I noticed these ads on the Shanghai Metro recently:
妈妈， [Mom,] Tom老师 教我的发音 [The pronunciation Teacher Tom taught me] Amy老师说不对！ [Teacher Amy says is not correct]
妈妈， [Mom,] 今天外教 [today the foreign teacher] 把我的名字 [got my name] 叫错了三次。
“Dada English” is one of a new wave of Chinese online English learning platforms which includes “VIP KID.” What makes these platforms special is that they all purport to offer native speakers as teachers, and many of them are from North America or Europe. (I understand that some of the competition uses mostly teachers from the Philippines.) The first ad above emphasizes 欧美外教: teachers from North America and Europe.
What about the Chinese teacher of English? A resource long known to be often “less than perfect” with regard to native-like English abilities and yet nevertheless a crucial component of the educational system, is not even a part of the discussion these ads are trying to create. Rather, it’s a matter of where your foreign teacher is from and how professional he is.
I’m really curious if there is enough of the right kind of labor in North America and Europe to keep these business models afloat in the long-term. I suspect it’s going to be a lot harder building and maintaining a team of online freelance English teachers when those teachers are not Chinese or physically in China.
How do you ask “how are you?” in Chinese? Most textbooks or other study materials include the classic greeting 你好吗？ (“how are you?”) right in the first lesson. From a course creation perspective, this greeting is great. It builds on the universal greeting 你好 (“hello”) by just adding one word, plus it allows an opportunity to teach the very basic grammar pattern of using the question particle 吗 to create yes/no questions. It’s also very easy to answer, and the classic response 我很好 (“I’m fine”) reinforces (1) the basic “N + Adj” sentence pattern in Chinese, as well as (2) using only super basic, core vocabulary.
So what’s the problem?
Well, Chinese educators’ dirty little secret is that Chinese people themselves rarely use the greeting你好吗？with each other. Some people will tell you this expression actually evolved out of a perceived need for Chinese greetings to more closely resemble western ones, which might be easier for westerners to learn. I’m not sure how much truth there is to this theory, but based on years of observation, I can confirm what many others have also observed: that native speakers very rarely use 你好吗？ with each other.
When I first learned this “dirty little secret,” I was quite indignant. Why would you teach learners something that no one ever says? It’s irresponsible and lazy. It certainly wouldn’t be the first time that educators underestimated the intellect of the learners. And it does seem that many Chinese educators continue to feel that it’s a good idea to teach 你好吗？ to beginners (perhaps for the reasons listed above). So in my work at ChinesePod over the years, I’ve tended to avoid 你好吗？ as much as possible.
But over time, I’ve noticed another thing. Chinese people do say你好吗？to foreigners. They’re especially likely to use it with foreigners when they know the foreigner knows very little Chinese, or if they suspect as much and are just testing the waters. (It can also be used as a barb in a language power struggle, as in, “OK, if you insist, I’ll speak Chinese with you… 你好吗？“)
So what’s going on? Are these Chinese speakers being racist jerks? Are they thinking, “this learner can’t possibly handle more than this”?
For those embittered by too many language power struggles, it might be tempting to think this way. But for most cases, I don’t think this is the case. When I reflect on my own English interactions in China, I can find similar situations in English. Take this fabricated dialog for example, which I’m almost sure I have acted out in real life several times in the past:
> Me: Hi, how’s it going?
> Student: [confused] Going?
> Me: Hello, how are you?
> Student: [visibly brightening] Fine, thank you. And you?
> Me: I’m great.
Now, if this were my own student, I’d quickly teach him the way Americans actually greet each other nowadays, covering all the basic “how” and “what” informal greetings. But if it were just a very short conversation with someone who doesn’t really want to learn real English anyway, then “Hello, how are you” served its purpose.
This is why I now view the 你好吗？ phenomenon as a sort of linguistic training wheels. It’s something you learn early on, and then try to move away from as quickly as possible. Key to the equation (and the reason why I no longer consider the prevalence of 你好吗？ in Chinese textbooks to be a total blight on the entire industry) is the fact that Chinese native speakers will sometimes use it with learners. This is a fact that can’t be denied. But any serious learner won’t be using the training wheels for long (if he ever did at all), and will soon leave 你好吗？ far behind.
I think this is going to be one of Shanghai’s shortest springs ever; we’re practically going straight from winter to summer. And advertisers know it; I saw this ad for skin whitening cream on the Metro the other day:
What struck me about this ad was not the amount of English, but rather the diversity of its usage in the ad:
1. Olay: a famous brand name, untranslated. (This is kind of a ballsy move in China, but some companies do it.)
2. White Radiance: the product’s English name. This is probably mostly for aesthetic effect and symmetry of design.
3. 小S: a name. Yes, her Chinese name is 小S. It might not be her real name, but it’s her name.
