Sunday, May 11, 2014

"He" (他) and "she" (她) mix-up for Chinese students

It's a known fact that a Chinese student learning English tends to mix up "he" and "she" in speaking, with "he" said more than "she" by mistake (subconscious male chauvinism?). A reasonable explanation is that "he" and "she" are pronounced exactly the same in Chinese, , even though their written forms differ.

Now I find evidence that could support this theory, however self-explanatory it already is. In the Facebook Polyglots group, a Finnish man writes:

"I have wanted to raise my children to be polyglots. But, I have found it challenging to teach them two languages. I've spoken English to all of my three sons from day one. They all speak English, but have trouble remembering basic words and make beginner mistakes. Just today, when I called my eldest son and asked: 'Are you home already? Is your mother there?' My 13-year-old, with whom I've spoken English every day of his life, says: 'He's home. I think he's upstairs.' With unconcealed frustration, I said: 'She, not he.' 'Oh! Sorry, I forgot'."

What a pleasure in finding other people making the same mistake! Seriously, this gentleman's children can speak a little of multiple Romance languages, attesting to their language capabilities. And yet a mistake is made because "he" and "she" are the same word in Finnish, hän, not just the same in pronunciation, but also in spelling, a stronger case than in Chinese we may say. In fact, the same can happen in a few other languages. I remember a polyglot friend of mine told me his Armenian friends sometimes make this mistake too. In Armenian, again, one word, նա, can mean both "he" and "she".

To permanently solve the problem, you have to think in the language you speak, English in this case. If the thinking process is in Chinese, Finnish or Armenian, and speaking is after a translation, possibly a very fast or nearly subconscious one, the risk of making this mistake still exists. But before achieving the level of thinking in English, the best the student can do is speak slowly.

7 comments:

enchyisle said...

For me, I seldom mix these two words. But sometimes I do find it inconvenient when I try to hide the gender information of a character in English.

On the other hand, I have found that many of my Spanish friends do have this problem. An explanation is that in languages such as Spanish or Portuguese, the pronoun is not that important in a sentence, as the gender information is already encoded in verbs/adjectives.

What I don't understand is that French is also similar in that way, but it doesn't seem to a problem for most French people I know. Or perhaps it is because the French people I know either speak very good English or don't want to speak English at all. :)

Yong Huang said...

enchyisle, thanks for your comment. It's interesting that Spanish/Portuguese speakers make this mistake (mixing "he" and "she"). So you're saying omission of the subject pronoun, which is implied by the verb, has this effect, too. These languages are generally called null subject languages. Since there're many such languages, do we expect speakers of many of these languages to have this problem?

French does not omit the subject pronoun, a rare exception among Romance languages. Why do you think French is similar in this way?

kristine Peterson said...

Hello Yong Huang,
I'm Kristine Peterson and I'm an English to simplified Chinese Language Translator.
Your question about what leads to the perennial “he/she” mistakes has plagued me for these past 4.5 years I’ve been in China. I still don’t have a good answer for that. All I know is the answer is not: “In Chinese there is only ‘ta’ so it’s difficult to remember to say ‘he’ or ‘she’ when speaking English.” That’s an excuse, but not a good explanation :) There are so many other things that are different between English and Chinese that students don’t have a problem with.

If you find the answer please tell all of us. We’re all dying to know.

毅夫康 said...

Yong, you are missing something. There is in fact only one 3rd-person pronoun in chinese, ta1. It has been written 他 for centuries.
Using 她 is a recent invention (the char is old but was not used for "she"). 20th century authors thought it was a good idea to copy western languages here, and in fact using 她 does open some possibilities in written texts.
Despite that, many Chinese use 他 indiscriminately when they write, even though they know the distinction they pay little attention to it, which shows that they continue to think of ta1 as a single pronoun.

Yong Huang said...

毅夫康, thanks for your comment. I know exactly what you said. In the modern Chinese, i.e. after the recent invention, ta1 is split into 他 and 她 in writing, but unfortunately, not in pronunciation. That's what I meant. Because of this incomplete split, or more precisely because of the un-split pronunciation of ta1, native Chinese speakers occasionally have the mixup in speaking. Your comment reminds me that I should emphasize the pronunciation aspect of this Chinese word as the cause of the problem.

허미란 said...

hi ~ your post is interesting
I am korean. I used to learn chinese.
when learning chinese,i have never thought these problem.

Yong Huang said...

Thanks, 허미란. I don't know Korean although I plan to learn it. It looks like in Korean, "he" and "she" are two different words with different pronunciations. So you won't have problems when you speak English. BTW, the problem I describe here applies to Chinese (or Finnish, Armenian, etc) learning English, not people learning Chinese.