The Hexacoto

Listening to the sound of one hand clapping

Month: October, 2014

So is Zuckerberg fluent in Chinese or not?

Image: Tsinghua University

Image: Tsinghua University

Mark Zuckerberg recently made news because of a dialogue he gave at Tsinghua University in Beijing, China, where he spoke (Mandarin) Chinese. Here’s the link to the full video, 30 minutes long.

There have been news coverage about Zuckerberg’s Chinese language skills, from laudatory “Of course he speaks fluent Mandarin” headlines to less-than-favourable comparisons to that of a seven-year old. It turns out that there is a problem with the mixed coverage of Zuckerberg’s student dialogue — the news and the public often get confused what language “fluency” is.

Zuckerberg’s spoken Chinese, while mostly coherent, and with some interruptions, mangled most of the tones that the Chinese language is widely known for. BBC’s coverage pointed out that Zuckerberg’s failure to properly produce tones led him to claim that Facebook had just “11 mobile users” instead of “one billion.”

To understand how “fluent” one is when talking about mastery of a foreign language, one needs to understand the difference between “competence,” “performance,” “fluency,” and “proficiency” — four terms often used in such discussions. I’ll attempt to explain the differences between these four concepts.

Language competence and performance are the two biggest things that people are actually talking about when discussing a person’s L2 (foreign-language) “fluency.” Simply put, competence is a person’s grasp on the language’s grammar, phonological/phonetic rules, etc. Thus a person can be completely competent in a language but unable to perform as well. An example would be a person completely able to understand and speak Spanish, but unable to roll one’s R’s.

The distinction between competence and performance was notoriously made by Noam Chomsky in 1965. However, Chomsky’s notion of grammatical and phonological (linguistic) competence was expanded by Dell Hymes in 1966.  It included the knowing of appropriateness of topics and politeness (sociolinguistic), understanding how to combine language structures into different oral and written types (discourse), and knowing how to repair communication breakdown in the presence of interference (strategic). These concepts came to be known as “communicative competence” in literature.

Zuckerberg’s Chinese performance with his tones was bad, but he understood most of the questions asked. He was also able to answer simple to moderately complex questions in grammatically-sound Chinese. His use of humour and appropriate politeness further signals competence. It can be said that he’s mostly competent in Chinese.

Fluency is the measure of the ease of production of the language. It can be measured by speed, sustainment, and/or lack of breaks. Fluency includes not only speech fluency, but reading, writing, and even listening. Thus a person could be illiterate and have a limited vocabulary, but can be considered fluent if the speech occurs at a smooth pace. Zuckerberg’s speech does contain many pauses in parts of his speech, to the point that it might be hard for the listener to understand what he’s trying to say. He may not be very fluent, but through context of his speech, listeners (especially native speakers) are able to repair the content of his speech mostly.

Lastly, proficiency is the mastery of how well one uses the language, and can usually be tested by means such as the TOEFL or JLPT. One thing that was pointed out to me is that in language testing, proficiency is usually norm-referenced; that means that test takers are tested on how well they did in comparison to other test takers. This is different from criterion-referenced tests, such as the GCEs and GCSEs, where test takers are measured if they meet a set of pre-defined criteria. Once again, a speaker can be fluent in the language, but not necessarily proficient.

Singapore’s obsession with “tsap”

These four have something in common: "tsap".

These four have something in common: “tsap”.

Many of Singapore’s many iconic dishes: bak chor mee (minced meat noodles), chilli crab, Hokkien prawn mee, to name a few, tend to have a commonality — more often than not, they all have “tsap” (汁) or sauce/gravy in them. No matter Malay, Indian, or Chinese, Singapore dishes are sauce-heavy and gravy-generous. Singapore’s love for sauces and gravy doesn’t stop at local dishes, but extends its saucy reach to foreign cuisines localised in the country. It is hardly ever talked about, but even in “tsap” can we tease out what it means for a dish to be “truly Singaporean”.

How does Singapore’s love affair with “tsap” contribute to establishing identity? The answer lies with how we localise foreign food. Cuisine localisation anywhere in the world takes into consideration local preferences, and modifies the dish accordingly. For example, mapo tofu in the United States is generally always saltier and less spicy than its Asian counterparts (true can be said for most Chinese food in the U.S. really).

Now in Singapore, discussion of food localisation usually surrounds taste: food is usually made less salty, less greasy, etc. But modification of texture to imported cuisines goes unnoticed, because something as simple as sauce is so basic to a dish that we forget it exists, just as we don’t think about how we breathe and taste. That does not mean we cannot learn something about our psyche and approach towards food from “tsap”.