4. VS: a term used pretty often in Chinese, appreciated for its simplicity and compact nature. (In Chinese, you spell it out: V-S.)
5. PK: a Chinese verb (derived from “player kill”) popular among the young internet-savvy folk, referring to some type of elimination competition.
The less interesting part is the actual content of the ad. It’s trying to get people to go to a website and vote for the star they think is whiter. Ugh.
I was recently introduced to the awesome Google Suggest Venn Diagram Generator by Micah. Some interesting suggested searches by Google were crossed with a Venn diagram by some creative soul, and then the process was automated on the web by request. The result is a unique way to visualize and compare the data indexed by Google.
Here’s an example of what the diagram generator produces:
So we can see from this graph that according to Google, lots of people are asking (or telling) why both people and girls are mean, why girls and Americans are dumb, and why people, girls, and Americans are all stupid.
I decided to try some queries of my own. I chose the terms “Chinese,” “Japanese,” and “English” as my recurring comparisons, and then added a little color to the results. Here are some of the more interesting ones:
how does _____ …
Yikes, “how does Chinese water torture work“? Gotta love the intellectual curiosity. I like the “how does English sound to foreigners” question though.
learn _____ …
Apparently there’s a whole lot of learning going on in the DC area. It’s no surprise that people want to learn online for free, but it’s interesting that Chinese is the only language of the three that people expect to learn in 5 minutes. (Tip: it might take slightly longer than that.)
_____ grammar …
Ah, good old 的. (I’m kind of surprised it trumped 了, though.)
While at the pharmacy the other day with my friend Chris, we came upon what seemed like a typical example of Engrish:
Funny, we thought… “the count” instead of “the counter.”
Only as we were leaving did we notice the guy behind the counter:
The Sesame Street character “the Count” is known for his rather clever name. Even a kid can get the pun. How does his Chinese name fare in terms of cleverness? Not too well, I’m afraid. According to this site, his Chinese name is simply 伯爵, a translation of only one of the meanings of the Count’s name, meaning “count” or “earl.”
What would a more clever translation of the Count’s name be? All I can think of is maybe something related to 叔叔 (“uncle”) and 数数 (“to count up”), but once you change the tones it doesn’t really work. (Not to mention that he very clearly looks like a count, not an “uncle.”)
This certainly isn’t the first time that Chinese characters have been used as a guide for pronunciation of English words, but it’s the most recent example I’ve seen, related to Shanghai’s World Expo. Here’s the “世博双语指南” (World Expo Bilingual Guide):
And here’s a text transcription of the content:
welcome to our store! (维尔抗姆突奥窝思道)
Good morning! (古的猫宁)
Good afternoon! (古的阿夫特怒)
Good evening! (古的衣服宁)
Can I help you? (坎埃海尔扑油？)
I’m sorry, I can only speak a little English.
Just a moment, please. (杰丝特哞闷特，普立斯！)
I’ll find our colleague for help.
Bye Bye! (白白！)
And just in case all those “nonsense characters” were too much for you, here are some randomly selected pinyin transliterations. See if you can figure out the English original:
My coworkers Jason and Daini at EnglishPod have released a series of English lessons. But they’re taught not in English, not even in Mandarin, but in Shanghainese! They call it 上海话教英语.
If you’re interested in Shanghainese, this is better material than a radio show, because you’ll understand the English, which means you’ll be able to better follow the discussion of it in Shanghainese than you would a random topic.
Also, you might recognize the voice of one of the dialogue actors in this one:
I was helping a Chinese friend with her English, and was very interested to read the following dialogue in her book. (I have preserved the grammar and punctuation of the original, but I didn’t feel like writing “[sic]” everywhere.)
> A: Your English is not like American English.
> B: Oh, I see. What I speak is true American English, but it is not standard American English.
> A: Can you tell me the difference between Black English and Standard American English?
> B: Black English is similar to Chinese in a way.
> A: Is it like Chinese?
> B: Yes. For example, a Chinese said, “我有5分钱”, there is no -s behind “钱”; an English or an American said, “I have five cents.” After “cent” there is -s; the Black English is “I have five cent”, no -s after “cent”. Another example, a Chinese said, “花红”, an American said, “the flower is red”, but the Black English is “The flower red”.
> A: Oh, I see.
The textbook is called 衣食住行生活英语900句. If I remember correctly, this was Dialogue 1 of five in a chapter called “Learning a Language.”
