Wednesday, February 18, 2009

A Slow Boat to… Tijuana?

“Britain owned the 19th Century, America owned the 20th. The 21st Century will belong to China.

“Teach your children Chinese.”

This vaguely ominous message blends among family photos, children’s artwork, and other benign decorations at the Bangor Chinese School, where my wife and I have brought our daughter for her first lesson.

Jing Zhang greets us warmly, and within moments all three of us are counting to ten faster than Jackie Chan.

Studies say (I don’t remember what studies, but if I put “studies say,” you’re more likely to believe me) the younger you are exposed to a second language, the more likely you are to become bilingual.

If you live anywhere other than Maine, this is a valuable skill. And while my wife and I would love it if our daughter chose to remain in this wholesome, earthquake-free, crime-wave-means-rash-of-unlicensed-hunting utopia, she might decide she’d like to live in a place where smart people can get make hundreds of thousands of dollars without turning the Mooshehead Lake shoreline into a giant casino.

But what is the best language for your child to learn?

We opted for Chinese for all the reasons implied by Jing’s sign. If you look at current economic trends, it is reasonable to assume that China will own our entire continent, possibly before the next Batman movie comes out.

You have to admit, it could be handy to know the Chinese phrase for, “Please do not enslave my family,” or, “Honest, Dude, I always thought the Bill of Rights was a crock of spit, anyway.”

If you don’t believe China’s influence is spreading our way, consider a new law in Britain that makes it a crime to photograph police or military personnel.

It’s supposed to be an anti-terrorism law, but you don’t have to be a candidate for Employee of the Year at the ACLU to see where this is going. Pretty soon the entire royal family will be at the local military recruiting office, and the tabloid newspaper industry will fall flat on its face.

If freedom-crushing laws can make their way from China to Britain, they can hop over here in the wink of an eye.

Anyway, we settled on learning Chinese (“This is just a toy camera” is written, “这仅仅是一 个玩具相机;” take note).

But there was one problem we had not anticipated: Chinese is wicked hahd.

For example, the phrase “human rights” in Chinese looks like “人权,” and is spelled “rénquán” using our alphabet. But it’s pronounced “YEN-choo-ahn.”

If you’re going to change alphabets anyway, why not spell it like it sounds?

That’s not all. Slight variations in accent change the meaning. If you pronounce it “yen-choo-AN,” it means something totally different (maybe “go stand in front of that tank over there,” or whatever).

Thankfully, accent variations in English (or Spanish) don’t change meaning; they exist only to make other people sound stupid.

So we’re switching to Spanish. In most of the country it is a necessary skill for even the most menial, entry-level positions, such as hotel clerk, slaughterhouse attendant, teacher, or social worker.

Most importantly: it’s a language we actually have a snowball’s chance in Hong Kong of actually learning.

1 comment:

Seth said...

Nice one Chuck. I laughed louder than my wife coughed.