“What if instead of tabbing over to the web browser in search of some nugget of gossip or news, or opening up a mindless game such as Angry Birds, we could instead scratch the itch by engaging in a meaningful activity, such as learning a foreign language?”
“With thousands of individual characters, ever wonder how a Chinese person sends an email?”
Business cards in China are offered and accepted with both hands. It’s a sign of courtesy and respect. After a couple years of exchanging cards, I’d managed to fill a rather large desk drawer with them. One day a fit of efficiency overtook me and I decided to go in search of a Rolodex or business card organizer. It took longer than I expected; most things do in China.
It wasn’t until I’d made my purchase and returned home that it dawned on me – there is no Chinese “alphabet.” At least, not in the way we think of one. Hence, no way to organize most of my cards. Duh. Which brings me to today’s topic, “How do Chinese use an English computer keyboard?”
Firstly, there are such things as Chinese computer keyboards. However, they’re not standardized and not widely used. There are also writing pad interfaces that work well for Chinese characters. However, most Chinese rely on software to change their keystrokes into Chinese text.
Perhaps the two most common software transcription methods in mainland China are Wubi and Pinyin. Wubi means “five pen” or “five stroke” and is based on the idea that Chinese characters can be categorized with five fundamental pen strokes. In contrast, the Pinyin method is based on pronunciation of Chinese “syllables.” Each method has advantages and drawbacks.
In it’s simplest form, Wubi could be input with just the number pad of the keyboard: one for horizontal strokes, two for vertical strokes, three for downward right-to-left strokes, four for dot strokes or downward left-to-right strokes, and five for all other strokes. To utilize this method, users must be familiar with the correct order of strokes, which is actually fairly easy to learn.
Once a user has input the correct strokes in the correct order, Wubi software presents a number of possible Chinese characters from which to choose. This method is probably most suited to individuals with Chinese language background.
Pinyin, on the other hand, is a method more suited to individuals with an English language background. Pinyin breaks Chinese down into “Romanized” syllables. However, because Chinese is a tonal language, the user must also be able to select the correct tone for each syllable.
Mandarin Chinese has four basic tones. They are: first tone – “high and level,” second tone – “rising,” third tone – “falling then rising,” and fourth tone – “falling.” There is also a fifth tone which can be thought of as “neutral.” Cantonese is more complex, with between 6 and 9 tones depending upon the dialect.
A classic example of the difference tones make is with the syllable “ma.” With first tone the word means mother, with second tone the word means hemp, with third tone the word is horse, with fourth tone it means scold, and with the fifth tone the word becomes an interrogative often used at the end of a sentence. Here is an example of a “silly sentence” using the word ma.
It’s likely that at various times in your life you need to communicate with a person who does not speak the same language as you. Sometimes you can make yourself understood through simple body language and gesture; you manage to get through the moment and life goes on as usual.
At other times, however, it’s important, if not crucial, that the other person understand your exact meaning. It is helpful, therefore, to know something about the art and science of language to language conversion. Here are a few things you should know:
-The words translation and interpretation are often used interchangeably. Technically, this is incorrect. As a rule, translation is written, whereas interpretation is oral. The exception is interpretation using sign language, which can be thought of as visual.
-Professional translators usually only translate into their native language. This is because the finished document should be error free and grammatically correct. A professional translator must have excellent editing, thinking and writing skills.
-There are two types of professional interpretation (not including sign language). The first is called simultaneous interpretation. The second is called consecutive interpretation.
-In simultaneous interpretation the interpretation is done at the same time a speaker is speaking. A good example of this is a speech at the United Nations. Because of the demands of this type of work, simultaneous interpreters often work in pairs or teams.
-In consecutive interpretation, the speaker stops talking periodically to allow time for the interpreter to communicate the meaning to the other party. Quite often, the interpreter will take notes or use some method of shorthand to remember what is being said.
-American Sign Language or ASL is a form of interpretation for deaf and hearing impaired persons. It uses gestures and hand signs to communicate meaning. Although there are some elements of English within ASL, it should be considered a distinct language with it’s own grammar, syntax and even regional dialects.
-Modern translation software is often useful for simple translation purposes, however it should never be relied upon for translation of legal, financial, or business documents, or other works of permanence.
-There are a number of certification agencies for companies and individuals who offer Translation and Interpretation Services. It is a good practice to ask if an agency or individual is certified and by whom.
