Not just any old Putonghua

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No siree!  These Hong Kong students are being taught to emulate Beijing government models:

In the 13rd [sic] Hong Kong Cup Diplomatic Knowledge Contest held on May 12, Hong Kong high school students militantly spoke perfect Putonghua. Their Beijing accent, tone, gestures, facial expressions all reminded one of China's Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Hua Chunying, or even Chairman Mao's wife Jiang Qing. E.g, a schoolgirl indignantly yelled, "Not a single country has fallen into a debt crisis as a result of joining the One Belt One Road!" (The fact, however, remains that due to their inability to repay debts to China, Zambia has lost to China its Kenneth Kaunda Airport and the ZESCO Power Plant; Sri Lanka has handed over its Hambantota Port to China on a 99-year lease; and Kenya is giving up its Mombasa Port to China.) Xie Feng, Commissioner of the Foreign Ministry of PRC in HKSAR, called upon the students to love the State of China and take up positions in international organizations like the UN. Critics suspect that quite a few HK kids are already thoroughly brainwashed by their pro-CCP education and may be used to infiltrate into American & other Western organizations.

Source:  "Hong Kong Students Trained to Speak like Hua Chunying & Expected to Join Int'l Org.", by Chapman Chen, Hong Kong Bilingual News (5/28/19)

Here's a clip of Ms. Hua briefing reporters at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Beijing:

It would seem strange indeed for Hong Kong high schoolers to model their speech after her.

This reminds me of an unusual experience I had as a Peace Corps volunteer in Nepal (1965-67).  My usual duties were to trek across the length and breadth of Bhojpur District in East Nepal to promote community development.  During the monsoon season, however, it was not easy to move around, so I spent more time in the district headquarters.  Among my activities during that less mobile period was to teach English in the local high school.  One of the students at the school had the uncanny ability to mimic any variety of English that he heard.

When I first met this student, he spoke to me in perfect BBC English!  I asked him how he could achieve that feat.  He had never seen a foreigner; Bhojpur was in a remote, mountainous area, three or four days difficult walk (about 200 km) from the nearest road; there was no electricity or plumbing and naturally no television.

It turns out that the student had a short wave radio, and he could receive BBC world service on it.  He would listen to the BBC programs and faithfully reproduce whatever he heard the announcers say, and he did this for years.  He told me that he talked to himself in the mirror while repeating what he heard on the radio.

The story doesn't end there.  When I came to Bhojpur and started teaching English in the school during the rainy season, it was like manna from heaven for this young man.  A real, live English speaker!  The problem was that I didn't speak BBC English.  Consequently, the student did what he was best at:  mimicking whatever I said, down to the smallest nuance.  No matter what I said, he would repeat it back to me — a perfect copy of whatever I uttered — done with a gleeful smile.

For the first few weeks, I thought his performance was extraordinary.  After about three weeks, however, it started to get on my nerves, and eventually it really annoyed me, because I couldn't help but feel that he was mocking me, though I don't think that was his true intent.  Nonetheless, I was relieved when the rainy season ended and I could get out on the trails again.

Occasionally I meet others who are possessed of the aptitude to parrot the speech patterns of whomever they're interacting with.  In fact, when I have discussed this phenomenon with several such individuals, they tell me that they don't intentionally imitate their interlocutors.  It's just that they naturally gravitate toward speaking like the person with whom they are conversing.  My son, Thomas Krishna, is one such person (see here), and the Berkeley professor Michel Strickmann was another (see here).

In the case of the Hong Kong students who are being trained to simulate the speech of Hua Chunying, I wonder what Ms. Hua's reaction would if she were to hear them holding forth in her voice and manner.  Would she be pleased or offended?

[h.t. Anders Corr]



7 Comments

  1. Michèle Sharik Pituley said,

    May 31, 2019 @ 8:12 am

    "Occasionally I meet others who are possessed of the aptitude to parrot the speech patterns of whomever they're interacting with. In fact, when I have discussed this phenomenon with several such individuals, they tell me that they don't intentionally imitate their interlocutors. It's just that they naturally gravitate toward speaking like the person with whom they are conversing."

    I do the same thing. It's not intentional; it just seems to happen. Sometimes I wish I could turn it off (because I know some people are annoyed by it), but I can't seem to do it, at least not for very long.

