Friday, December 05, 2008

language interference

As I mentioned a few blogs back, I have been trying to learn Mandarin Chinese at work, just for fun. I haven't made much progress, and doubt I ever really will in the short term. It's more a way to keep my brain active and adaptive. I also find it fascinating to watch my mind tackle another language from near the start of the whole process. I find all sorts of other previous languages interfering and even in some cases helping out. It's a bit of a patch-work quilt at times, a word here and a random guess there. A few weeks ago English popped up and interfered in a major way. But I wasn't aware of this until a few minutes ago, and when I found that out I decided to write a little blog here expressing my stupidity. The teacher was about 30, friendly, a vibrant woman. She was asking me questions, but I was slow, still waking up mentally. "Something something something family?" she says in Chinese seeming to slam at me a mile a minute. I dig in my mind for a memorized Mandarin phrase and throw it back at her in a ear-crunching English-Accent, "Sorry what was that?" She smiles, writes down the phrase with Chinese characters. This helps a bit. Just a bit. I make the mental connection as she says it again, "Who is in your family?" I think too long, and try to flip to a page in my notebook that covers the knowledge gap. Drats. Nothing. What do I know? I start out slow, "Mother..." she smiles and says OK so I continue, "...father..." she encourages me enough that older sister pops into my head at that moment (not at this one) and I enthusiastically shout out "...older sister..." and then I falter... younger brother, younger brother, younger brother, dang it. It's not coming to me. Suddenly like a warrior on a brilliant horse the word brother marches into my brain. But wait, I tell myself, I need younger brother--- not just brother. I improvise. I literally belt out what I think is, "Little brother." (I actually pulled the correct word from my mind but over compensated by adding little to it, and even after reviewing my notes it didn't seem like such a big deal, but...) The teachers eyes get big, and she starts laughing hard. I think I realize that she must imagine my brother being 4 inches tall and running around like a garden gnome so I decide to make it better. With my fingers I try to save my improvised Chinese, I show her the size of my 4 inch brother garden gnome and say, "Not this." This doesn't work. She busts out in more fits of giggles. I knew she was a bubbly sort of teacher but this was unexpected. I try to move it forward with my improvise explanation and say, "I have TWO little brothers." She is snorting a bit through her nose now and she says, "No no no no, not LITTLE brother. Younger brother, younger brother, younger brother." Hmm. I don't get it, but move on to trying to discuss my younger sister. I got it today. I was clicking around on a language learning site, and naturally my eyes fell onto the slang section. I clicked it open and immediately my eyes fell onto my constructed word. If you say little younger brother instead of younger brother it literally means wee wee. dick. cock. that guy. Uh huh. I even went so far as to say I had two.
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