What a bizarre topic to cover in a book supposedly focused on “useful English.” You only have so much content you can cover in the book, and only a small fraction of that is devoted to talking about language, but you kick off the chapter with a discussion of (morpho-)syntactic similarities between AAVE and Mandarin Chinese??
I’m well beyond being outraged about inferior English textbooks, though. In this case, I have to admit that it’s kind of cool from a cultural standpoint. I’d imagine that the average Chinese person is seldom exposed to such egalitarian linguistic concepts.
You’ve probably heard that tests are a big deal in China, and thus test prep is big business. This applies even to such “un-gameable” forms of tests as free response essay questions. But how do you game the free response portion of an English test?
Well, you memorize a number of essay templates, then just fit your essay answer into one of the templates. All you have to do is plug in a few relevant words and phrases, and with any luck, they’ll all be included in the essay topic.
Curious what these templates might look like? I give you two examples below, taken from an MBA prep course in Shanghai (mistakes preserved):
> Essay Template 1: 优缺点类
> At present, there is no doubt that 主题 plays an increasingly indispensable role in 领域/运用范围. We are all aware that, like everything else, 主题 has both favorable and unfavorable aspects. Generally speaking, the advantages can be listed as follows. First of all, (优点1)… makes people’s everyday life more convenient. In addition, (优点2)… connects its users with the outside world. Most importantly, with a…, (优点3) people’s life will be greatly enriched.
> Nevertheless, it is a pity that every medal has two sides and the disadvantages of 主题 can’t be ignored. To begin with, there will be a danger of (缺点1) spending too much time on it therefore ignoring what you should concentrate on. To make matters worse, (缺点2)主题 is most likely to add to your daily expenses. Worst of all, (缺点3)主题 may plunge you into an unexpected trouble.
> As is known to all, 主题 is neither good nor bad itself. Its effects on people depends, to a large extent, on how 主题 is used. Now that the disadvantages have been put out, they will be paid attention to and eliminated to some degree.
> Essay Template 2: 意义影响类
> We are very glad and excited that our dream of 主题 will come true/ have come true after a long waiting. People throughout the country have been celebrating the coming of 主题 in various ways and they are eager to participate in or experience in … person.
> There is no doubt that 主题 will benefit China and Chinese people in more than one aspect. First of all, 主题 will expose China and Chinese to more domestic and foreign visitors, thus promoting the mutual understanding and friendship between people from different regions and cultures. More importantly, by interacting with people from different regions and cultures, people can learn from each other. Finally, 主题 will undoubtedly promote the development of the national and local economy.
> Now that 主题 is significant to our country and the people, everybody involved should make his effort to contribute something to 主题. With everyone’s involvement and participation, 主题 will be a great success and is bound to benefit the country and the people involved.
Somehow those “generic” topics don’t seem totally generic, do they? The templates above definitely used “topics with Chinese characteristics,” and they should certainly come to no surprise to anyone who’s lived in China in the past year.
Can you imagine grading hundreds of these essays that mostly use the same templates? That would drive me insane.
For those of you that find some morbid amusement in these essay templates like I do, here’s one site that hosts more of them online. There are some slight differences in wording between the ones I have in front of me and that site, but they clearly came from the same source.
One thing I’ve noticed about students of English in China is a tendency to ignore contractions. Chinese college students tend to be weak on spoken skills in general, and one of the symptoms is this failure to use contractions. We native speakers like to use contractions in informal speech, and as a student of English, failing to follow suit makes you stick out. When I taught English in Hangzhou, I used to focus on the use of contractions to get my students speaking more natural English.
Typically, the symptom goes something like this. Given this sentence:
> I’m a college student.
A typical Chinese college student will read this:
> I am a college student.
Given this sentence:
> He’s a very smart* boy.
A typical Chinese college student will read this:
> He is a very smart boy.
Obviously, these are not heinous mistakes, but it does make me wonder why for something so simple, the students don’t just read what’s written there.
Common sense tells me it’s just a habit. The teacher once told them, “I’m” means “I am” and “he’s” means “he is,” and it was just easier to convert it over, in pronunciation as well as in meaning. And the teacher didn’t care.
Still, a part of me wants to link it to characters somehow (you can’t contract 我是 or 他是**), or some “deeper” reason. I have to mentally smack that part of me… contractions are something of an ordeal for any learner of English; being Chinese has nothing to do with it.
If you’re teaching English, though, one easy way to help your students sound more native is to remind them to use contractions in their speech, or at the very least to get in the habit of pronouncing them correctly when reading them.
* Have any of the textbooks started to use the word “smart” instead of “clever?” They never did in my day, even when they claimed to be teaching “American English.”
** Although maybe some northern Chinese dialects kind of sound like they attempt this…