How China Destroys Your English
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.)
Close the light please..
This one is my favorite. Though my problem is not with the deterioration, it’s with genes.
Both my kids are born and living in Canada. They both went “Open the light, Mommy!” in their early years. I’m a native Chinese but I never express it that way. I believe it’s a gene problem. 🙂
I’ve forgotten how to describe food, except to say it is delicious.
Lifts versus elevators?
1st floor as first floor not on the ground?
Take away versus take out or to go?
Maybe these are HK particulars.
I’m not talking about British English vs. American English.
(…I hope! I’ve never been to the UK, though. Do they like to use “bean curd” or something? A Google search of “bean curd” turned up far fewer results than “tofu,” and image search results for “name card” all seemed to originate from a Chinese or Japanese source.)
I started to use English in China, so I probably make this kind of mistakes every day, and hopefully while I write this lines I will give you three or four examples about bad English that could be blamed to Chinese influences.
I didn’t know the proper names of “name card” and “net bar” until today.
Nice article, and, if you don’t mind, I would like to make a commentary about it in my blog, is it right?
I’m always forgetting obscure words in China. Took me and my classmates nearly half an hour to remember the word “hourglass” once (all we could think of at the time was “sand timer”). It’s just sad but inevitable.
A friend of mine is visiting LA these days for an exhibition. I’ve been showing her around pretty much every day and yesterday night she asked me: do you notice yourself speaking Mandarin pretty well at this moment? You were awful when you picked me up at the airport!
Me:shi de, zhe shi zhen de!!(yeah, that’s true!)
as soon as I spoke that out, I realized that I still need more deligent practice for my MOTHER TONGUE!!
Hey,I’ve been to London. British don’t use beancurd. They also use “tofu”.
Alot of Chinese say “close your computer”…
I always liked “Wait awhile” rather than “wait a moment” or “wait a minute”, though I must confess that only one woman I knew in China said this so perhaps it is idiosyncratic.
It is odd when you go home, too, and notice that you’ve regained your fluency….you actually notice that you find speaking your native language more naturally. Odd.
you’re, not your – it’s insidious!
My office space happens to be near a kitchen, so the one that gets me is ‘open the fire’. I also find I use ‘yes’ and ‘no’ less frequently, replacing it with phrases such ‘I have’ or ‘don’t want’.
And I know this is not about American versus British (or in my case, Australian) English, but living here is a real challenge for your native vocabulary. I find I put ‘also’ at the end of my sentences a lot. And I don’t even wait for spellcheck, I just automatically write ‘color’. Then there’s diaper vs nappy, footpath vs sidewalk, texta vs marker. Sigh.
I keep asking people “how to say…” in my Japanese lessons. It’s a direct translation of [怎么说]。
Worse than vocab is grammar. In Chinese, day-to-day verbs generally take objects. You don’t say 我想吃, you have to say 我想吃饭。You don’t just 看，you have to 看书.
So I find myself saying stupid things in English like, “Hey, you want to go eat food?” or “Oh, I was just reading books.”
how about 等一下 becomes ‘wait awhile’ instead of ‘hang (or sometimes ‘hold’) on for a moment/while’.
lol! and yeah the 关掉 becomes ‘close’ instead of ‘switch off’.
I’ve heard people making fun of 加油 as ‘add oil’ instead of ‘step on!’ or ‘step on it!’ kinda meaning.
One of the common ones is 冲洗照片. You ‘wash’ the photos instead of ‘develop’ them. lol! =X
I heard lots of funny convos on the bus or in the subways, or just everyday life and here are some contributions:
“Can you come help me take my luggage for me or not?”
I guess it was derived from 你可以过来帮我拿行李吗？
“I haven’t go buy yet.”
as if ‘yet’ is something you can buy. lol. 我还没去买 could be ‘I’ve yet to buy’ or ‘I haven’t bought it yet.”
“My head is very pain now.”
I know it’s 我头现在很痛. But it just sounded funny when you know it should be ‘My head hurts now’ or ‘I’m having a headache now’ or something of that meaning. Same goes for 心疼, 心痛 becomes ‘heart pain’
“I went clubbing yesterday night.”
Guess people can get too used to ‘昨天晚上’ or ‘昨晚’ and forgot it’s ‘last night’.
