Speak Mandarin Campaign video on classifying round things

From ‘Video draws flak for wrong use of Mandarin’ 12 March 2017, article by Koh Xing Hui, Sunday Times

A Speak Mandarin Campaign video has drawn some flak for its erroneous teaching.

The video, produced by the Speak Mandarin Campaign and the National University of Singapore (NUS) Chinese Drama, shows a woman teaching her friend the right use of classifiers for nouns such as apple, paper and clothing.

A classifier is used in East Asian languages such as Chinese and Japanese when nouns are being counted.

In the video, the woman corrects her friend’s use of “yi ge” to “yi li” for apple and ball, saying “yi li” should be used for all round objects.

The video, posted on Wednesday on the Speak Mandarin Campaign Facebook page, has since attracted comments and was shared by various users, including Chinese radio station 95.8FM.

Many said it was embarrassing that the campaign was promoting the wrong use of Mandarin.

Responding to The Sunday Times, the Speak Mandarin Campaign said: “NUS Chinese Drama will follow up with another video to address usage of ‘ge’ and ‘li’.” Dr Kang Ger-Wen, a Chinese studies lecturer, said the NUS Chinese Drama students had good intentions but were teaching the wrong things.

“Normally, for small and tiny things, we use ‘yi li’ or ‘yi ke’. For an apple, it should be ‘yi ge’.” But if one were to translate from Hokkien, which would use “ji liap”, then it would be “yi li”, he added.

However, a Chinese-language teacher who declined to be named said students here are taught to use “yi li” for apples and balls.

The Chinese academic didn’t explain how these classifiers apply to round, but massive objects. Somehow telling the durian seller that you want ‘yi li’ Mao Shan Wang doesn’t sound right, or that our Earth only has ‘yi li’ Moon. Personally my problems with classifiers occur when I’m ordering food that isn’t fishballs. Is it 4 ‘li’ or 4 ‘ge’ chwee kueh? Is it ‘yi zhi’ otah or ‘yi tiao’? My hunch, despite my limited Mandarin prowess, is these are, to some extent, interchangeable. Some things, obviously, like planets or the infinitesimal like atoms and molecules, sound more ‘ge’-lish in my opinion. Then there are things which are not exactly round, like watermelons, eggs, a snowflake or grain of sand. Nor would you denigrate roundish body parts like testicles or boobies.

The original intention of the SMC, of course, was to eliminate dialects from society and streamline the bi-lingual drive, not dwell on technical nitty-gritties. Today, this has taken a dramatic U-turn with dialects making a comeback to appease the greying population, while at the same time correct use of Mandarin continues to be drilled into us. Despite- or because- of this lexical balancing act, outsiders associate our official spoken language with broken, hodgepodge English, or from a more generous perspective, a ‘rojak’ of cultural influences. Even during conservational Mandarin, most of us do away with connectors altogether, peppering our speech with, ‘but’ or ‘then’.

Good intentions by the NUS people, but whether concurrent campaigns seeking to refine the respective languages help Singaporeans improve in BOTH English and Mandarin while preserving our forefather-speak and singing a National Anthem in Malay remains to be seen. So now tell me, is it ‘yi ge’ or ‘yi li’ melting pot?

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