Grandpa’s Pid­gin English


Special Focus - - Contents - Yu Ji­dong 俞继东

When my grand­fa­ther was young he ven­tured out from his home in north­ern Jiangsu Prov­ince to scrap out a liv­ing in cos­mopoli­tan Shang­hai, where he worked for a boss from Ningbo. He was a nat­u­rally bright and ca­pa­ble in­di­vid­ual, who was adept at in­gra­ti­at­ing him­self to oth­ers, and as such he was of­ten sent out on tasks in­volv­ing deal­ings with for­eign na­tion­als, and in the process he picked up some Pid­gin English.

Grandpa was nei­ther a par­tic­u­larly ca­pa­ble English learner, nor was he in­com­pe­tent. And any­way in those days there were no text­books, no teach­ers, and of course no im­mer­sive lan­guage en­vi­ron­ment in China. But, he did have one coign of van­tage—he had di­rect con­tact with for­eign on a reg­u­lar ba­sis, and the “free lan­guage lessons” he got by hav­ing face- to- face con­ver­sa­tions with them al­lowed him to pick up English in real time.

Ev­ery night he would pull out his note­book with the “English” he had learned that day scrawled about in ran­dom jig­jagged con­fig­u­ra­tions on the page. Ac­tu­ally, there wasn’t an English let­ter to be found in the whole book, as the “English” was all writ­ten in Chi­nese char­ac­ters. So there he was holed up in his apart­ment late ev­ery night dili­gently recit­ing words and strain­ing his brain to mem­o­rize them by rote.

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