“What is global warming?”
The state of global warming politics has finally reached kitsch. Take a look at the video below, a snippet from the game show Super Center ABC (瞎拼ABC; or craze for English genius).
Pairs of contestants consisting of a reader and a guesser each have five minutes or so to guess as many phrases as they can. A phrase in Chinese and its English translation is presented to the reader (and audience). The reader is allowed to speak only English, the guesser must convey the Chinese phrase, not the English. The reader is of course not allowed to read the English phrase, but must paraphrase it.
The reader can use any means to reveal the phrase. The most frequent technique is to describe single characters by means of analogy, pop culture reference, or pictorially; then the reader must stitch the characters back together, which, because of the way the Chinese language is structured, can mean something entirely different than each individual character (word). Got it?
The reader here is Makiyo, a Japanese woman fluent in Chinese and Japanese, and, as you will see, not so fluent in English. The discussion of global warming, actually the “greenhouse effect”, begins at 2:22.
A rough transcription of what Makiyo said:
Summer is a very very hot-o. And winter very very too col. And-a CO2 is very very too much…And Earth-a is dead. Earth-a, it’s dead…very very soon…Coming-u soon.
Laughter and applause! Celebration! The Earth it’s dead very very soon. Not to worry—next phrase, please. Was it a coincidence that it was “Keep calm and you will not feel the heat too much”?
Even though each person in this show has assimilated the notion that there is very very too much CO2, and that this fact must have apocalyptic consequences, this video is bad news for environmentalists. It shows that their best, most potent message has been absorbed, but reduced to a game show laugh line. You can’t sink lower than that. A contestant asking to buy a vowel in the phrase “Catastrophic flooding” cannot be far off.
It’s hard to imagine how environmentalists will recover from this. What scary scenario can top the imminent end of the world? If that can’t frighten and motivate people, nothing can.
It is inconceivable that a show like this would ever become popular in the States. It relies on most of its viewers having at least passing knowledge of a foreign language, which is not so, here. Perhaps Spanish would work, but it’s doubtful: too many people are fluent in both, or fluent in only one. French might go over in England.
Then again, these languages are too close to English to be the source of any fun. It’s the radical distance Chinese has from English, and the reader’s bare competence of that later language that provide the spark and humor. If the reader and guesser were both masters of English and Chinese, the best the show could do would be to reach pedantry: it would resemble a PBS educational program designed by over-earnest adults for the betterment of children.
The criticism, sure to be offered by some, that Americans are just too stupid, linguistically speaking, to enjoy such a show will be misplaced. It is not so that we are too stupid to learn new languages. That we do not often do so is because we operate under a handicap not present in other countries. We suffer the misfortune of not needing, or not often requiring, a second language.
How many native English speakers have had an experience similar to this, such as I often had in Japan? Me asking the clerk (in Japanese), “How much is this?” The clerk answering (in English) “A thousand yen.” Me (in Japanese), “How many are in the package?” The clerk answering (in English) “Two hundred. It’s written here.”
Or this, in Taiwan. Me (in Chinese), “I want some duck tongue.” Clerk (in English), “You like this? You eat this?” Me (in Chinese), “I love it. It’s very delicious.” Clerk (in English), “How much?” Me (in Chinese), “Just a little. Thank you.” Clerk (in English), “You are welcome.”
See what I mean? We poor Americans are at a tremendous disadvantage.
Incidentally, this episode best demonstrates the screwy methods that are often used to arrive at an answer. This features the line (again, around 2:22), “If I don’t left me, you can die!“