Just some of my experience. I believe there are more but I couldn’t remember clearly. Hehe! I’ll add on if I managed to recall. =P
I only ever ‘play computer’, now.
One young lady offered to escort me to my ‘house’ when I was caught in the rain without an umbrella with the memorable “Would you like me to carry you to your bedroom?”
This is the sort of language we should be encouraging and taking up ourselves!
I don’t think I ever used “invoice” until I came to China. Now it seems to have replaced “receipt”. And is “jd” really a commonly used acronym for “job description” anywhere outside of China?
This can work both ways though. Sometimes my Chinese friends come up with difficult words (obviously from a dictionary) that help expand my vocab. I had to look up “force majeure” when our admin at work used it in an email to describe why I couldn’t get a refund on my cancelled flight.
I’d seen the term “bean curd” before I came to China, so I don’t consider it incorrect. However, if anyone asks me what 豆腐 is called in English, I tell them tofu.
Even with other native speakers, I find myself saying “drink alcohol”. In Australia, people say things like “let’s have a drink”, “how about a beer?”, “I’ve had too much to drink”, or even “let’s go out and get pissed”. The almost scientific-sounding “A” word is usually not used.
The one I most often find myself using is, “Put the lights out” rather than “turn off the lights”. 🙂 My friend, who has been living in Hong Kong and China for almost 20 years now has really awful English and he blames it all on learning Mandarin & Cantonese.
I don’t actually know much about the science behind language and brain function, but it seems to me that it’s really not possible to “forget one’s native language,” as expatriates sometimes think.
What happens is that when you’re living in a foreign country and speaking all the time in a foreign language you’re wiring your synapses to adapt to the vocabulary and grammatical patters that you need in the target language, day in day out for weeks, months or years at a time.
That ‘re-wiring’ isn’t so easy to turn off.
I think that “put the lights out” and the comment from Sara above are all more just different ways of saying it in English – and not the Chinglish that John is talking about.
I was just talking to my wife about this today actually. I’ve a truckload of family arriving here next week for my wedding and I just know I’m going to sit there and blubber, sputter and pause when trying to speak. Hopefully they’ll assume it’s that I’m just so happy to see them and not that my language abilities have degenerated to that of a four year old.
Hey, at least I’m not saying “hit the phone” yet.
This is funny because you get this from French too. Despite speaking mostly English, my family consistently uses this expression.
When I do see a Chinese 别墅 I don’t call it a house either. I call it a villa, which is what Chinese people will usually call it, and is the translation of 别墅 in all dictionaries I’ve seen. Although a 别墅 is usually about the same size as a standard house in the US, it is much more expensive than normal residential property in China, so the word actually villa seems more appropriate to me to describe it.
I find I sometimes say “so” instead of 所以. The meaning is the same and the pronunciation is very similar, especially when slurring the two Chinese syllables together a bit or drawing out the English
Sometimes I only use Chinese when talking about a particular subject or thing and when trying to think about whatever it is in English am left me blank for words. For example, 公证处. The English for this is notary office. Because lately I am constantly using the words 公正 and 公证处 in Chinese I find it hard to quickly recall the English words notary and notary office when speaking in English with others.
@the Humannaught- You bastard! I read your post and now I’ll be saying hit the phone versus make a call…. 🙂
Congrat’s on the wedding.!!!!
I really appreciated this post because you nailed several that I totally didn’t notice! And I thought I was being super vigilant all along. Actually–speaking of vigilance, there is a cost involved. When I hear most of the Chinese nasties, I force myself to cringe and feign misunderstanding every time. I know if I don’t, eventually tolerance will lead to assimilation. (I even had one guy bitchin’ at me the other day “Oh cummon, you have been here two year, I’m sure you can understand my Chinese English. Why do you pretend?”) Being permissive would allow me a more comfortable life–but I think I would have to pay later on in the form of some embarrassment, etc.
BTW my friend and I have a favorite that slips through the cracks of most people’s ‘English protection net’ after a few years in China: ORAL ENGLISH. You even see it in newspaper ads here. . . In the USA ‘oral’ only conjures up two possible mental images, and the second isn’t as nice sounding as ‘oral hygiene’.
Liuzhou Laowai Says:
Hehe, it’s so hard to discuss anything serious with non-techie people here because the only ever imagine me “playing” computer. I hate that.