  2. Kris said,

    May 31, 2019 @ 8:47 am

    Besides his ability to mimic, what were the Nepalese student's other abilities with English like, such as his comprehension and communicative abilities? Was he able to have a natural and spontaneous conversation in English, and if he could, did he sound much like a native speaker when doing so? Or was he more like many singers in foreign cover bands who can deliver English lyrics perfectly, but whose conversational English is "broken" with pronunciation heavily influenced by their native language?

    I wonder how much his ability to easily mimic language perfectly would carry over to his long-term attainment in English, if he did go on to be immersed in the language and use it in real communicative contexts for significant periods of time.

  3. Victor Mair said,

    May 31, 2019 @ 10:12 am

    @Kris

    Good questions.

    I don't recall having a free conversation with this student. He could read sentences well, but he was a poor writer. He was an absolute genius at mimicry, but that was about it when it came to English ability.

    This reminds me of another student I had when I was teaching at Tunghai University in Taichung, Taiwan in 1970-72. This was an extraordinary student whom I referred to as a "walking dictionary". He could recite the definition for almost any English word that I threw at him. I honestly thought that he must have memorized an entire English dictionary. Yet he was probably the worst in the class when it came to composing English sentences. He was very poor both at speaking and at writing in English. He had no sense of grammar or syntax. Teaching him was so frustrating that it was actually funny.

  4. Trogluddite said,

    May 31, 2019 @ 10:35 am

    I have had several rather tense moments over the course of my life when I have been accused of intentionally mocking people due to their idiolect rubbing off on me. What baffles me the most about it is that I am hopeless at intentionally demonstrating an accent or doing an impression of somebody – it seems that it only happens when I'm not aware of it, and if it is pointed out to me that I'm doing it, self-consciousness will make my speech rather faltering for a while.

    Purely anecdotally, and without meaning to suggest that this is necessarily a pathological behaviour, it seems common among people who, like myself, have behavioural differences which they feel they must compensate for during social interactions (autism in my case – a condition in which echolalia is relatively common.) I have also wondered to what extent it's affected by the accents we're exposed to as children. My family has roots spread widely across the UK, so I was always exposed to a wide variety of BrE accents and dialects throughout my childhood, and I would guess that this has also contributed to the fluidity of my idiolect.

  5. Mary Kuhner said,

    May 31, 2019 @ 2:43 pm

    There is also a written-form version of this. There are several writers whose work I can't read within a day or two of writing fiction of my own–particularly Glen Cook and CJ Cherryh–or I will write reams of what is unmistakably pseudo-Cook or pseudo-Cherryh. I can't do deliberate pastiche at all, but neither can I avoid this unwilling rubbing-off of strong prose styles on mine.

    I study chess with an Indian player and struggle to avoid writing blog entries in Indian-style English after our video conferences, too. Here it's not only accent but vocabulary. I find "lappy" an unnecessary and mildly annoying word for "laptop" but have had to delete it several times….

  6. Michèle Sharik Pituley said,

    June 2, 2019 @ 1:10 am

    @Trogluddite: "What baffles me the most about it is that I am hopeless at intentionally demonstrating an accent or doing an impression of somebody – it seems that it only happens when I'm not aware of it, and if it is pointed out to me that I'm doing it, self-consciousness will make my speech rather faltering for a while.

    Purely anecdotally, and without meaning to suggest that this is necessarily a pathological behaviour, it seems common among people who, like myself, have behavioural differences which they feel they must compensate for during social interactions (autism in my case – a condition in which echolalia is relatively common.)"

    Omg I feel like you're reading my mind! We're we separated st birth or something??

  7. M. Paul Shore said,

    June 2, 2019 @ 8:48 am

    Years ago, from my late teens to my late thirties, occasionally in the hours immediately following my having seen a movie that made a strong impression containing a character that made a strong impression, I'd catch myself involuntarily imitating that character's speech patterns—not his or her accent, just the general tone and rhythm. Fortunately, as far as I know I always realized what I was doing and consequently stopped it before anyone else noticed what I was doing, or at least noticed enough to comment. I suspect that anyone noticing it would've thought I was being very pretentious and immature.

    Starting around age forty, I went through a period where for various reasons I overindulged in movies—always in theaters, I'm proud to say, not on home video—and that overindulgence seemed to knock the above-mentioned tendency out of me.

    I've always been good at imitating the sound of foreign words and acquiring a proper accent during language study, so I assume that has a connection with my former tendency.

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