It’s hilarious to watch Republicans fall all over themselves bashing each other for speaking French in the case of Mitt Romney and Chinese in the case of John Huntsman. Of course, it’s hard for me to get excited about a candidate that speaks a romance language. They are all pretty easy to master. I mean, we all know George W. Bush spoke “Mexican.”
But Huntsman is a different case. He clearly speaks Chinese well and as president this would be a tremendous asset. Alas, the Republicans have attacked him for speaking the language. More is the pity. A man has a useful skill that could advance American interests and he’s pilloried for it? Silly, I tell you, but that is modern America for you: anti-intellectual to the core.
James Fallows, in a recent post, on the issue, however, wrote something that I found even more fascinating:
why [is it] so much easier to understand other non-natives than people who grew up speaking the language?
I had this exact experience in the former Soviet Republics of Georgia, Azerbaijan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan with regards to Russian, pretty much the only language (other than Spanish) I have any mastery of. Communicating in Russian to Georgians, Azeris, Uzbeks and Kyrgyz was simple. I could understand them and they could understand me. But the moment I got to Domodedevo Airport in Moscow I was simply bewildered. The Russians, obviously, spoke better Russian than any non-native speakers in the former republics, but it was also slangier, less academic. I think that’s one of the keys: a non-native speaker will be much more grammatically formal (if incorrect) and won’t use a great deal of confusing idioms. Their diction will usually be very precise and much slower than a native speaker. Seriously, try speaking to a surly, pissed-off Russian (which they are most of the time) who’s speaking in rapid-fire blasts of ‘Mat’–a kind of second Russian that is horribly filthy and hilarious. For example, the slang, ‘Mat’ term for “just hanging out and doing nothing” in Russian is: “khuem grushi okolachivat” — translated as: knocking pears out of a tree with one’s dick.
So, the next time someone asks you, “Kak dyela,” you’ll know how to reply.