A Concise English-Chinese Dictionary for Lovers – Xiaolu Guo
April 22, 2016 § 2 Comments
First published in 2007
English is a bloody nightmare, isn’t it?
I have a very deep love for language, as I believe many of us book lovers do. My first love will always be English, though since I’ve managed to pick up Chinese along the way, it has come up to become a close second. I speak Malay, of course, and I’m still looking to learn a couple of new languages as I progress in life. Possibly Japanese and French. But that’s beside the point.
In A Concise English-Chinese Dictionary for Lovers, the narrator’s Chinese voice was so apparent, I could almost hear her speaking to me in that awkward Chinese sounding English, the blocky pronunciations and impossible grammar. I could feel her nervousness of being in a new country, her worry of not making sense trying to speak an alien language. I’ve been there, though it was the exact opposite. And it brought back memories of my speaking some very awkward Chinese to people who couldn’t understand why I looked the part, but couldn’t speak the language to save my life. A typical banana.
But then again, I come from a country where it’s not odd for someone to speak more than one language. And for many of us, we speak at least two, if not three. And perhaps it is because of this that the cultural significance of a certain language—its structures and forms, its foundations and roots—can get somewhat lost on us. In a way, I feel that I’ve taken language for granted. And this book has made me see how much beauty I’ve let slip by, simply because I’m multilingual.
In the beginning part of the book, Miss Z is still struggling to understand the new language and the way it is structured. She doesn’t understand it, because she doesn’t understand the culture behind it. In her mind, she knows Chinese, and the way a sentence is structured in Chinese reflects Chinese culture and thinking.
Chinese we starting sentence from concept of time or place. Order like this:
Last autumn on the Great Wall we eat barbecue.
So time and space always bigger than little human in our country. Is not like order in English sentence, “I,” or “Jake” or “Mary by front of everything, supposing be most important thing to whole sentence.
I never picked up on this small detail before. But when Miss Z spoke about it (the book really reads like she’s speaking to me through the pages, the author has done a terrific job), suddenly it became so apparent. And I came to wonder, perhaps it also reflects in the politics of our countries—communism where the community is priority, and democracy where the individual is king.
Then she spoke about gender bias.
English a sexist language. In Chinese no “gender definition” in sentence. For example, Mrs. Margaret says these in class:
“Everyone must do his best.”
“If a pupil can’t attend the class, he should let his teachers know.”
“We need to vote for a chairman for the student union.”
Always talking about mans, no womans!
No womans, indeed.
I’ve read in many places that learning a new language will lead you towards a special path to learn about a new culture. I never really understood how that worked. To me, I had always looked at language as simply a new way of speaking, of communicating. But I never thought of it as a means to understand someone else. To look at something from a different point of view, almost as if wearing weird spectacles.
Yet towards the end of the book, Miss Z tells us of the futility of it all, that learning a new language doesn’t guarantee that you will understand anything more than what you already do, that it doesn’t grant you immediate access to a different culture, that it takes more than just learning to speak my tongue to understand the way I think. And even without language barriers, even if we all spoke only one language, it still doesn’t mean that we can fully understand the person next to us, to completely comprehend their thoughts and ambitions and motives.
I try to learn more vocabularies to be able to communicate. I try to put the whole dictionary in my brain. But in this remote countryside, in this nobody’s wonderland, what’s the point of this? It doesn’t matter if one speaks Chinese or English here; it doesn’t matter if one is mute or deaf. Language is not important anymore. Only the simple physical existence matters in the nature.