Dialects and Dumplings

Earlier this month I popped into the Mandarin Women’s Group at Central Neighbourhood House, where the Art & Language program is officially underway.  The ladies were busy celebrating Chinese New Year.  I’d hardly taken my coat off before they had me rolling dumplings.

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My dumpling-making instructor provided a crystal clear demo in the required steps, and patiently repeated the repertoire of tiny folds and creases involved the few times I seemed to get a blank look on my face.  In the end, the little pile I made were a tad wonky but, I was kindly assured, not too bad for a first try.  (Or was that a “laowai”…?)

I can be weirdly clumsy in areas you’d assume the developed hand-eye skills of an artist to come in handy.  For whatever reason, pastry manipulation has traditionally been one of these.  But the trouble I experienced with those squishy things in this case was as much about diction as dexterity.  The language used by my instructor was probably as straightforward as what she was showing me how to do.  Nevertheless my language brain kept tripping all over its own feet.   I “knew I knew” the Mandarin words I wanted to use, and knew I knew at least half of what was being communicated to me, but putting it all together within the context of the unexpected dumpling fiasco was enough unlike my comfortable study environment back home, where I sit and merrily work away with Rosetta Stone’s Mandarin program and a few other resources on YouTube at my own pace, to cause a weird crash and burn.

Aside from illustrating the Chomskyan distinction between linguistic competence and performance fairly tidily the real point here – that is, the thing that really surprised me – was my tiny discovery that a concrete, visually-based task did not necessarily make language exchange as intuitively easy as I’d assumed.  The reason why, or so it might be, is that the transmission of language is usually more than a technical matter.  In our sense, we were not using the dumpling to ‘teach’ language specifics.  It was kind of “in the way” of an otherwise casual and fluid conversation between any number of people.  And trying to connect to people, rather than a linguistic system, I believe is where our intuition tends to take us first.

Without generalizing my experience above to everyone, I’d say this is definitely food for thought, given the notion of a course hinging largely around created objects as talking points.

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