Santa Fe Senior Pens Paper on Idiom
Christine Kng (SF13)
When Christine Kng arrived at St. John’s College from Singapore, she thought she’d found her ideal educational setting: a college that prioritized love of learning and shaping the complete human being over all else. She didn’t know that adjusting to life in the United States would entail more than learning American colloquialisms and getting used to different foods. She discovered that national and cultural identities are transformed when one is no longer in the majority.
“It’s not like I felt discriminated against blatantly, but there are differences. Because so many of my classmates were American, they came with a different set of assumptions than international students,” she said. This meant that conversations in seminar were based on American assumptions about the way the world worked, which weren’t automatically true for Christine. Because of the structure of seminar, Christine was always able to bring this issue to the table, but sometimes she had trouble making people understand that their dearly held truths were true for them but not relevant to people from other countries. This led her to become interested in comparative philosophy and linguistics. She took a class on Confucius and began reading parallel texts in English and Chinese. She grew up speaking English and a minimal amount of Chinese, but very quickly she saw that the texts were completely different.
“It wasn’t the translations; they were good,” she said. “But there was no correspondence. With Chinese, you cannot really retain what the writer or poet was trying to do if you want the translation to be fluid in English. I got interested in comparative analyses of language and how language shapes the way you think.”
Last summer, Christine did a computational linguistics internship in Singapore with an Australian professor through St. John’s Ariel Internship Program. She learned to program in linguistics software and, after reading Metaphors We Live By, by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, she found confirmation for her ideas about language and perspective. “I began to focus my attention on a more easily definable aspect of metaphorical language—idioms. Towards the end of the internship, I started writing a paper with the professor, on which I am first author, about how idioms are different in Chinese and English.”
The paper, which is being submitted for publication in academic journals, explores how rife the Chinese language is with idioms, and how, unlike in English, these idioms don’t become clichés. “I drew out places where there were Chinese idioms to the English words that they came from. It was clear that Chinese does seem to use more idioms, and in translation they bring in idioms where there weren’t any, and that the pervasiveness of idioms tends to create more imagery in the language.” Christine is finishing her senior year and applying to the graduate program in international relations at Johns Hopkins University in Nanjing. She is writing her senior paper on democracy in China, using texts by Alexis de Tocqueville and Sun Yat-sen. Ultimately, she plans to work with the Singaporean government.