I’ve been listening to The Next Big Thing on NPR; today’s episode (which you can hear online) is quite interesting from a linguistic point of view. The title is “Speak for Yourself,” and the site describes it thus:
Conversations with two men for whom conversation is rarely a simple proposition. One’s a well-known nature writer. The other is a young man from rural Pennsylvania. Both have struggled to overcome or make peace with a stutter.
But the segment that I most enjoyed was “Chinatown Blues,” in which radio producer Ken Hom (not the chef) describes growing up in New York’s Chinatown with a mother who dragged him to Chinese opera. (If you listen online, I believe it’s the fourth clip.) What particularly struck me was his description of trying to tell his mother what he’d had for dinner. In his rudimentary Chinese (Toisan, a variety of Cantonese) he tries to say the word for ‘shrimp,’ which is ha. He says it over and over, trying to get the tone right, until finally his mother says “I really have no idea what you’re trying to tell me.” His imitation of his desperate attempts to say the word are hilarious, and should put paid to any idea that people who are Chinese by birth somehow have the magical ability to pronounce tones.