Thursday, May 08, 2014

Me talk piaoliang one day

We're getting to the point in learning Chinese where its apparent straightforwardness and simplicity give way to something else entirely - you see you can no longer translate word by word but have to translate sentence by sentence. Here's where we stumbled on this:

大卫:下午你在哪儿?我给你打电话,你不在宿舍。
山本:我在操场踢球呢。你找我有事吗?

The grammatical construction we're learning is for an action in progress, and/or , but the text doesn't bother pointing out that this form, unlike the apparently corresponding English be ... -ing, is the same whether you're talking past (was ... -ing), present (is ... -ing) or future (will be ... -ing). We had to figure that out ourselves.

Having missed Tuesday's class I'd prepared this lesson and figured out from the context that the dialogue was about the past (presumably Dawei calls Shanben in the evening) but my classmates were reading it for the first time and were confused just as I had been. Dawei asks Shanben Afternoon you be where? and all assumed he was asking about the future. The following line I call you on the telephone, you not be in dorm sounded a little odd but Shanben's answer, I be kicking ball in sports ground, seemed to fit a conversation about whether he was free to play pingpong tomorrow afternoon... And then we got distracted by the pretzel a methodical classmate rendered as You seek I have thing?

In fact, of course, David (Dawei 大卫) called Yamamoto (Shanben 山本)'s dorm this afternoon, and he wasn't there since he was out playing soccer. My classmates got that, but seemed unconvinced. Surely there must have been some grammatical clue we'd missed indicating that they were talking about past rather than future! We looked for one in vain, because there isn't one. It's all in the context. And the pretzel line just means what did you want? or why did you call?

My classmates were thrown but I was thrilled by this encounter with linguistic difference. It was just last week that I got the sense that I was getting somewhere with this language, feeling some momentum in the semi-fluency of my few hundred words. Of course Chinese will work differently than English. Isn't that the point? Perhaps foolhardily I find I trust myself to be able to figure things out. 在学习汉语呢!

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