Saturday, May 9, 2009

Language and More at the 2008 Olympics

Originally posted in Common Threads Blog,
Centre Daily Times, on Feb 23, 2007

“When in Rome, do as the Romans do,” but what if you are expected to do as the Romans do all over the world? This is becoming true with both “speaking English,” and with “accepting Western norms of behavior as the standard” around the world.

CNN aired a segment this week, in which John Roberts reported on attempts in China to translate signs into English before the Olympics – with sometimes funny results. The report focused on the funny translations made in what they termed “Chinglish.”

I however chose to focus on the fact that what the Chinese were attempting to do is so difficult, and something most of us, in the English speaking world, never attempt to do, whether we are hosts or guests. When we hosted the Olympic Games in 2000 in Atlanta, we did not have to worry about translating all our street signs into Mandarin - I wonder how good we would have been at it.

About 500 million people the world over speak English, so it makes sense to have that as an unofficial common language. Of these, 280 million are in the US, 100 million in India, 55 million in the United Kingdom, 17 million in Canada and 16 million in Australia.

But what should we do when we have major international gatherings in countries where English is not the native language? The 2008 Olympic Games are being held in China, where Mandarin Chinese is the official language, a language that is spoken by the largest number of people in the world– more than 1 billion people speak it.

Should the hosts learn English, or the guests learn Mandarin? Should the hosts provide forks and knives, or the guests learn to eat with chopsticks?

I am not sure if we provided chopsticks at the Atlanta Games, and it should be fine if forks and knives are not provided in China. If the Chinese hosts provide them, it will of course be a lesson to the world in hospitality.

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