Saturday, October 31, 2009

Are the French Japanese and the American Chinese... about languages?

On his blog, James Fallows (Atlantic Monthly writer) made a daring comparison of the French and the Americans to the Japanse and the Chinese when it comes to how they handle and view their languages :
In France and Japan, the deep-down assumption is that the language is pure and difficult, that foreigners can't really learn it, and that one's attitude toward their attempts is either French hauteur or the elaborately over-polite and therefore inevitably patronizing Japanese response to even a word or two in their language. "Nihongo jouzu! Your Japanese is so good!"
Correspondingly (…/…) Japanese people (to generalize) often seem self-conscious about potential errors in English. Of course, French speakers of English are marvelously non-self-conscious, even jauntily willful, about retaining their French accents, especially the trademark "z" sound for "th." " Zees ees what I mean..." (Yes, I am aware that the fricative th phoneme is the most difficult sound in English for non-native speakers, our counterpart to r's in French.).
The American attitude towards English is: everyone should get with the program, there are a million variants and accents of the language, all that really matters is that you can somehow get your meaning across. Because there are so many versions of Chinese in use within China, my impression is that the everyday attitude of Chinese people toward language is similar: You're expected to try to learn it, no one will spend that much time mocking your mistakes, mainly they are trying to figure out what you are trying to say.
Probably both the U.S. and Chinese attitudes reflect the outlook of big, continental nations that encompass lots of internal diversity -- and in America's case, absorb huge numbers of immigrants.
This is interesting. However the comparisons has a few flaws. French, contrary to Japanese is spoken by a great number of people outside France.
Moreover, I’m not sure that the French think their language is “pure and difficult”, even though they attach great value to their language. They see it as the vehicle for their culture which is at the core of their identity. So they see their language from a cultural perspective and also give language an esthetic value. More importantly, I think the educational system is based on penalizing every single mistake. This is also true of foreign languages, which is why I believe most French are actually extremely self-conscious (which is why they usually claim to speak less than they do), but being a proud people, they tend to play along the clichés people may have of them.
As for the Americans, I think they have a much more practical approach of languages (as of many other things). They don’t care so much about the particulars as long as it works. The fact that they (mostly) don’t speak foreign languages also makes them more impressed with other people who do or simply try. The downside is that if your English is good enough so you are understood, it’ll be much harder to make progress because no one will correct you.


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