Trip to China clarifies the value of mastering a language

  • Article by: STEPHEN WILBERS , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Updated: April 27, 2012 - 12:20 PM

On my flight home from China, I was reading a series of articles about energy in the inflight magazine Wings of China when I came across this sentence:

"Much ink has been spilled over the upsides of nuclear power. Though it once put ants in the pants, there should be no ignoring the elephant in the room: it's been a bonanza for economy, and especially in France, it gives France 410,000 jobs, 2% of the total."

Apparently eager to show off a command of idiomatic English, the author had loaded the text with an amusing but nonsensical jumble of clichés: ink spilled, ants in the pants, elephant in the room.

Not that I have a right to poke fun, given my ludicrously inadequate command of Mandarin Chinese -- a deficiency that did not, however, prevent me from spouting as much of my eight-phrase vocabulary as I could muster to every Chinese man, woman and child I encountered. Nevertheless, these sentences appeared in an international publication, and presumably they had been reviewed by an English-speaking editor. The international traveler (me, in this case) had a right to expect better.

Stripped of their figures of speech, the sentences might look something like this: "Although nuclear power once caused anxiety, its benefits have often been recognized. One should not disregard the obvious: Nuclear power has been a bonanza for the economy, especially in France, where it has created 410,000 jobs, 2 percent of the workforce."

It wasn't surprising that these sentences jumped out at me. For two weeks I had been captivated by extraordinary sights -- the Great Wall near Beijing, the terra cotta warriors of Xi'an, the other-worldly karst pinnacles of Guilin and the dazzling 21st-century skyline of Shanghai -- but I also had been fascinated by the people of this dynamic, rapidly changing society, by their warmth and friendliness toward Americans and by the way they used language, not so much their own language (though I loved hearing its rapid staccato cadence), but by the way they used ours. The Chinese, I discovered, are hungry for English.

My first indication was when they sidled up to our group to listen to our guides expound in English on the wonders we were witnessing. When we aimed our cameras at them, they aimed theirs at us, then posed for pictures beside us, sometimes nudging their children forward and urging them to practice speaking English with us. Until then I hadn't realized I carried something so precious inside my head.

Our guides were remarkable. One spoke flawless English, although he had never visited an English-speaking country. The others made occasional errors, sometimes departing from standard idioms in delightful ways, but they nearly always succeeded in conveying their meaning. Although I have some knowledge of six languages (Latin, French, Spanish, British English, American English and Minnesotan) and I now know eight phrases in a seventh, I was humbled by their achievement, and I was reminded of the importance of achieving competence not only in one's native tongue, but also in other languages.

Stephen Wilbers offers training seminars in effective business writing. E-mail him at wilbe004@umn.edu. His website is www.wilbers.com.

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