How China Destroys Your English
10 Feb 2007
I’ve been living in China a while now… long enough to observe the long-term deterioration of my own native language abilities, as well as those of my fellow English speakers. This deterioration can take different forms, one of which is a general decay of one’s vocabulary. Although it is a very real phenomenon (the other day I used “export” when I meant to use “deport,” which is really kind of pathetic), this kind of loss of mastery is due to lack of exposure, whether it be through media or human interaction with other native speakers. It would happen in any country, to speakers of any language, given that one’s native language is not being sufficiently exercised.
What I’d like to talk about is a much more insidious form of linguistic deterioration. Its source is, specifically, Chinese culture, and its target is English speakers. If you are a native speaker of English living in China, you may have already fallen victim. Below I give some of the common ways that the Chinese environment strikes down the native speaker’s linguistic competence.
1. Net bar. In Chinese, they’re called 网吧. This is fine. We generally call them “internet cafes” in English. The Chinese seem to think that 网吧 should be translated as “net bar” in English, and many unwary foreigners have even been beguiled by this idea. For English teachers, it’s usually one of the first nonstandard usage to creep in.
2. Name card. In the English-speaking world, business people have lots of business meetings to discuss business. On these occasions of business, said business people exchange specially printed pieces of paper known as business cards. In China everyone calls them “name cards,” ostensibly because in Chinese they are called 名片 and “name card” is a more direct translation. The use of “name card” is very widespread among foreigners living in China. In doing business with the Chinese, they seem to forget the word “business card” extremely quickly.
3. House. Most Chinese people live in apartments. They refer to these as their 家 (homes). When they purchase these apartments (OK, technically, they should be called “condos” at this point, but these Chinese domiciles doesn’t really conform to any image of “condo” I’ve ever had), they say they are buying a 房子. This word is frequently translated as “house,” but in practice it, too, is just another apartment/condo. Only the wealthy own what one could really call a “house,” and they are called 别墅 by the Chinese. Yet we foreigners in China still find ourselves referring to Chinese apartments as a “house.” I might refer to “your house” when I really mean “your apartment.” It’s totally not a house, and it’s honestly kind of embarrassing.
4. Bean curd. It’s called “tofu,” OK? This English word comes from Chinese (by way of Japanese). I know all dictionaries sold in China will tell you 豆腐 is “bean curd” in English, and that may represent the two characters nicely, but “bean curd” is more a definition than a comfortable translation. And yet some foreigners start saying “bean curd” rather than tofu. Deplorable.
I think you see the pattern. The normal native speaker way of saying something (internet cafe, business card, tofu, etc.) is replaced by a more awkward way of saying it using other English words — a way that conforms nicely to some Chinese word.
There have got to be more of these, but this short list is a good start. If you’ve been living in China a while and find yourself using all of these, you might be on dangerous ground. You’re going to start making a fool of yourself on trips home. Be vigilant! Resist China’s attempts at sabotaging your own command of your mother tongue!
(If you have any more of these, I’d love to hear them. It’s not quite of the same class, but I find myself occasionally saying “mai” instead of “buy” because the Chinese word for “buy” (买) sounds almost the same as “buy,” except for the initial consonant. The point of articulation is even the same.)