Mandarin Smackdown! Stewart vs. Huntsman vs. Xiao Li


What do Messrs. Stewart and Huntsman have in common, apart from spelling their first name Jon? Apparently an interest in Asian language. Stewart puts the needle effectively in Huntsman for using Mandarin on the campaign trail, starting at time 5:00 of this clip. (Take-home message: If you're running in a political primary, don't speak in a language most of your audience can't understand.) Then at the end of the segment Stewart does a surprisingly creditable job of a Mandarin riff himself.

Now, a clip of Huntsman in various Chinese-language interviews, including some shown in an over-the-top previous attack ad.

When you live in a "hard-language" environment, it can get really tedious hearing the fine-distinctions preening among foreigners about who has better command of the local language than someone else. This is despite the fact that they all may be quite good in it -- and that any ordinary person in that "hard" language country grows up with native linguistic command and no one gets excited by that achievement.

I will avoid such disputes in the case of Huntsman by saying (a) he can speak Chinese way better than I ever will and (b) I can understand him, in Chinese, much more easily than I can understand a normal Chinese person, in keeping with the theme I explored at length last year. That theme was: for non-native speakers of a language, why it's so much easier to understand other non-natives than people who grew up speaking the language. In the part I understand of the clip above, Huntsman is explaining how he learned Chinese during his years in Taiwan, and after a while he felt 不错 at it, bu cuo, "not bad." (Plus how he was the only US governor to speak Chinese, and what it was like to go with Reagan to China etc.)

Now, if you would like to see something truly surreal, have a look at the language lessons taught on the YouTube channel 'I Am Xiao Li.' She really does her best to convey tones and so forth. And the slow, exaggeratedly clear repetition resembles the way babies are exposed to their first language. But boy is this weird. It's kind of the Rosetta Stone approach, as imagined during a 105-degree delirium-fever. Watch at least long enough to see the Chinese-speaking panda.

The lesson is about how to say "She is my friend." Here is a more recent one, with a different approach. Or this. I will confess that after these I do remember how to say "I am lost" in Chinese. But...

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.
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