The Chinglish that Creeps in

01 Feb 2018

My daughter is 6 years old now, and aside from yearly trips to Florida, she’s grown up entirely in Shanghai. Her school is a Chinese school, not an international or bilingual school, when means that I’ve had to make extra efforts if I want her to grow up bilingual. I’ve always practiced “One Parent One Language” (“OPOL”), meaning that I never speak to my daughter in Chinese, even though I’m observing her acquisition of both Chinese and English with keen interest.

I’ve written about my daughter’s acquisition of Chinese grammar in the past, but today I want to comment on how her mastery of English has been affected by her Chinese acquisition and mostly Chinese environment.

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Since she’s grown up in Shanghai and attends a school where Mandarin is spoken most of the time, it’s safe to assume that my daughter’s Chinese language skills are going to be a bit more dominant. For example, I get the feeling that she’s mastering irregular verbs a bit more slowly than American kids might. I’m not worried about it; her accent is fine, and she sounds like an American 6-year-old most of the time. I’ve certainly never felt she was making mistakes that Chinese learners of English might make. …until recently.

In the past few months I’ve noticed that my daughter confuses the words “make” and “let” in her English. This is a mistake frequently made by Chinese learners of English. In Chinese, has both meanings, and context makes the rest clear. In English, if you don’t get these words straight, your English sounds quite weird (and non-native). So I definitely took notice when my daughter said things like:

Google Ngram Viewer results for 让

  • *”She was really mean, and let me cry.”
  • *”He always lets me laugh.”
  • *”What you said let me angry.”

In every case, the word “make” should be used, and the word “let” is used instead. (I’ve never observed the confusion going in the other direction.) She’s generally receptive to corrections of her English (she catches on pretty quickly when I correct her on her usage of irregular verbs, for example), but this one has been a bit more stubborn.

I’m curious: do any monolingual (or at least not growing up in China) English-speaking kids make this mistake? Or is it something particular to this situation? I expect it will works its way out in time, and I’ll be interested to see if the same thing happens with my son (who is now 3).

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John Pasden

John is a Shanghai-based linguist and entrepreneur, founder of AllSet Learning.

Comments

  1. No, monolingual English-speaking kids do not make this mistake. It’s 100% the confusion caused by 让。I’d be curious to see if she has the same problem with “wish” and “hope”, which is so common with Chinese speakers.

    • Thanks for the feedback. A friend on Facebook brought up the “close the light” and “open the light” thing, and I’ve heard her say that, but actually not as much. It’s like she processes these language discrepancies in waves.

      I’ll look out for the hope/wish thing.

  2. Interesting!

    Out of curiosity, do you plan on keeping her in a ‘Chinese’ school all the way through high school graduation? or perhaps switching to an international school for high school?

  3. Hi John

    I practice OPOL at home too. This is because I only speak 1 language.
    But our daughter April speaks 2 languages well for a 9 year old, but I notice a few errors in her English (most likely brought about from her speaking & hearing the local language while at school).

    I wish TV would broadcast Sesame Street or something similar (versus cartoons without any dialogue like Oggy & the Cockroaches). Fortunately she watches plenty of YouTube & Disney to aid in her English skills. What’s strange is that she can easily understand the Malay cartoons (at least she says she can).

    What are your 2 watching online or TV to aid in their language skills? I’m curious.

    Come visit when you feel it’s appropriate.
    I reckin’ I’yal tawk witcha late-ah

  4. Interesting. I don’t speak Chinese and we don’t live in China. My 7yo is bilingual, but goes to International English speaking schools. She started out with mostly English as a toddler, but around 4yo my wife decided to start speaking to her only in Chinese. She’s not overly strict about it, we still converse in English as a family, but since she spends much more time with my wife she probably speaks more Chinese at home than English. But I never would have guessed her Chinese may be affecting her English!

    However, when I read this post I realize she DOES do that very thing. I’m not a linguist, so I’ve just never paid much attention to it even thought to correct her. But I do notice she sometimes has slightly odd ways of phrasing stuff sometimes. Like “open the light”. Is that also from Chinese? I’m not worried about it, just interesting to realize what could be going on.

  5. not only does it effect the way they speak but the way they think
    and see the world ….

  6. My two boys (ages five and three) make the “open the light” mistake. We live in the United States, but practice OPOL to a large extent (my wife is from Shijiazhuang). However, sometimes I speak Chinese, and my wife speaks English – so we do tend to mix it up from time-to-time. At any rate, I find that my kids (especially the five-year old), speaks English slow and repeats himself a lot – almost like a stutter. It is like he is trying to find the right word to say, and he ends up hesitating. But he can understand English without a problem, and sounds native – no accent. I just think his vocabulary might be a little late in developing. When my kids were younger, their Chinese was better than their English. Now that they are getting older, English is starting to take over.

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