It has been estimated that there are approximately 6700 different languages in the world. By far, the most common language spoken is Mandarin Chinese, followed by Spanish, English, Hindi/Urdu, and Arabic in approximately that order. On the Internet, the most common language is English, followed by Chinese, Spanish, Japanese and Portuguese.
On a daily basis, most of us probably take our native language for granted. Expressing our needs, wants and ideas to other humans is almost automatic. The phrase “mother tongue” is perhaps an indicator of just how important language is to our existence and survival. And yet, language can also separate and divide us.
The “Top Twenty”
It is estimated there are more than 6700 languages in the world. However, twenty major languages are spoken by approximately 50% of all people. A list of major languages ranked according to native speakers includes:
Different studies may rank languages in different order and other languages may also be included in the top 20. However, this list represents approximately half of the world’s estimated population of 6.8 billion people.
It must be remembered that the above list does not adequately reflect the phenomenon of bilingualism. That is, in many parts of the world citizens may speak one or two official languages and still have a local language that is their mother tongue.
In the Beginning
So then, how did language get started? There are competing theories as to how human beings originally acquired an ability to communicate through language. These theories fall roughly along the lines of creation vs. evolution. That is, some theorists believe language was a divine gift, while others believe human language developed as the result of a unique set of biological and environmental conditions. Neither theory can be proved or disproved at present.
There are also competing theories as to how early language was spread. Some theorists believe there may have been just one original mother tongue, while others believe there were numerous mother tongues which developed in a parallel manner. Both of these theories are dependent upon subjective interpretation of evidence of the origination point or points of the human species.
All in the Family
Linguistic scholars have attempted to categorize languages into various “families” based upon research into root languages or “proto-languages.” One of the most well-known is the Indo-European language family which has some 12 major divisions and contains hundreds of known languages.
The Indo-European language family includes Latin which, interestingly, was more a written language than a spoken one. A spoken form of Latin, called “Proto-Romance” is now unknown, as it was the language of common people and not of scholars. However, from Latin we can trace the roots of many of the languages in our “Top 20” list above.
There are some languages which appear to have no known relatives or family. These languages are called language isolates. For example, Basque, an endemic language of a group of people who live in and near the Pyrenees Mountains of Southwestern Europe, seems to be a completely unique language.
Back to the Future
It is difficult to project the future of languages. More commonly, languages are studied as windows to the past. This is because language tends to change at a slower pace when compared to changes in technology and society. However, it is interesting to note that, while Mandarin is by far the most common spoken language, English is the most common language on the Internet. Is it possible we are returning to a world with a single “mother tongue?” Time will tell.
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A top ten list of major languages ranked according to native speakers includes:
1. Mandarin Chinese 2. Spanish 3. English 4. Hindi/Urdu 5. Arabic 6. Bengali 7. Portuguese 8. Russian 9. Japanese 10. German
Every translation situation is unique, as unique as the parties involved. Whether it is translation of private correspondence, business or legal documents, website translation and localization, or any other special translation circumstance, it is important to get it right. The first step in getting it right is choosing the right translator. If you’re in the market for Translation Services, here are some things to consider:
-Experience. How long has the Translation Service been in business? Do they have a list of satisfied customers? If so, ask if you can contact two or three for references. In addition, ask about their range of experience. Perhaps they only have experience in one or two particular areas, for example: Import and Export and/or Immigration.
-Quality. If possible, ask the Translation Service to translate a small sample of your choosing. Of course, checking the sample for accuracy might present a problem, however the professionalism with which they handle this request will tell you a lot. Also, look over their website. If you find spelling mistakes, grammatical errors and clumsy language it’s obvious their quality is not what it should be.
-Knowledge. Spend some time discovering if the Translation Service is familiar with your particular field and needs. For example, a Translation Service well versed in Maritime Law may not know much about Manufacturing. Also, a working knowledge of the political situation, especially in Third World countries, is important.
-Teamwork. While it would be unwise to go with a one-translator-fits-all approach, it may also be unwise to hire a company claiming to have myriads of translators at their disposal. Many Translation Services say they have local translators. However, consider that in every country in the world there could be hundreds, or even thousands of local dialects. The best approach is the Translation Team approach.
-Certification. There are a small number of International Translation Service Certification Agencies. Ask the Translation Service if they are certified, and by whom.