Case in point: carbonara pasta and pasta with marinara sauce. Carbonara in Singapore is usually heavy on the cream sauce — Singaporeans want to see their pasta sitting in a pool of it, and one of Singapore’s biggest pasta chain Pastamania serves their pasta carbonara swimming in sauce.

Two examples of how carbonara is served in one of Singapore's largest pasta chains.

Two examples of how carbonara is served in one of Singapore’s largest pasta chains.

However, real carbonara is actually pretty dry. Be it in the United States or in Europe, most of the carbonara I’ve had outside of Singapore tend to not drown the noodles in “tsap”.

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Proper carbonara lightly clings to the pasta. Not only just with carbonara, but Pastamania’s marinara dishes are akin to soup.

Pastamania's marinara vs. some other country's marinara

Pastamania’s marinara vs. some other country’s marinara

Of course, one can say that Pastamania, as a chain restaurant, isn’t representative of how the food is supposed to be served and that they serve bad pasta, but that is besides the point. What we’re looking at is how these companies think Singaporeans would like these foreign cuisine best, and their verdict: swimming in a lot of “tsap”. In my experience, not only Pastamania, but many other local pasta establishments, from chain restaurants to slightly fancy “atas” restaurants tend to be heavy-handed on the sauces.

Has anyone ever stopped to think “What makes Singaporean food so Singaporean?” Many will quickly point out that spiciness is an aspect. But just as Singaporeans can be pointed out in a crowd in a foreign country purely by accent alone, “tsap-heavy” food is idiosyncratic to Singapore and is an identifying element when local dishes are compared internationally. An example of “what makes X food so identifiably X?” would be Japanese dishes and their philosophy of preserving the natural flavours of the ingredients, so much so that they serve individual dishes on separate serving dishes so as not to mix flavours.

A reason, I suspect, why Singaporeans love gravy so much could be our mantra of being kiasu, or the fear of losing out. The idea that “more is better” sticks very close to our heart — why would you have less gravy when you can have more? Singaporeans get ecstatic when their dishes come more liao (料), or toppings, and having extra “tsap” comes close. Just think of how people advice when ordering cai png (economic rice) to never forget to ask the server to drizzle/drench the food with sauces, curry, and gravy in hopes of getting extra food morsels. Our desire for value (or fear of losing it) manifests itself in extra “tsap”, so much so that the gravy is sometimes as much the dining experience as the entrée itself.

When ordering cai png, never forget the gravy or curry.

When ordering cai png, never forget the gravy or curry.

Another possible reason could be that Singaporeans are culturally averse to eating anything that is purely dry. Compare eating a baguette with eating a baguette dipped in chilli crab sauce or curry. Compare eating a plain roti prata with roti prata drowned in curry. Think about how even when we eat Khong Guan biscuits, there is a desire to dip it in hot Milo or kopi. I wonder if the heavy usage of steam and moisture in many of our cooking have led us culturally to prefer hot and moist food. Many Americans I know have no qualms about eating cold pizza (gag). In the Chinese language, hot food can be described as re pen pen (热喷喷), literally hot and spewing, and I imagine it is spewing steam; an element of moisture. I guess in English there is “piping hot”, but it conveys less the image of moisture as it does purely heat. I cannot speak for the other major languages in Singapore whether they have similar food adjectives. Gravy and “tsap” do have excellent heat-retaining properties, and are pretty wet too.

What does this say about us as a culture and the way we like our food — which is hot and wet? Well, not much, except that we like our food hot and wet. It is possible to extrapolate and say that philosophically hot food to Singaporeans is a source of comfort, and that gravy on our food not only adds flavour but serves additional soothing properties, but that is a bit of a stretch. However, simply being able to distil what makes Singaporean food so Singaporean is an exercise that can be applied to many other aspects of our lives — what makes Singaporean writing so Singaporean, or Singaporean English so Singaporean, etc etc?

So the next time someone asks “What makes Singaporean food so Singaporean?”, the answer is: If we love it, we lin (淋) a lot of tsap on it.

Subway Series Haiku: 4 – Perspective

Maternal display:
Rat leads its young on the tracks
— They are seen as filth.

Subway Series Haiku: 3 – Blessed

“Sorry to disturb”
“Need to feed my kids at home”
“God bless everyone”

Subway Series Haiku: 2 – Livelihood

Man at the turnstiles
Selling swipes for two dollars
— Twelve dollars an hour

Subway Series Haiku: 1 – Transit

Strangers on a train
Stealing glances through the trip
Then one has to leave