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Things just aren’t said the same way

14 Sep
  • In Spanish, ahora mismo doesn’t mean right now. People often say vuelvo ahora mismo when they go out the door, which really means “I’ll return soon,” not “I return right now.” When people procrastinate, they say lo hago ahora means “I’ll do it soon/later,” not “I’ll do it right now.”
  • In English, we say “what happened?” in the past tense; In Spanish people say “que pasa/que ocurre” which is in the present tense. It was a very confusing experience for me to hear a Spaniard ask me “What happens?”, which is fine grammatically but which just isn’t how we say it in English.
  • If there is a group of five people, in English I would say “there are five of us,” stating our existence. In Spanish, however, I would say somos cinco, which translates as “we are five”

Yoga in Norwegian

16 Aug
Here is a little reflection that I wrote several months ago about an experience during my springtime visit to Oslo:
Similar to taking aikido class in Chinese or capoeira class in Spanish, I understood a very limited amount of what the teacher said. A far more limited amount, in fact, than in China or Spain, because I speak no Norwegian at all. But I could still pick out a few words, just due to the similarity between Norwegian and English. I remember hearing something that I clearly recognized as meaning ‘push down.’ I find it amazing that with no study at all, I could understand a few Norwegian words. This experience was repeated at museums where I also recognized various Norwegian words in the context of their displays.
But my familiarity with yoga routines helped me, too. If this has been my first doing yoga it would have been much more intimidating, but I could imagine what the teacher might be saying in Norwegian because I had heard other teachers say it in yoga classes in English years ago. The fact that is was a physical activity helped a lot, too. I never could have taken a history class or a followed a political discussion in Norwegian, but with yoga I was able to follow the movements of the teacher and of the fellow students. This is a major reason why learning dance or martial arts in another language is a relatively easy way to join a target-language activity: it is language-light and context-dense.
It was the first time that I had attended a yoga class in more than a year, and it felt magical. The relaxation and calm that I got from the class, combined with a bit of work and pushing myself, was one of the best things of my whole trip.


Transformational words that don’t exist in English

24 Jul
I came across an unusual word in Portuguese yesterday. Although I don’t recall how I encountered it, the word estadualizar showed up somewhere. This is a Portuguese word which means “become statal” according to WordReference. To become like a state doesn’t strike me as a very common concept to express, and I am not surprised that some of the other dictionaries and translation machines that I looked had had no entry for estadualizar. But I am most interested in how difficult it is to smoothly express the idea in English. To become like a state could be more or less said as “statify,” despite being somewhat awkward sounding and not officially existing in English.
Regardless, the concept of a specific of this category that doesn’t exist in English isn’t new. If my suspicion is correct, Portuguese and Spanish both have a type of word that ends with –zar that describes a change from one thing to another, similar to the English -ize in democratize, nationalize, and  heroize.
Roughly "informationalize the forces, win the informationalization struggle"

Roughly “informationalize the forces, win the informationalization struggle”

This is roughly matched in Chinese by –, with 信息化 being the prime example of a concept that is awkward to describe in English, if only because we don’t formally have a word for “informationization.” The concept is simple enough: more something more information-dense or introduce information into a system (information in this sense means information technology). Despite the concept being simple enough, English just doesn’t have one single word to describe that.

What other words do you know that describe a transformation but which don’t exist in English?


Air China from Madrid to São Paulo

9 Jul

My flight from Spain to Brazil was operated by Air China, and all the pilots and stewardesses were Chinese. I started by using English to communicated with the stewardesses, but I ended up using my Chinese. The Chinese man sitting next to me made a comment that I spoke really good Chinese (as Chinese people tend to do when any non-Chinese person is capable of using any Chinese), and we had a conversation about Brazil, about his business, and various other small talk things. It really made me realize how bad my Chinese has gotten. I would say that I am down to a B1 level. Just to be friendly, I also spoke to the mother and father of a little baby who were sitting near me. I spoke portuguese to them merely commenting that they had a cute kid and that it must be hard to be a parent. I slept intermittently on the flight, but not as much as I had hoped.

I was quite surprised by the in flight entertainment. Each seat had its own video screen, which wasn’t unusual for such a long flight, but the selection of movies shocked me. On the flight the selection of movies was split roughly this: 60% Chinese films, 30% American films, and 10% other (including Korean, Spanish, and Russian). But the subtitles are what really surprised me: many of the films didn’t have subtitles in multiple languages, meaning that they weren’t available to a wide range of audiences. The American films, for example, only had subtitles in Chinese. The Chinese films had subtitles only in Chinese and in English. Keep in mind that this flight was going from Madrid to Sao Paulo, so most of the passengers would be (assumably) Brazilian or Spanish. Despite this, few of the movies offered either subtitles or audio in Portuguese or in Spanish, effectively eliminating all a large number of the passengers from the use of the entertainment system. For a flight that did not land in nor take off from China or the USA, it surprised me that English and Chinese were both such dominant languages in their system.

Ticket becomes tique

24 Jun
2013-06-02 16.56.01

A ticket is required

Sometimes I really wonder how many Spanish words were imported from English. There are plenty of words with common roots, (like biology-biología) but every now and then I encounter a word in Spanish that I think is almost certainly a bastardization of its english equivalent. Spaniards almost never pronounce the ‘t’ at the end of a word (such as chalet), so the English ticket become Spanish tique.

Abbreviations across English, Chinese, and Spanish

20 Jun

Abbreviations are relatively common in English, used for a variety of titles (Mr, Mrs) and for short versions of proper nouns (MN, USA, EU). The pattern for abbreviations in English tends to be pretty simple: either two letters that give the main sounds make a little word (such as doctor becoming Dr.), or the first letter of each of the important words combine to make a little phrase. So “bring your own beer” becomes BYOB. Simple.

In Chinese abbreviations are most common in the names of institutions, but they are a bit more chaotic. I am unaware of any pattern in Chinese abbreviations, and I think that generally the two most important characters are chosen. Examples include the such as Central University for Nationalities (中央学), which is normally shorted to 民大, and The People’s Republic of China (华人民共和国) is usually shortened to 中国. (Naming China is actually so complicated that there is a well-fleshed out wikipedia article devoted to it) Chinese abbreviations are difficult enough for outsiders to understand that I´ve never been able to just guess at their meaning, I’ve had to learn each one or have each one explained to me individually.


A little girl who was in a class of mine was named Dulce Maria, and her notebooks has Dulce Mª written on it.

In Spanish… I have no idea. Some things seem to mirror the English pattern of using the first letter of important words. For example La Union Europea becomes UE, and producto interno bruto becomes PIB. But I was surprised by abbreviations in some seemingly random words. Maria, which is a common name in Spain, is often shortened to Numero becomes , while segundo and tercer become  and 3erHermanos is sometimes shortened to hnos, while calle is shortened to C/. But in general I haven´t encountered many abbreviations in Spain. I am sure that any readers with a Spanish focus can provide more examples in the comments. Any more examples?

“Life is Better when you Surfing”

2 Jun

Let it never be said that bad English signage is unique to China.

Found on La Manga, a highly touristed beach zone in southeastern Spain.