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Understanding is easier than production

I always get a bit of a thrill whenever I see a movie with mandarin in it and I can understand the meaning without the need for subtitles. This most often happens with kung-fu movies, a genre that I have a lot of affection for starting from when I was just a kid. I still remember watching long soap operas on VHS featuring kung-fu and even if my understanding wasn't perfect, it was at least enough to get the gist across. The romance elements didn't hold much interest for me but all the fighting and mystical magic did. To this day to wish that I could shoot beams of energy out of my hands or eyes stem from those early martial arts shows.

The sad thing nowadays is that even though Mandarin is the official dialect of Chinese spoken in China, Cantonese still dominates in hong kong and the other coastal regions of the southeast. Equating Mandarin and Cantonese is like comparing French and German. Knowing one is unlikely to give you any help in understanding the other. Cantonese also just happens to dominate in the traditional film industry there meaning that unless it's meant for wide internal release, the language spoken in almost all martial arts movies is Cantonese. What's funny is that different characters will often speak different dialects so you often have a Mandarin-speaking character or two in the mix. I've never quite figured out why that is since it'd be like seeing an Italian film with one character speaking French and yet all the characters seeming to understand one another perfectly.

One thing I find sort of funny is that while I'm usually able to piece together the dialogue of a kung-fu movie in Mandarin, I can't follow the news at all. It might as well be gibberish and I only catch an understandable word out of 10. I can only assume that's because my education in Mandarin happened when I was just a kid and focused on daily language. There was no reason for me to learn words like assault or robbery or politician. So when the character in the movie says he's going to go to the market and pick himself up some steamed buns, I can understand that almost perfectly while a simple news blurb about someone being mugged and beaten in a laundromat would be nearly incomprehensible. As I've said before, I've probably got the Chinese comprehension of a 3rd grader at best and there are times I think I should try to work on it. God knows that my Chinese has not improved since I was 10 years old probably. Also, while understanding is at least passable, I have almost no ability to produce it on demand. Even simple statements require effort as I have to think about each word and even then there's often a lot of uncertainty. I run into this problem every single time I answer the phone and someone starts gibbering in Chinese. Just being able to say that my mom or dad isn't there at the moment to take the call is a painful experience.

Maybe part of it is just that I don't really have a knack with languages. I took 2 or 3 years of Spanish in high school and it wasn't exactly a fun experience. I've also wanted to learn Japanese in the past but other than assembling a vocabulary of sorts, I've had no success in actually taking it beyond that point. About all I can do is listen along and cheer whenever I actually recognize a word I know. The world would be a much simpler place with a universal translator or two around.


( 3 comments — Leave a comment )
Apr. 12th, 2011 06:30 pm (UTC)
A while ago I got taken to see a movie called Hereafter.....half the characters speak French and half the characters speak English. I thought it was complete rubbish.

Apr. 13th, 2011 10:53 am (UTC)
Do you understand French or is it subtitled? I've found that there are very few cases where subtitles aren't better than dubs. It's often just too hard to try to find a good translation that will fit into the amount of time/mouth movements you have available. Even subs aren't great at conveying all the subtext, but it's closer.
Apr. 13th, 2011 08:29 pm (UTC)
I understand French....The movie was not subtitled so I guess they were aiming for people who knew both languages or people who were happy to understand only half the movie.

Edited at 2011-04-13 08:30 pm (UTC)
( 3 comments — Leave a comment )


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