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Lost in Translation: 听写/Dictée

Exploring terms that do not have simple translations in English

Photo by Tim Wildsmith on Unsplash

Welcome to Lost in Translation, a collection of articles where I explore terms that don’t have simple translations in English. These terms might be personal to me or might be interesting simply because of the ideas they convey, but the question answered at the end of each piece is if English is a poorer language for lack of this term. The first article in this series can be found here.

During my French lesson this week, the teacher was explaining the subjunctive mood, when a student interrupted her with complaints about its difficulty. As a French learner of over fifteen years, I recognize this as a common and well-warranted complaint. As that discussion continued, however, it took an interesting turn. For the first time in my life, I heard a foreign language teacher insist that native speakers needed to practice and memorize aspects of their language, just like learners.

I had always assumed that native speakers never really need to study their language like fish didn’t need to be taught to swim. Apart from some accents and varieties that were considered grammatically incorrect, native English speakers virtually never have issues with the language. Spelling is briefly taught in elementary school, but by the time fourth grade rolled around, language was no longer taught. Everyone understood how English worked, and we moved on to more challenging subjects like the hamburger paragraph and reading comprehension strategies. Of course, marks continued to be deducted for grammatical and orthographic errors, but these were now table stakes.

French learners are often discouraged by the sheer number of verb conjugations, noun genders, adjective accords, and other rules, as well as their byzantine exceptions. Though I struggled, I never once thought that native learners did as well. If they’ve heard something all their life, they wouldn’t question it, just like how I never think about English verb conjugations or subject-verb agreement: it either sounds right or it doesn’t. If one has only heard of “apple” as feminine, then why would they even venture to think otherwise? The grammar mistakes I usually see native English speakers make stem from similarities in pronunciation, but differences in spelling: affect/effect, they’re/there/their, possession/plural, then/than or of/have. Even then, these errors are a sure sign of ineptitude or carelessness: if they’ve been used correctly in every single written document in the native speaker’s life, the correct usage must be within reach.

In my French learning experience, this has proved true as well: recall that I learned the majority of my French outside of the classroom and within an immersion environment. Each time I went to Quebec and surrounded myself with the language, my French would improve without conscious effort on my part. Being constantly surrounded by a foreign language was draining, and it was even more tiring to try to understand it, but without memorization or lessons, I would learn the language. I had heard verbs used enough that I asked for things using the phrase as a whole instead of thinking through the verb tenses and conjugations. I talked around words I didn’t know without even realizing it. Oh, how wonderful it would be to be a native speaker, to be able to master a language unconsciously.

My teacher informed me that even native French speakers study grammar and spelling in high school through a test called a dictée, like a spelling test, but for entire passages as opposed to individual words. I had done many dictées in my French classes in the past, but never imagined that French students would have to do them up until high school, sometimes on a nearly daily basis. The dictée seems simple and forgiving: the text is read at a leisurely pace, then repeated before collection. But they are devious, often composed specifically for this purpose and sorted by how many ‘traps’ they contain: tricky words or expressions. It is also an exercise in endurance, lasting anywhere from fifteen to twenty sentences.

The dictée is as old as modern French and has spread to every corner of the Francophonie with colonialism. History’s most famous dictée was composed by French author Prosper Mérimée, and given to Empress Eugenie’s court, which included Napoleon III and Alexandre Dumas Jr. The last monarch of France made seventy-five errors, his wife seventy-two, and Dumas twenty-four. Though this Dumas was only the illegitimate son of the one who wrote The Count of Monte Crisco, he was a famous author in his own right. The most curious thing, however, is that the Wikipedia page on the subject is available in three languages: French, Slovak, and Chinese.

During my years of Chinese school, the exercise I dreaded the most was the 听写 (tīngxiě), a Chinese dictée. I retained nothing over my eight or so years of Chinese language education on weekends, and this sort of test made it devastatingly clear. However, I recently learned it is also an exercise for native pupils, not just a form of torture for second language learners. Throughout primary and secondary education, Chinese students complete 听写 every week to train and test their Chinese. Though I couldn’t find anything on its classical or contemporary history, any Chinese learner will know of 听写. The kicker? It is often used for learning foreign languages as well, such as English.

At first, I thought that if all foreign languages had their equivalent to the 听写, why doesn’t English have one? For English speakers, a dictation is either a musical exercise (also taken from the French tradition) or the process whereby voice is converted to text, by a person or a program. Upon further reflection, however, it’s really just Chinese and French that have a dictée, and it’s not something that the English language lacks, but rather something unique to Chinese and French.

In both languages, spoken words have many different written representations. Chinese is the poster child for challenging languages, and most people know the language as being the single largest logographic one in the world. That is to say, the characters conveying the meaning of a word represent that meaning directly, giving a little hint as to its pronunciation. As a consequence, knowing how to speak the language provides very little guidance on how to read and write the language, unlike virtually every other language in the world. Performing a 听写 requires knowledge of the exact characters that the administrator reads, and writing the characters down is no easy feat either. Currently, I can recognize in the neighbourhood of a thousand characters, but probably write less than fifty of them, which means I am wholly incapable of completing any sort of 听写.

In French, different genders and and pluralities of a noun, verb, or adjective are often all pronounced the same way. “He works” and “they work”, written as “il travaille” and “ils travaillent” respectively, are pronounced the exact same way. There are also completely unrelated words spelt completely differently that are pronounced similarly, leading to videos like this cropping up over the internet in the last few years. This phenomenon is also present in the Chinese language: “star” (星星) and “gorilla” (猩猩) are pronounced the exact same way, as are “goal” (目的) and “grave” (墓地). Homophones exist in English as well, but to a far lesser degree, and are often also homographs as well.

Though I would undoubtedly perform worse than a third-grader both on a dictée or on a 听写, I feel like the French variation is harder for those who are fluent in the language: it would be difficult to write the wrong character altogether in Chinese, but would be much easier to miss out on a letter somewhere or forget a particularly complex conjugation. Either way, the presence of a dictation exercise in both languages makes a lot of sense.

Is the English language weaker than not having a transcription exercise? I certainly think so. The legion of internet commentators not knowing which they’re/there/their to use would certainly be lessened. It’s also not misplaced to say that the French and the Chinese have a pride in their language, certainly more than that English speakers. The French will insist on correcting the grammar of others, whereas it’s certainly considered rude to do so in English.

Is English poorer for not having this term? This question is silly when applied to nouns that have more presence in other cultures; if English didn’t have a term for a specific type of escargot or tofu, no one would be bothered, so I think it’s no big loss that a term for dictée does not exist in English. The gap between spoken English and written English is admittedly smaller than those between French or Chinese, so a 听写 isn’t required. But perhaps we would benefit from one so that people gain a little more respect for the words they speak and the ones they write.

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