Borderlands

Talking Trung

Keeping a minority language alive – Eveline Chao

In 2015, linguist Ross Perlin helped bring something utterly novel into the world: the very first book (as far as he knows) that had ever been written or published in a certain language. The language was Trung, spoken by fewer than 7,000 people in a river valley of Yunnan Province, close to the border with Burma and Tibet. The book was a Trung-Chinese-English dictionary, of which a modest number were printed and distributed locally within the 60-mile-wide area of China where Trung speakers live. The dictionary is also available online.

Together with three Trung collaborators, Perlin began compiling the dictionary in 2009. “Working first in Chinese and then haltingly in Trung, I recorded ghost stories and folksongs, studied rituals and conversations, and teased apart fine points of grammar,” Perlin wrote of the experience in Harper’s. His work with Trung stems from a broad interest in endangered languages that began in 2003, after Perlin heard Sun Hongkai, China’s most distinguished linguist, speak at the Central University for Nationalities in Beijing about China’s great diversity of languages – and the fact that many are disappearing. Perlin is now the co-director of the Endangered Language Alliance, an advocacy organization that helps New York’s immigrant and refugee communities keep their languages alive.

Chinese Corner

Don’t You Call Me That

How an ancient name for China became a modern epithet – Eveline Chao

For a few years of my life, the bane of my existence was having to liaise with the government censor at the Chinese-registered, English-language business magazine I edited in Beijing. However, it must be said that, aside from the minor detail that her very existence was a primary source of all frustration in my life and a potential affront to everything I believed in, my censor was pretty chill. I was always questioning the changes she made to our work, and though she didn't have to, she went to great lengths to explain them. (Though of course, it was in her best interest to bring me round to her view on things.) And the side bonus was that through her explanations, I always learned something fascinating about China.

 

Chinese Corner

Name That Tune

Can learning a tonal language make you a better musician? – Eveline Chao

The part of the brain responsible for producing and understanding speech is called Broca’s area. As it happens, that area is also responsible for processing music.

There’s a lot of research suggesting that musical training also brings language-related benefits. One is that musicians learn second languages faster than non-musicians.

Chinese Corner

Seeing Sini

The origins of Chinese Islamic calligraphy – Eveline Chao

The next time you’re in a Chinese mosque, look up. If you’re lucky, the entrance will be adorned with Sini, a Chinese-ified version of Arabic script. (And if you won’t be near a Chinese mosque any time soon, check out Professor Dru Gladney’s photos of Sini and other Islamic art in China.) Sini appears in most mosques in eastern China, and a bit in the northwestern provinces of Shaanxi and Gansu. You’ll see it used on the tasmiya, or invocation of prayer, hanging above the entrance or in the prayer hall, and sometimes on the shahada, a profession of faith hanging in a niche that indicates the direction of prayer.

Chinese Corner

Mum’s the Word

To learn Mandarin like a child, listen first – Eveline Chao

Editor’s note: If you’re resolving to pick up Mandarin this year, Eveline Chao has some encouraging insight about language acquisition for you in today’s Chinese Corner column. No matter where you are along the learning path, we’d love to answer your burning questions about Chinese. Send your linguistic quandaries to [email protected] with the subject “Chinese Corner,” or tweet a #chinesequestion at Liz Carter @withoutdoing or myself @annemhdc. – Anne Henochowicz

Ask enough expat parents, and you’ll eventually find someone whose child, upon moving to China, spent months as a near-mute. Then one day out of the blue, they began spouting fluent streams of Mandarin.