Idioms bring laughter to a courtroom

August 11, 2009



Many people learning a new language feel compelled to sound like a native speaker. Besides trying to pronounce and sound like a native speaker, the use of informal language during speech is also very important. Informal language includes the use of idioms, sayings which have a figurative meaning and cannot be understood by knowing the literal meaning of the individual words. Learning idioms requires a great deal of exposure to the language.

This entry stems from an incident in a Hong Kong courtroom where a witness used several common Chinese idioms during his testimony. This caused a great deal of confusion, for those who do not speak Chinese, and bursts of laughter, for those who do.

The case concerns probably one of the biggest and most discussed probate cases ever in Hong Kong, as it involves at least $4.2 billion US dollars. Before her passing in 2007, Nina Wang was one of the richest women in the world. Her family members are fighting in court with her feng shui consultant, Tony Chan, on the legitimacy of the will that he presented in court trying to claim that she changed her will and named him the sole beneficiary of her estate.

This past week, a witness and former client of Chan used Chinese idioms to describe the fortune teller which went over the heads of many in the courtroom, including the interpreter who was in a fix and troubled by how to translate them to the English-speaking audience. Supposedly, he had once paid through the nose for Chan’s service, coughing up $50,000HKD every month to hire him. Apparently, Chan has a way with words as his clients include the rich and famous and whose own fortune is estimated to be in the millions. One thing is for sure, as this case has attracted worldwide attention, those involved will be living in a fishbowl for awhile with no privacy.