-Price. Although price is obviously important, consider the potential costs of a poor translation. Bad impressions are very difficult to overcome. Therefore, you should balance cost against other factors listed above.
Another thing to ask about when hiring a Translation Service is their familiarity with the latest developments in translation technology. While it is doubtful that computers will ever be fully capable of navigating the subtlest nuances of conversation and language to language conversion, there seems to be a steady stream of breakthroughs on this front.
My stomach was in knots. For the next eight hours I was going to be moderator of a conference that was doomed to failure! My client was a multinational jewelry firm headquartered in Mumbai, with branch offices in London, New York, Bangkok and a ton of other places. The conference was being held in Guangzhou, China where I’d been living and working as a Corporate Trainer for nearly six years.
I’d been recruited by my long-time friend Tanya, a Chinese businesswoman fluent in English, Mandarin and Cantonese. Tanya is both competent and beautiful, and by all rights she should have been leading this conference. However, the jewelry company had stipulated an American male – for “cultural reasons.”
Most of the jewelry workers were local Chinese. Most of the mid and upper level managers were from India. The jewelry company had insisted on English as the language of the day. Well, easy enough for me, but was it realistic to expect conference attendees to understand and retain much, if anything?
The purpose of the all-day conference was to conduct an Employee Workout modeled after the one developed by Jack Welch, the famous CEO of General Electric.The idea is to tap into unused human potential that exists in every business hierarchy by “turning the company upside down.”
Cross-discipline employee teams are asked to identify problems and propose solutions. This requires courage, creativity, candor and directness in an open, supportive environment. Chinese culture is all about giving face and keeping face. Candor and directness do not come easily, especially in the workplace or in a conference such as this.
Although I had little experience with Indian culture, I also guessed that the Indian managers (mostly male) would have their own agendas. For them, a temporary foreign assignment was just one step on their climb up the corporate ladder. Make a good showing in the conference, and who knows what branch office one might head up next year!
Does the above scenario seem familiar to you? Sure, the names and places are changed, but the plot is the same – somehow you’ve been saddled with the seemingly impossible task of organizing a conference where the players come from far-off places with strange-sounding names. And your hands are seemingly tied by company politics and/or decisions beyond your control.
Fear not. Here are a few simple things to bear in mind when planning such an event. (By the way, if you keep reading, I will also tell you how my ill-fated conference turned out.)
The first thing to do is take a deep breath, close your eyes and repeat after me: “We are all alike and we are all different.” Again: “We are all alike and we are all different.” Interestingly, it’s not just a mantra. Scientific evidence supports the notion that your DNA could be a closer match with someone who lives in, say, Timbuktu than it is to the DNA of, say, your neighbor.
Repeating the Alike-Different Mantra will help you remember that seemingly insurmountable obstacles are just nature’s way of telling you to FIND ANOTHER WAY! Okay, so enough Zen mysticism already – let’s lay down some conference guidelines:
1. Make a game plan, starting with the most obvious, but often overlooked item: What do you hope to accomplish? If you could be sure that every conference attendee would remember just one thing, what would it be? Write it down. Your conference agenda should build towards this one point.
2. Make an inventory of your resources. This will include physical space, supplies, reference materials, mentors and of course, your conference interpreter. There is a professional organization of conference interpreters. Here is their website: http://www.aiic.net/
3. Plan, plan, plan and then delegate, delegate, delegate! If you are the obsessive, compulsive person that I think you are (why else would they have chosen you?), the first part will be easy, but the second part will be tough. Yes, you want the conference to be a flawless thing of beauty, but remember there is a thing called synergy!
4. Get your conference materials out as soon as possible. You will probably want to invite feedback at an early stage. This accomplishes two things: one – you’ll be able to head off an impending train wreck (for example: a religious holiday on the same weekend), and two – it allows conference participants to feel invested in your mutual success.
5. Remember to take frequent breaks. This means not only during the conference, but also in the planning stages. Every three hours is good, two and a half is better.
6. Remember to have fun.
This last item reminds me of my promise to you. My conference turned out to be a smashing success. Mostly due to one thing, I think.
After I introduced myself I asked everyone if they wanted to meet my girlfriend. Of course, they couldn’t resist. No, it wasn’t Tanya (I wish). I brought out my constant traveling companion: my guitar. I struck a chord – literally and figuratively – and began to sing. Everyone joined in and I knew it was going to be a great day!