Friday, November 7, 2008

Idiomatic expressions and the Chinese engineer

I am the coordinator of a graduate engineering program. The majority of students are international students, all of whom speak have high English proficiency. Occasionally, though, the odd idiomatic phrase trips them up.

Part of my job is organizing each semester's seminar series, in which experts are brought in to talk about their research in a classroom setting. The last slide of most presentations is usually acknowledgment of the presenter's colleagues. The most recent presenter, an age 50+ New Yorker, titled his slide listing those names in a more casual than usual manner: "I get by with a little help from my friends."

A Chinese student, probably younger than age 30, asked me the meaning of that phrase. Simple enough, right?

So I started, "Remember the Beatles?" He looked puzzled, but nodded. He was probably thinking, "What the heck would the Beatles have to do with electromigration and integrated circuit design?" But he was a good sport.

"They sang a song called 'With a Little Help from my Friends." I sang some of the lyrics. (From the Sgt. Pepper Lonely Hearts Club Band album of 1967.)

Ooookay, but I still have not explained the concept.

"'To get by' means to just barely . . . just pass with the minimum requirements. " I said, digging myself into a deeper hole. "The phrase means his friends help him make his way through life. The speaker was making a casual reference in his ackowledgments.

Such a simple sentence, but it requires a knowledge of the tone of an entire era; perhaps the meaning cannot be conveyed across both two generations, a cultural barrier, and an ocean.

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