Field Project Ideas

Excited though I am about this coming trip, I have to admit that the thought of the ethnographic research project I’ll be doing makes me nervous. Most likely because all big projects make me nervous, but also perhaps because I just can’t decide on a topic. I’m majoring in Linguistics, and am considering the possibility of also using the research from this project for an honors thesis, so I’d like to do something related to the Chinese language itself. I have a number of ideas of what I might study, and I just can’t make up my mind about which I’d like to do.


My first thought was something related to Chinese people’s language acquisition: either the first-language acquisition of Chinese or the second-language acquisition of English. (Maybe I could do both and compare and contrast them?) I could visit a school in Beijing and observe some language classes and talk to the students to learn more about the methods used in language instruction in China, and maybe compare it to American children learning English or Chinese.

I’m also interested in studying how Chinese has changed over time, and is changing, specifically looking at the transition from traditional Chinese characters and grammar to the modern simplified system. I’m curious how often traditional characters are still used in China today, and in what contexts. I could talk to people of different ages about how often they use traditional characters, and maybe I could even speak with some people who were around when the simplified system was first implicated about what the transition was like. I’m not sure specifically what locations I’d go to for this one. Maybe a school again? Since it relies a bit more on written rather than spoken language, it may not lend well to ethnographic research.

chinese-language-120221The last idea I have right now is also related to the evolution of Chinese, so maybe it and the second one could be merged? I’d like to study Chinese slang, and loan words. What are some common slang terms? Where did they originate from? Related to this: how big an effect does English have on the evolution of the Chinese language? Does it influence those slang terms at all? And how are loan words borrowed from English into Chinese? I know that brand names are probably translated by the advertising departments of their respective companies, but what about words like 汉堡包 (hànbǎobāo, hamburger) or 沙发 (shāfā, sofa)? When a word or phrase from English (or another language) needs to be borrowed into Chinese, it could be translated directly according to meaning using already-existing Chinese words; or phonetically with no regard to meaning, like the above examples; or by a combination of both these methods. Who decides which method to use, and precisely how to translate it? Is there a Chinese equivalent of the Academie Francaise? (If there is, and it is centered in Beijing, perhaps I could visit.) In addition, some words will have two versions, one based on meaning and one translated phonetically, like “bowling” (保龄球 bǎolíngqiú or 滚木球 gǔnmùqiú). When this is the case, is one version used more often than another? Again, however, all this may be hard to research through ethnography.

I think my main difficulty in choosing is mostly because the latter two topics, which I think I’m slightly more interested in, seem to me like they would be more difficult to study through ethnographic research.