Teaching Thomas: His Languages

So far, I’ve heard Thomas speak and understand three different languages: Taishanese, Cantonese, and English. I believe his mother is also teaching him Mandarin. A normal, everyday use of languages for Thomas goes something like this:

(I ring the doorbell. Thomas’ grandmother opens the door)

Grandmother: “???” (Translation: she says something in Taishanese, a dialect of Chinese even though it sounds completely different from Mandarin to me. She is probably saying “Good Morning”)

Me: Ni hao. Zhao an. (Translation: “Hello. Good morning.” I give a slight bow because she is an elder. I speak Mandarin to her because that’s the closest thing to her dialect that I know. I have no idea if she can understand Mandarin. It seems like body language, like the bow, is much more useful.)

(She welcomes me in. Thomas is sitting in the living room holding a bowl of porridge and watching television.)

Grandmother: “??? goo-goo ???” (Translation: I’m guessing she is telling Thomas to stop watching TV. “goo-goo” sounds like “ge ge”, which is Mandarin for brother.)

Thomas: “???” (Translation: I’m guessing he is saying “wait” or “hold on”, in Taishanese I’m guessing.)  

(Thomas continues watching TV, something like “Bob the Builder”. The grandmother gives up and leaves the living room. In a few minutes, she comes back with Thomas’ mother following.)

Mother: “???” (Translation: I’m guessing she is saying “hurry up” or “come now”. She speaks Cantonese, a dialect I’m more familiar with, to Thomas rather than Taishanese.)

Thomas: “???” (Translation: I’m guessing he is saying “ok, soon” or “I’m almost done”. He speaks Cantonese back to his mother.)

Me: Come on Thomas. Let’s go Thomas. Thomas, I have a new game for you today. Come one, let’s go play.

(The mother turns to me.)

Mother: Ni ke ma? (Translation: “Are you thirsty?” His mother communicates with me through Mandarin, though her Mandarin has a heavy Cantonese accent.)

Me: Bu yong, xie xie. (Translation: “No thank you.” I reply in Mandarin.)

 (I turn to Thomas)

Me: Come on, Thomas. I brought a new game.

Thomas: Okay, I’m coming.


One thought on “Teaching Thomas: His Languages

  1. The above conversation is all too familiar to the Chinese diaspora. Taishanese was the dominant tongue of the chinatown of my childhood. During those years I was regarded as a foreigner even in chinatown because it is not my dialect. I did learn a few phrases though; one of the most interesting was the term for 25 cents or quarter: 銀四 “ngan thei” is literally silver four (or quarters), it’s like taking a coin and cutting it up into fours. The literal expression was likely invented on this continent as there was/is no equivalent coinage in China. Chinese dialects evolved overseas to communicate locally.


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