At least I still call a hotpot a “hotpot”. The day it becomes “chafing dish” is the day I move back.
I’ve found my self slipping into using more and more topic-comment sentence constructions. Instead of saying
I’ll say stuff like,
Micah, why don’t you just call it “firepot”?
I was keeping using “hotpot” too. It just fits for the meaning of “火锅” in chinese, insdead of the direct translation of “火锅”. Firepot sounds like a pot on fire not a kind of dish.
Lorean, In the past when the electricity didn’t exist people had to use candle in dark places. Also shutters were always used outside or inside the windows to let the light enter in the room or the avoid it.
During the daylight at that time, when you were asked “Ouvre la lumière” (open the light) you had to open the shutters.
And when you were asked “ferme la lumière” (close the light) you had to close the shutters.
I’m sure it was the same in english.
Por supuesto! Feel free to draw inspiration from my blog anytime you want.
That’s an interesting point. I don’t really ever need to translate the word 别墅 into English. I’m aware that it’s officially a “villa,” but I think that in my head, it always gets translated into “a real house.” (And of course, any Chinese person with a real house on their own plot of land is rich.)
When I’m speaking English, I don’t think I normally call anything a villa, unless it’s on the Mediterranean coast or something.
YES! You win. That is totally one that I would have included in the list if I had remembered it. I might just have to add it.
In fact, I remember teaching my English students in Hangzhou to say spoken English instead of the horrible “oral English.” This is a good example because the Chinese want to say “oral” because of the 口 in 英语口语.
It’s a little embarrassing to explain why “oral English” sounds bad, though. I think maybe we Americans are a little too obsessed with porn?
I have a laptop which has a noisy fan at the moment. My girlfriend was sitting at my desk and I was on a couch when I asked her to close the laptop, i.e. close the top so it goes into hibernate. Instead, she turns it off, closing the 10 things I had open.
She’s from China
I said: “I said “close it” not “turn it off!””
her: “Oh, shit!”
Not just you… in school and university, we have… well… what we’d call “oral exams”. Yap. I hate talking about them in English, though. 🙂
So Justin, how would you feel if your Chinese friends pretended not to understand you when you were trying out your imperfect Chinese?
Anyway, language isn’t some immutable ideal; English has been affected (sometimes heavily) by French, Latin, Norse/Danish, Gaelic, Ameri-Indian, & various Indian and African dialects in various geographic areas. I don’t see why Chinese influences should be shunned.
John, thank you for this very fun blog entry! Soon you will have the language skills to express yourself fluently in Singapore, where we mangle English in all the ways listed above, and more (eg., “Can you please ON the light for me?”). I still keep the sms sent to me by a kind-hearted neighbour (“HALLO. I THINK YR CAR THE LIGHT FORGET TO OFF, TKU!”).
I don’t live in China, I work (so I practically live) in Manhattan’s Chinatown. While I do get to practice Mandarin on a daily basis, most Chinese here speak Cantonese or Taiwanese so I speak English most of the time with my students The other day we were discussing food and tofu drew a blank look from them-so I used bean curd instead. Everyone recognized that one so this is not limited to China.
My students all speak English well but they all get stumped by phrases that make no sense to them-one didn’t understand why a movie was called “Children of Men” instead of “Men’s Children” or “The Children of the Men”. I think just how we sometimes feel Chinese is incomprehensible, we forget English is just as baffling to the Chinese and everyone else who has to learn it.
John’s post was about a more specific phenomenon than mangled grammar, but some of the comments raised have been very interesting. I especially liked Mark’s point about topic-comment constructions, which I have also developed a tendency to do. I also find myself saying “It’s my first time to [do something]” (Chinglish), rather than “It’s the first time I’ve [done something]” (English).
Actually, these mistakes are most common when I’m speaking English to a Chinese person. In such cases, I usually make an effort to choose simple forms of expression and avoid obscure idioms, etc. I think that is a good habit, but “simple” does not mean non-standard or baby-talk. That would be condescending and counter-constructive. The temptation to use Chinglish, knowing that it will be readily understood, certainly exists though.
A note to Cloudy: to me, firepot does not sound like “a pot on fire”. And just for the record, neither does “friendlies” (the former name of the Beijing olympic mascots) make me think of either “friendless” or “friend lies”, which some people in China have claimed!
