Some say that he has two left hands, and his nose can tell when it will rain. All we know is that he's called DFM.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

How To Understand Engrish And Other Incomprehensible Dialects

I recently overheard a woman telling her friends about an all too common situation. The gist of it was that three groups of people from three English speaking countries were all together for some sports tournament. Apparently there was a debate about how best to say a particular word. The debate digressed into the three groups of women yelling at each other to "speak English." To the woman telling the story this seemed very funny, but to me it was very tiresome.

I spend a rather large percentage of my time talking to people with accents. I have Korean friends, English friends, Taiwanese friends, Australian friends, etc. I also spend a great deal of time talking to children and watching British television. All of this has helped me develop an above-average ear for words. This does not mean that I can understand every word perfectly, in fact quite the opposite. I hear the words just as jumbled up as you do, but I have a secret trick. Perhaps because I have forgotten what it was like to not have "the trick" I become annoyed with people who cannot understand the English of people with accents. The secret to understanding "Engrish," or any other form of unclear English, is to guess what the person is going to say before he or she says it. This may sound ridiculous, but it's easier and more effective than you think. I will demonstrate with an example:

The other day I was standing in line at a local Subway fast food restaurant and the "sandwich artists" all happened to be Chinese. The poor exchange students would take the opened sub bun with the meat and cheese on it already, and position it in front of the vegetable containers. Then s/he would look up at the customer and ask "which veggies?" I watched the employees do this over and over again, and each time the response from the customer was always the same. "What?" What do you mean "what?" The bun is in front of the veggies. Veggies go in a submarine sandwich after the meat and cheese. What else could the employee possibly want to know? I thought at first "perhaps it is that customers first time buying a submarine sandwich?" But this became hard to believe after the eighth time I heard someone ask "what?"

This was a basic example but it gives insight into my method of proactive listening. After you master a basic proactive listening exercise like ordering a sandwich, you can gradually move on to more advanced levels of Engrish comprehension. For example, let's say you see a Chinese person on the bus. You hear her speaking to the bus driver and you think "wow, that is some poor English!" She comes over and sits next to you. You decide that you want to be polite and talk to her but don't know how. Try the following:

Think: she can barely get on the bus, but she looks 25, so she's definitely not a grandmother who stayed at home and never left the house for forty years because she couldn't cope in a non-Chinese world. Therefore, she probably has recently moved to whatever city you're in. Ask (after exchanging pleasantries): "are you new to Canada/Seattle/Vancouver, etc.?" The answer is going to be either yes or no, so there's no need to be surprised. You know she's probably new, so guess yes. Now listen for "yes." If the answer sounds remotely close to yes, then take it as yes. If it does not sound like yes, assume she said "no." Let's assume the answer was yes.

Next you notice that she has a backpack on and is getting on the bus near the university. Think: She's probably a student at the university. Ask: "do you go to school at the university?" Listen: "yes" or "no." You suspect yes because she has a bag and is near the school, so listen for "yes." If the answer sounds like yes, assume yes (notice a pattern?)

Think: at university students study subjects usually related to degrees/graduation. Said student is foreign and cannot speak English fluently. She's probably not a Classics major. Math is a subject that involves limited English comprehension. (4X-5)/3 = 19 is the same in Tokyo as it is in Dallas. Hence, foreign students are likely to take courses that are heavy in math, like engineering or business. Ask: "what are you studying?" or "what is your major?" (students for whom English is a not a first language absolutely love the later phrase up for some reason) Listen: "business" or "engineering." If the answer sounds like... you get the picture.

I can go on and on, but the point is that listening requires some thinking. With a bit of effort it is possible to comprehend just about any accent and English speaking person may have. Take stock of your surroundings. Make inferences. Listen for discrepancies in answers. Adjust accordingly.

There is one caveat though. If it is your first time at a Subway restaurant and you get a Chinese student serving you, you will never be prepared for the question "cheese or toasted?" It comes out something like "chi or toad?" and it will always throw you off unless you have been prepared for it by past experience. The difficulty of all other Engrish-like compression situations is only proportional to the lack of proactive thinking in which you are willing to invest. Happy listening.

No comments:

Post a Comment