Tuesday, September 22, 2009

A Bit on Homophones

It is amazing how much you learn about your own language once you start to teach it.

Simultaneously studying Chinese and teaching English has given me some great new insights on the art and science of both languages, and I have to say, it has been quite eye-opening.

One of the most interesting things I have learned is how ignorant people (myself included) are of the difficulties inherent in their own native tongue.

For example, it wasn't until this year that I realized how complex and confusing English grammar is. For the most part, it has always just been second nature for me. (As a side note, it also wasn't until this year that I learned how to to spell the word grammar!)

I also had not realized until recently, how vast and varied the choices are in the English lexicon. I have come to appreciate the beauty of our language - with so many words and their subtle shades of meaning. Choosing the perfect word for any given situation is an art that is almost impossible to teach to an ESL student.

After a long day of teaching English, am I perturbed, irritated, annoyed, vexed, disgruntled, fed up, exasperated, or simply displeased?? The choices are endless!

Recently, I did some editing for a fertility clinic's advertisement in which they claimed they could help you "breed a baby!" Of course this sounds ridiculous, but how are they to know that we only use the word breed when we're talking about farm animals!

As I am becoming more and more aware of the intricacies or language, I continuously find myself baffled by many of the things that my students say to me when we discuss the differences between Chinese and English.

One of the most common things that I hear goes something like this "English grammar is so difficult! Chinese is much easier, we don't have any grammar."

I must say, this is one of the most ridiculous things I've ever heard! It is true that Chinese grammar is simpler than English grammar, but just because there is no conjugation of verbs does not mean that the language is grammar-less!

I have been studying Chinese for the last 7 months and I can assure you that Chinese has grammar - I myself am having a heck of a time trying to master it! But no matter how much I argue with them, some will simply not let it go. Many native Chinese speakers are utterly convinced that their own language has no grammar rules!

But by far the most befuddling thing that I have heard from my students is that English is difficult because it has a lot of words that sound the same but have different meanings.

Really!? Homophones are what makes English difficult for a Chinese speaker? The Chinese language has got to be the KING of homophones, and you think homophones are the difficult part of English?! Well, to each his own I guess.

It is at this point in my lesson that I usually write the word homophone on the board and start pointing out examples like through and threw, or right and write. Then my students will start to join in with words like
  • bunch and branch
  • indivisible and invisible
  • require and inquire
  • bubble and Barbara
and my favorite
  • ambulance and excellence

Yes, the difficulties for them are not the actual homophones in the English language, but the words that almost sound the same.

On one hand I can kind of see where there coming from, but on the other hand - well I really just can't!

To understand my complete exasperation at this answer let's take a look at the Chinese language. The language has four tones, which means there are four ways to say any given syllable.

The syllable ma for instance could mean mother (first tone), horse (third tone), to scold (fourth tone) and could be a verbal question mark ma (neutral tone).

On top of having four possible ways to say one syllable, if you choose just ONE way to say one syllable, you are still left with many possible characters - each character having its own meaning.

For example the syllable bi (fourth tone), gives you 58 possible characters!!!! (比 ,必,庇 ,拂 ,泌 ,俾 ,祕 ,陛 ,埤 ,婢 ,敝,畢 ,閉 ,弼 ,愎 ,賁 ,痺 ,睥 ,辟 ,幣 ,弊 ,碧 ,裨 ,蔽 ,壁 , 斃 ,臂 ,薜 ,避 ,璧.... )

That is 58 possible words (and meanings) for ONE phonetic pronunciation

And homophones are difficult in English!? Not even close!!!!

But, What can I say... there is no wrong way to write your own language, right?

1 comment:

  1. hahaha, I couldn't agree more with you...Chinese is just way too difficult comparing with English, I felt I'm lucky to have it as my first language.