02.03.12

你有没有素食食品吗?

Posted in Travel at 14:14 by RjZ

Nǐ yǒu méiyǒu sùshí shípǐn ma? That’s what I was trying to say. It’s supposed to be Chinese for “Do you have vegetarian food?” (Actually, I was leaving out the formal greeting”Ni” at the beginning and the question word “ma” at the end because that’s what my guide book said.) Who knows what it actually sounds like when it comes out of my mouth because it almost never worked. I tried shortening it to “no meat, please,” figuring that I was messing up pronunciation somewhere and so fewer words would mean fewer chances for mistakes. I’d tried similar strategies to request food without meat in other countries like Thailand and had similar lack of success, once receiving a plate of meat only.

Nearing the end of my trip to China I met a British expat who gave me a new phrase which actually worked! (Of course, I can’t remember it, so I’ll be back to picking out the meat during my next visit to China.) The funny thing about the new phrase is that it was longer and more complex. I took a step back when this jumble of syllables came out of his mouth the first time, explaining my strategy of simpler being better. Actually, more is better, he countered.

He’s right. Language and communication is like a data transmission with error correction protocol. A checksum is a chunk of transmitted information that is sent in addition to the intended data which makes it possible to verify that what they sent is what you received. We transmit more data to ensure that anything gets through at all. The same is true for the NATO phonetic alphabet. November-Oscar Mike-Echo-Alfa-Tango is much harder to say than “no meat,” but the extra information ensures that the data is accurate. It’s particularly valuable when the information isn’t words, but data, like a map quadrant or serial number.

Imagine a foreign speaker of English who asks only “weh tooret?” You might guess from context he needs, very urgently, to pee, but asking for something out of the ordinary like vegetarian food (hey, I was in China!) isn’t obvious even if after a series of hand gestures. The more words we mis-pronounce, the better chance we have of guessing what was intended by deciphering the words we actually did understand. The extra words, even badly pronounced, are like checksums for the the mess we’ve made of the language transmission.

It might be a bit counter-intuitive to some, but when trying to communicate in foreign language, it’s often best to plow through, saying whatever you can, in as many ways as you can, instead of dwelling on one or two words that the locals clearly don’t understand. The same is surprisingly true when all you can do is speak slowly and clearly in English and hope folks have seen enough Hollywood movies to pick up a word or two. They’ll have a better chance with more info than less.

Looks like computers can teach us more about about human communication than just confusing online translators. (If you actually speak the language you used Google translate for, you’d likely never actually use what comes out of it!) Think of all your extra gibberish as an error correcting checksum. Maybe you’ll even get what you ordered next time.

Edit, 7 Feb 2012: Stephen Wolfram agrees with my speculation here. Describing how Apple’s Siri works with Wolfram Alpha, Wolfram describes how spoken requests have more information and are thus easier to parse.

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