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Raymond Huo and Jo Coughlan: A greeting goes a long way

28 Feb 2015

We can build rapport with China through language, say Raymond Huo and Jo Coughlan.
Celebrations for Chinese New Year are a good time for Kiwis to think about the respect we owe different cultures when it comes to greeting each other in languages other than our favourite Kiwi slang.

In particular, much has been said about how important it is to increase the awareness of the Chinese language. It's about preparing our future generations for an era that will be increasingly influenced by the Asia Pacific region.

But accessing easy ways to learn important phrases in Chinese isn't easy. This is uncanny given the importance of our relationship with China, our largest trading partner.

Shouldn't more Kiwis know how to pronounce and say: "hello", "how are you?" and "my name is" as the English do in French?

The New Zealand Chinese Language Week planned for later this year will do just that - help us be more courteous by learning how to say a few phrases correctly.

It is the first Chinese language week in any Western country and was endorsed by Chinese President Xi during his inaugural visit as head of state to New Zealand late last year.

Take the real-life examples of President Ao-ba-ma (Obama) and our own Prime Minister Ji (Key).

Before President Obama's official visit to China in November 2009, the US authorities had requested, in vain, that the Chinese government change the official Chinese transliteration of Obama, from Ao-ba-ma to Ou-ba-ma.

The reason is a simple and obvious one: the translation is incorrect. When "Obama" was incorporated into Chinese characters years ago, the spelling Ao-ba-ma popped up and stuck.

Chinese is a tonal language and the way a sound goes up or down determines the meaning of the word. Standard Chinese has four tones. Its amazing effect can be felt in a typical example in the word "Ma" which means - respectively in its four tones - "mum", flax", "horse" and "curse".

The complexities are compounded because Chinese words often are polysemous; having two or more meanings.

The seemingly straightforward matter between the US and China has been viewed as something much more than its linguistic feature. Western media matched the incident to the "ideal metaphor" for the new reality of US-China relations - as in The New Yorker: "When you can't even get your counterpart in a negotiation to spell your name right, you are probably in for a rough ride."

In the New Zealand context, the only confusion is that of names - the relationship is direct and solid.

Prime Minister John Key's name in the Chinese transliteration roughly had two versions. "John" has been used in China for many years and its translation, being accurate, has long been accepted and adopted. The only issue is how to get "Key" translated. The first version was in two syllables: Kai-Yi, but was quickly dropped because of its inaccuracy.

The second, which is now the official version, is a single syllable word, Ji, which is undoubtedly phonetically correct.

The word "Ji" was said to have been first used and adopted by China's Xinhua News Agency, and the rest of the media followed.

However, "Ji" means more than a phonetic translation of Key - it is also "base", "core", "foundation" or even "chicken" and "chick".

The point we raise here is to avoid the "rough ride" and to help us further bond with our Chinese colleagues, friends, trading partners, we must try to get basic courtesies like pronunciation and greetings correct.

A week of Chinese language awareness is not simply about language, but more about cultural exchange - familiarising ourselves with a different way of doing things and allowing us to develop more meaningful relationships with our neighbours.

We need a New Zealand Chinese Language Week because our relationship with China is about more than trade, and New Zealanders need to show greater enthusiasm for cultures and languages other than their own.

• Raymond Huo is a former MP, a passionate linguist and partner in an Auckland law firm. Jo Coughlan is a Wellington City councillor, deputy chair of Life Education Trust and director of Silvereye Communications. They co-chair the New Zealand Chinese Language Week Charitable Trust.

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