the same word in Chinese works for both- 专业. But here's the thing: I've never actually heard him speak English. If I don't understand a word, he'll explain in Chinese. My materials science classmates explain in English. Often they need to pull out their phones and look up the word to do it, but they tell me in English.

I just thought that was interesting. It seems to be a bit of a pattern: Everyone requires proof that I do, in fact, understand Chinese so long as they realize I'm not Chinese (mixed results with the folks who think I'm half Han, yes, that's happened.) Young folks are quicker to speak English when I don't get something, and they probably want to practice their English anyways. So they don't see me handling everything in Chinese the same way most older folks do. Older folks tend to be glad I speak Chinese, and since they're not trying to English at me they get a quicker idea of how much Chinese I can actually use.

In this specific case of math teacher vs materials science classmates, it might also make a difference that my math teacher occasionally asks the class a question and I tend to be willing and able to answer. Yes, in Chinese. There's actually a decent number of math terms where I know the concepts and I know the words to explain the concepts in Chinese, but I don't know the English. Considering that my first language is English, this is really weird for me.

(匹配,最大匹配,最优匹配,交错路,可扩路 are all words where I don't actually know the English. I may have partially forgotten 边 as well, which is awkward because that's a really basic part of a graph. It's the thing connecting the vertices.)

2 comments:

  1. Well, 边 is edge in English. Some of the others are a bit more difficult in that English has both maximum and maximal matchings, for example (it seems to be a general property across many academic fields that the English terms play weird games with their morphology in this way; I imagine it might make the Chinese terms easier to learn). Google Translate does not do a good job with those; Wikipedia might help, since it has the definitions for both, and on the same page too:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Matching_%28graph_theory%29

    ReplyDelete
  2. I get this a lot. Older people try to speak to me in Chinese, but younger people seem to prefer to struggle with speaking English rather than speak to me in Chinese (even when I insist that I'm not as white as I look).

    ReplyDelete

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