is a linguistic review of a literary work. I personally find it very refreshing
as a text for teaching English especially to Chinese students. The author's
fame and Chinese background would draw a closer distance between the learner
and the text. (By the way the author has a MA in linguistics from San
Jose University). The Sinitic setting foregrounded in the book is an additional
plus to enable an intermediate Chinese learner to strike a common ground
with the text much more easily. Among the tenets of applied linguistics
applicable to this book are as follows:
a) Crosscultural pragmatic comparison between English and Chinese speakers
b) Articulalatory phonetics of non-native speakers of English c) Morphological
interface between English and Chinese d) Lexical import into English by
means of ethno- and cultural-
e) Simplified English syntax by non-native speakers f) Error analysis.
The text provides an understanding of the Chinese mind and the contrastive
linguistic make-up in learning English. This is best exemplified by Kwan,
Olivia's half-sister. She shares the same father with Olivia the protagonist
of the story. Kwan, is born in China and she speaks Chinese English and
thinks English in a Chinese mind frame. Olivia, on the other hand, was
born and brought up in California. She always provides the American counterpart
in thinking. This contrast could provide pedagogical insights to English
teachers providing the possible typical error patterns, prone to be made
by Chinese students while learning English. Consequently the book provides
a base for English lesson planning.
Take for instance when Kwan was fascinated by a barf, she asked Olivia
for the fruit's name, she then tried to pronounce it as "bar-a-fa,
bar-a-fa" and said. "Wah! What a clumsy word for such a delicate
taste...(p.12)". I suspect a typical Chinese-educated student, for
instance, would call it "balafa" as the trill is always a difficult
phoneme to Chinese articulation. The lateral is always employed as a phonetic
substitute. The same applies to many Japanese. For those who advocate
world English the vernacular Chinese-English spoken by Kwan could also
be a rich source for sociolinguistic research. Other such examples include
Yingle Bells for Jingle Bells, wunerful for wonderful, yoke for joke (p.97).
From the 'barf' example one would realise that English is a stress-timed
language whereas Chinese in its spoken form is a syllable-timed language.
Each spoken syllable is actually a meaningful Chinese character in its
own right. As such for an elementary reading program an English teacher
would like to use more words which have salient peaks. It is easier to
learnt words which have the basic peaked syllable (CV$C-: water) rather
than a heavy onset syllable or word such as (CCCVC#: strap) at the elementary
There are traces of reduplication which is an Asian linguistic feature
in communication such as those in Chapter 7: The Hundred Secret Senses,
in which there are phrases like 'very-very', 'many-many', 'yes-yes', 'no-no'
and 'welcome-welcome'. There are also humorous excepts which could be
useful tools for teaching listening and speaking skills. These examples
are good samples to illuminate miscomprehension of words and phrases in
communication which could range from funny slip of tongues to costly miscommunication.
Among some lighter anecdotes found in the book are as follows:
She shook her head then asked, "How this person die?" "A
skiing accident in Utah. Avalanche. It's like drowning." "Ah!__waterski
affa lunch! Stomach too full, no wonder drown." "I didn't say
after lunch. I said__"
"No lunch? Then why she drown? Cannot swim?" "She didn't
drown! She was buried in the snow." "Snow!" Kwan frowned.
"Then why you say she drown?" I sighed, about to go insane (emphases
provided, p. 101).
"...Oh, okay. She saying her family die long time ago, because auto
in ditch." "Auschwitz'" I said.
"No-no. Auto in ditch. Yes-yes. I right, auto go in ditch, turn over,
crash!" Kwan cupped her right ear (p.105).
The second conversation is about Kwan's communicative blunder with Elza,
Simon's deceased girl friend through her yin eyes of which enabled Kwan
to see ghosts. Elza is of Polish-Jewish origin and her ascendants had
died in the Auschwitz camp.
From the Cantonese's morphological point of view one might like to test
the definition of affix defined as bound and independent forms attached
to either the beginnings or the ends of the morphemes in Matthews and
Yip (1994:31) in which a- is regarded as prefix used with names and kinship
terms such as these terms (ibid.:32):
a-go (elder brother)
In this book we noticed that /-ah/ is used at the ends of names. The protagonist
is always called "Libby-ah" which has a suffix of /-ah/, Miss
Banner is called "Miss Banner-ah" (p.47) and Simon is called
"Simon-ah" (p.105). Again the familiarity is the primary pragmatic
function inherent in the suffix /-ah/. I believe it is the same /a-/ in
Matthews and Yip (1994). This /-ah/ is found in spoken Cantonese but it
is not mentioned in Matthews and Yip (1994). Two questions arise here.
Is /-ah/ a new suffix in Cantonese and Mandarin (both has -ah) or is it
a reflex of /a-/ in an opposite distribution. Is there any difference
in the semantics and pragmatics of these particles?
The word Libby-ah is the truncated form for Olivia. The /v/ is replaced
by /b/ both are [+ bilabial]. Again this is another contrastive phonological
phenomenon to be noted by English teachers who deal with elementary Chinese
Cultural-wise one can see the typical Chinese sound symbolic belief in
numbers. Many Chinese in Hong Kong, as pointed out by Matthews and Yip
(1994), Malaysia, Singapore as well as those mentioned in the author's
book, believe that there is a close relatedness between sound and meaning,
"Eight-eight-eight-eight-eight. Lucky numbers, bad watch (p.17)".
'Eight' has a spoken resemblance to the word 'prosper' in Cantonese and
Mandarin. Therefore many Chinese like the number and the 8-prosper sound
symbolic belief has reached a normal status supported by the fact that
drivers tend to buy a car plate with number 8 and the more 8s there are
the more expenssive one needs to pay. In deciding to give monetary offers
for 'red occasions' (auspicious occasions, cf. Sew 1996) 8 is always a
save bet compared to 4 which is also similar to the sound of 'die'. (When
my father told my grandaunt his friend's car plate is 4045, my grandaunt
replied in dismay, "How unlucky").
One could also trace the usage of non-English words in the book like kuli
(p.39) which is actually coolie. Such Sino-English words would be another
plus factor in making the book an interesting reading material to Chinese
Apart from the languacultural aspects, this books also contains many excepts
on Chinese history especially on the Hakka origin. Though no historian
will take them as authentic material the language teacher can again applied
them to the learning of English especially to those who already know the
facts. The teacher could capitalise on the new linguistic make-up of these
fact coined in a different grammatical mold. By reading and understanding
or revivifying linguistically the facts one could learn stylistic, diction
Another point as to why this book is a good learning tool is the existence
of many ungrammatical paragraph blurted out by Kwan and other Chinese
characters in Kwan's hallucination. Some of the paragraphs are then reformulated
in good English. A teacher can first use the faulty passages as exercise
for students. The passages in the book would be most interesting to Chinese
learners of English. The answers or the reformulated texts would be another
good pedagogical base to enhance writing skills and creativity for students
to write compositions.
Unfortunately, I have not done any justice to the novel from the literary
angle in this review but from the linguistic point of view this is a very
usable text to aid teaching. As such it is worth the money as the book
provides reading pleasure and at the same time makes a good pedagogical
material. Many aspects of the book could be linguistically and pedagogically
exploited though I am sure the author has no such intention when she wrote
Matthews, Stephen and Virginia Yip. 1994. Cantonese: A Comprehensive Grammar.
Sew, Jyh Wee. 1996 A review of Y. Ning and Y. Ning Chinese Personal Names
. Onomastica Canadiana 78:1, 36-40