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Update: I had this whole post written about my personal observations on the a kind of sub-stratification between ‘native’ speakers like myself and my friend, and monolinguals. I decided to call us “second class native speakers”. Two weeks later, while I was still finalizing this post (’cause believe it or not, I spend more than one sitting pushing out these posts), I attended a two-day conference on this very subject. So at least my observations aren’t entirely crazy. But on the other hand, it makes me wonder how many times I’ll end up reinventing the wheel, simply from mere lack of exposure.

As it turns out, I was accessing two different phenomena: heritage language speakers, and semilinguals (now a somewhat contentious term). But of course, in my head, I somehow combined the two. It all started in my linguistics classes, when my Syntax textbook told me:

(1) *Bill kissed quietly his girlfriend

(2) Bill kissed his girlfriend quietly

I totally agree that (2) is more natural than (1); but at first blush, I wouldn’t have necessarily faulted a speaker if I heard him/her report that Bill had “kissed quietly his girlfriend”. After all, (1) isn’t exactly unclear, and there’s not clear ambiguity either.

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I normally wouldn’t comment on such things, because other websites already do such an excellent job of it, but I decided to write about this particular debacle because of its reportedly actual translation.

So I found this webpage that allegedly described three major [Chinese] tattoo mistranslations. However, the investigative journalism enshrined in that page was of such eye-wateringly low quality, it really blew my mind. In any case, one of them contained the following Chinese tattoo: 夕丑男, which the owner reportedly thought meant “love, honour, and obey”. Allegedly, however, the “real” meaning is “at the end of the day, this is an ugly boy”.

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  1. I am a Canadian-born Chinese, who grew up speaking English at school; and Chinese at home.
  2. I am a linguistics student with a reasonable command of Japanese.

When the preceding two facts about myself are learned by my interlocutors, I often get asked what the difference between the three languages are: Chinese, Japanese, and English. They will often go straight to the basic syntax, and assume that’s all there is to discuss. But if one would consult the table below, such an analysis is not so simple.

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I generally try to stay away from Western films with Eastern themes, because despite over a century of colonization/trading relations, the whole “mysticism” veil still persists. Admittedly, I’m always extra sensitive when people of my (East Asian) ethnic background are portrayed in western media, especially since the cultural and linguistic similarities are very scarce.  But on a whim, since I used to be a Jet Li fan (notably before he broke into Western media), I decided to try out Forbidden Kingdom (2008).

But this blog isn’t a personal film review, although I will say that the effects were stunning and impressive. The plot was also decent. But as far as the linguistic angle goes, there seemed to be some awkward lines. Within 30 minutes of the film, I’d already caught some very awkward translations:

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COCA - Corpus of Contemporary American English
L1/L2/... - Primary/Secondary Language
NNS - Non-Native Speaker
NS - Native Speaker