July 12, 2012, by China Policy Institute
The BBC Mispronunciation of the Chinese Language – Just Not Cricket!
With Wimbledon now in full flow once again and the world’s sporting eyes firmly fixed on every shot played, is it not also noteworthy to witness another Chinese sports star compete successfully on the world stage?
I refer to Zheng Jie who only a few days ago ran Serena Williams so close at this year’s Wimbledon. Zheng Jie played superbly, deservedly winning the first set. Further, it was only two years ago that Zheng’s compatriot, Li Na, triumphed at the French Open.
China’s increasing contribution to the exciting world of international sport now covers far more than just tennis. Over the last decade or so Chinese sports stars have made the international media’s back pages frequently with Yao Ming (U.S basketball), Liu Xiang (Olympic 110 Hurdles Gold medalist) and Zheng Zhi, Li Tie and Sun Jihai (English Premier League football), all succeeding at the highest level.
But what has not proved anywhere nearly so successful is the foreign sport’s commentators’ ‘mastery’ of the Chinese spoken language. Even the BBC, yes THE BBC, has displayed gross ignorance of what is the most widely spoken language in the world.
For example, the ‘Zh’ from ‘Zheng’ in ‘Zheng Jie’ was pronounced, throughout her recent heroic Wimbledon performance, in a similar sounding way to the ‘s’ in ‘Asian’. In fact, this sound was very close to the pronunciation of the French word (meaning ‘I’) ‘Je’ which may explain this incredible mispronunciation. The correct pronunciation of the Pinyin ‘Zh’ is far closer to the sound made in English when pronouncing a ‘j’ or a soft ‘g’, e.g the first ‘g’ in ‘gigantic’ or the ‘j’ in ‘just’. So, this sound is in fact a natural and very common sound in the English language. The mispronunciation, although hard to clarify, is probably partly explained by the natural tendency of English natives, especially those not linguistically able, to veer towards the foreign language with which they are most familiar when confronted with any different language. Hence, the French sounding pronunciation of ‘Zh’ in ‘Zheng Jie’.
The same reason could also be cited for the even greater mispronunciation of ‘Jie’ in ‘Zheng Jie’. The BBC commentator’s pathetic attempt resulted in the sound heard when pronouncing ‘je’ in ‘Jesus’. Instead, a duo-syllabic sound should be heard which should resemble the ‘j’ in ‘Jesus’ immediately followed by the ‘ai’ in ‘air’. Once again, this sound is extremely common in the English language and, therefore, should not be at all difficult to master. This is by no means an ‘exact’ transliteration but far closer than the current BBC ‘attempt’.
Internationalisation across all industries, not just sport, as well as the emergence of China and the Chinese people are far from new phenomena, and both are likely to continue unabated. Furthermore, the Chinese language, despite huge differences, does not represent an insurmountable linguistic challenge. In my experience, attitude is the key and those who possess resolute determination succeed in competent pronunciation, often as a result of less than a year’s study.
BBC management please note that such complete mispronunciation is not only unprofessional and disrespectful to the individual concerned, it could also be construed as an example of British cultural elitism and isolation. Not the way to embrace increasingly powerful cultures.
English remains a global language, but not THE global language. If the BBC could please take note!?
Mike Bastin is PhD student at School of Contemporary Chinese Studies, University of Nottingham.
Opinions expressed in the CPI blog do not represent the views of the China Policy Institute or the School of Contemporary Chinese Studies at the University of Nottingham. They are the personal views of the bloggers/authors.