By Walt F.J. Goodridge
As we taxied towards the terminal after the flight from Kunming to Sanya, Hainan, China, I listened intently to the flight attendant make the standard arrival announcement. She was half-way through the announcement before I realized she was speaking English! It wasn't just the usual rushed, slurred delivery that many flight announcers are guilty of after giving the same announcement flight after flight, day after day for many years. This was different. I didn't get the impression that she was giving a hackneyed speech, at all. In fact, as I'm often the only visibly non-Chinese passenger on many of these inter-city flights, I often wonder if the announcement would even be made in English if I wasn't on the plane!
Anyway, as I did my best to listen and decipher what the flight attendant was saying, I realized that even in the context of an airplane flight, where I have a good idea of what she SHOULD be saying, I was still having difficulty understanding her. Of course, there's the "accent", the intonations and the way the Chinese tongue, teeth and lips pronounce unfamiliar English consonants and vowels after a lifetime pronouncing more familiar Chinese sounds. But, I also got the sense that she might not have been speaking English at all, but merely reading the phonetic equivalent of the English words the same way I might read the phonetic equivalent (goo-roo EEE-Key) of my Chinese name, ???. It brings to mind a similar experience of just a few days ago.
The other day, I walked into a local restaurant here in Hainan to determine if, at some future point in time, I might be able to dine there given my vegan proclivities. However, even in the context of being in a restaurant speaking about food, my attempts to communicate in Mandarin that I didn't want MSG or seasoning powder (very simple sentences, mind you) were met with blank stares by the wait staff. They, too, had no idea what I was trying to say!
Just goes to show that there's more to speaking the language than just mimicking the right sounds. Even in a familiar context, one's meaning can be utterly lost or otherwise indecipherable without the right subtlety–a subtlety that comes only with time, practice and a basic foundation in the language.
If you're just mimicking sounds, you really don't know where one word ends and another begins. You don't know when to make the correct pauses in your delivery to convey the right meaning. And you're never really sure if the phonetics is an exact replica or just a "reasonable facsimile thereof." And, particularly in Mandarin, using the wrong tone can skew everything altogether!
Which is not to say that context is irrelevant. If I, a non-native English speaker, were to say to you, "Sanku Bay Marsh" out of context, you might not really understand what I was trying to say. However, if, after you gave me a birthday present, I accepted it, nodded, smiled and then said, "Sanku Bay Marsh," you might then get it, and reply, as any decent English-speaker would, "You're very welcome!"