Sunday, March 15, 2009

War on Chinglish (3)

I'm going to pick up flowers.

Well, if you hadn't omitted the definite article, this might be OK - if you were going down to the florist's to collect some you'd pre-ordered, or if you'd just knocked over a vase and strewn flowers all over the floor.

If, on the other hand, you're talking about flowers that are still growing in the soil, then you just pick them. You'd say: "I'm going to pick some flowers."

When I first encountered this mistake from one of my students, I thought it was a natural enough stumble, a one-off error. English phrasal verbs are always a problem for foreign learners (and prepositions - and articles - seem to be especially difficult for Chinese learners). However, I have encountered this particular slip again and again during my teaching here.

And I have found many students who refuse to believe that it is a mistake; some, even, who protest that it must be I who am mistaken. I was reminded of this example the other day because it ties in with the rigid mindset we encounter in fenqing Internet commenters. There is a culture in China of paying extreme respect to teachers - to the extent of regarding them as infallible. This unquestioning and unshakeable trust in the authority of a teacher carries over to textbooks and to the news media. And there's so little exposure to - or even access to - alternative points of view, that mistakes by a teacher or in a textbook (or in Xinhua) are never likely to be exposed.

Somewhere in China there is a middle school textbook that teaches kids to say "I'm picking up flowers". It's a crappy Chinese textbook written by feeble Chinese "academics" who've probably never been out of the country. 20 or 30 years ago, all English textbooks in China were that bad. But things really aren't that much better today. There's still a reluctance to import textbooks from overseas, or to employ native English speakers in the development of domestically published textbooks. The vast majority of English textbooks used in Chinese schools today are deeply, deeply flawed. They teach Chinglish, not English.


Anonymous said...

So 'gather' is the correct word?

Froog said...

Not really, no.

You 'gather' things that are more widely distributed, but that might be of some use to you. Like mushrooms. Or gossip.

'Pick' on its own is the correct word. 'Pick up' is a phrasal verb with a different meaning.

I'm sure you knew that really.

Anonymous said...

Froog, you hit the point! It's really disturbing to learn engish phrasal verbs, especially when it invovles different prepostions with rather similar meanings, like cut back and cut down.

Great post again, and i love the fengqing post you did couple of days ago.

Froog said...

Why, thank you, Tankman. [Blushes]

And apologies to thinkweird (and anyone else who was confused): I did include an example of the correct form of my opening example here,but it got temporarily eaten by Blogger - that exasperating "font size=0" gremlin again. I've fixed it now.

Tommy said...

I encountered one the other day: the difference between "allow" and "allow for".

I do think though that much confusion arises out of the fact that speakers of all languages allow themselves certain liberties in spoken/informal discourse that they don't allow in written discourse. Your students can undoubtedly find many examples that they think support their choice of words but are actually examples of informal discourse.

I can totally imagine myself saying, "Honey, I'm going to pick up flowers for Mrs. X while I am at the store." "Honey" would know exactly what I meant and it probably wouldn't dawn on her or myself that I had incorrectly spoken, and if it did dawn on her, she might have to think about what I said for a moment before she could put her finger on the problem.

Froog said...

Yes, Thomas, that's always a problem. And I fear it's particularly acute for the Chinese - they do seem to have a "tin ear" about small variations in usage; well, not just in their speaking and listening; the inattentiveness to detail is even more pronounced, I think, in reading and writing - I have often complained of this in regard to the editing and polishing work that I do. I think it is because our writing system seems so alien to them, they have a kind of persistent blind spot about it. Spelling seems to be an irrelevance to many of them, and consistent capitalization or punctuation is quite beyond almost all of them.

This example is not just the product of inappropriate adoption of a usage from a different context. There really is a textbook that teaches Chinese kids to "pick up" flowers that are growing in the ground.