Friday, February 13, 2015

Taboo (no, the fun kind)

While there are lots of taboos to worry about when speaking a new language in a new place with a new culture, that's not what we're going to talk about today.
First, I want to tell you a story.
One day I made limoncello. I couldn't get anything really high octane, so I had to stick with vodka. Meh. That's beside the point. The point is I had made a big batch and needed to get that big batch out of a giant jar and into bottles, but I hadn't been in my new place very long and there were many necessary things I still didn't have, not to mention a funnel. So I went off to buy one.
Now, there's something I also need to preface this story with. While I quite love the Chinese dictionary app I use, I have found that a lot of the words and phrases in it are colloquially mainland-Chinese, not Taiwanese, so while I'll use it for reference purposes or run something by a friend before I use it (or use it to look up the pronunciation of a character, obviously) it isn't my go-to for everything Chinese, especially for obscure words or phrases that won't be used in any revealing context. (Chinese phonology is so limited that there are many many many many homophones, even after taking tones into consideration, so context plays an important part in a lot of communication [at least for me]).
Anyway, I can't remember if I looked up how to say 'funnel' in Chinese and didn't trust the dictionary or didn't yet have said dictionary on my phone at the time (which I think was the case, because I probably still had my old blackberry). In any case, I needed to buy a funnel, and after looking around for a while and not finding one on my own, decided I would have to break down and ask.
But what do you do when you don't know how to ask for the thing you need? Something as simple as a funnel would be easy enough to draw, but that's not what happened. Any ideas?

Think of the game of taboo. It's a game that's much easier when you know someone really well, and have inside jokes and memories and code words and things to build from, but the idea is that you have to get the person to say a specific word (i.e. to communicate an idea to them) without using a set of related kind of 'dead giveaway' words related to the target word. It is so much fun.
But really, when you think about it, isn't that challenge in your mother tongue similar
to the challenge language students face when struggling to communicate an idea to someone else in their target language? The only real difference is that there are no limits on what words you can use except those that you don't know. The struggle is the same, so in some cases the 'taboo' words on the card for your language if you're a beginner and you're trying to describe something sufficiently complex would be quite long and encompassing. For others, it's just one of those words you almost never use, even in your native language, so when you come across them in your second language, even if you speak it fluently, it may kind of stump you. Aside from 'funnel,' other examples that come to mind from experience are 'shoelace', 'steering wheel', 'kickstand' and 'sieve,' while I have no problem with the Chinese words for 'steroid', 'xanthine', 'sonata', 'tonsils', 'light year', 'eczema' (which I have trouble spelling in English), or 'rabies.' That discrepancy, for anyone, is obviously just a result of the things you speak or read about, or come in contact with, a representation of your needs or interests.
'Funnel' is also a far easier thing to describe than 'rabies' or 'steroid' or 'xanthine', and that's what I did. The conversation went something like this, or at least my end of it:
"I'm looking for something for my kitchen. I've made a big pot of something that I need to pour into bottles, and I don't want to spill any of it, so I need something to put on top of the bottle so I can pour things into it more easily."
This is an easy example, and I am by no means bragging that I know how to describe the functions of a funnel. What I am talking about is logic. It can be easy to get stumped by "I don't know how to say this word," or be flustered or give up because you don't know what something is, but it's very easy to walk around or over that obstacle. Once you reach a certain degree of ability in the language, you should have enough of a command of it to describe, in the language, what it is your are looking for/need/want to do, etc. Don't be so quick to give up because "I can't say that" or "I don't know this." Make a language learning opportunity out of it. If you have before you the most valuable resource in all of language acquisition, a native speaker, then make use of it. Communicate your thought or need and ask the person how to say that thing. It may require a very roundabout way of describing, and you might need to give a lot of background information, but roundabout is okay because it's how you're getting around the obstacle. Once you've communicated and your audience knows what you're trying to say, once they've guessed your word, get them to write it down, say it a few more times, or whatever you need so you'll remember that word.
Granted, in this day and age, there are so many resources available online (not to mention apps and actual books and dictionaries), but if you're learning a more obscure language or have more specific requirements, those resources may not always suffice.
It actually makes me wonder, too, if playing taboo more would help one exercise that part of the brain (whatever part it is that serves that function of language), to help one perhaps strengthen those cognitive critical thinking abilities, or if perhaps the people that are really good at it already (aside from any inside joke cheats with best friends) may have an upper hand when it comes to learning language. It certainly can't hurt.
Be a problem-solver, think hard, and find other ways to communicate. It may seem like an intimidating challenge, but once you get it, the sense of accomplishment is a wonderful source of motivation to keep learning and talking and trial-and-erroring. It's all part of the process! Enjoy it!

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