You know, I’ve found myself phrasing questions and statements in mangled, ungrammatical English phrases to my Japanese girlfriend as well, and here’s the kicker: I don’t even know Japanese. I think it’s human tendency to want to express ideas in the easiest way that can be understood by the intended audience. Probably how pidgins and lingua francas are formed.
I fell into the habit quite quickly…I spent two months interviewing Chinese college students, and I found myself frequently using the English phrases that they commonly use instead of speaking naturally. I would say things like “he is good at his studies” and use words like “harmonious” and the like. ::shudder:: I’m also guilty of Maxiwawa’s “how to say…”
Like everyone who has lived in china for a period of time, I’ve suffered from this too. Sometimes using the Chinese form of english is the only way to make your students understand. But i do teach all my classes that we don’t call tofu bean curd. It’s also interesting that everything is “had” in chinese english. Have a rest, have a try, have a bath. I always tell my students that we’re more aggressive. we like to take a nap, take a shower.
What’s worse is when my friend talks to some chinese people he drops all tenses.
“When i go to Xi’an, i meet with him. We talk about this problem. He doesn’t like”
I’m Chinese, but was born in Canada in the late 1950’s, and always referred to ‘bean curd’ as ‘bean curd’ here in Canada, however, most Canadians back then in the early 1960’s would accept ‘bean curd (from the soya bean)’ translation from our English use of the chinese foodstuff. Most never even knew what it was unless we said it in English back then which basically told them what it came from, less alone know where to buy it. I actually only learnt of the expression of ‘tofu’ from western romanization of the chinese expression for bean curd, or bean cake, soy bean cake sheets, (except soya milk, soya sauce, etc.) as ‘tofu’ became more prevalent in western cooking. I would always correct anyone using ‘tofu’ by saying, oh, you mean ‘soya bean curd’! ‘Tofu’ is just the chinese way of saying ‘bean curd’, but if westerner like to adopt foreign expressions for it, so be it!
Only now that I’ve married into a Chinese speaking family do I hear dialect variants of ‘tofu’ spoken in chinese conversations about it in the chinese dishes we eat.
Today, you can find even the chinese packed form of ‘tofu’ in our western grocery stores here, and we now have large chinese grocers that rival in size the typical big grocery stores (Loblaws in Canada, etc, Safeway in USA)
Basically, if I say to you if you are ‘younger’ today ‘tofu’ you know what I mean, but I say ‘bean curd’ to anyone a bit older (total westerner American or Canadian; my generation or my parents), they know exactly what i mean.
And I do not speak Chinese at all, just English.
Pass the catsup or ketchup please! No, no, not the juice, the sauce!
If you think mixing up chinese anglicisms are strange, go to europe, you’ll find the same thing there.
Just to make a point, maybe when we give out ‘name cards’ we only put our names on it! (without the ‘business’ info!)
I found about the whole “house” thing the hard way after my marriage. Then my wife told me that it was normal for a married couple to buy a house. Took me a while to learn that this could be an apartment only. Money is tight, so it was a great relief… pheeeew.
1: Just to back up what others have said: American is not and never has been a global standard. Many of the things you Americans have complained about are perfectly standard, just in different dialects.
2: My wife told me the other day that I have a Chinese accent when I speak English. Of course, I brought that on myself by pointing out she’s developing a Kiwi twang (she said New Zilind), but nevertheless, it freaked me out.
John, I believe this is my first time posting, but just wanted to commend you on your great work on this site and on Chinese Pod. As for me, I’m sure I’d encounter many of the problems listed above if I decided to speak pure English while in China. Sadly though, I normally find myself too lazy to do so and so often just speak in Chinglish,”;wanna go to the wangba?” “Can you pick me up something from the shitang?”; l”let’s just da di”…I also use “yes” less, replacing it instead with a simple “en”!
I wonder if it gets any of you to say “Close your mouth” or “Shut your mouth” in place of “Shut up?”
Having “bastardiSed” English for centuries, Americans are now getting their punishment! 🙂 Btw, try to come up with examples of English’s influence on Chinese whenever you feel like, if ever. 🙂
oh well I just can’t resist:
网吧 (net bar) could’ve been called 网馆, like 茶馆，饭馆，武馆 etc if we had never heard of “bar”. Once we learned what “bar” means, some people thought that “bar” was a more modern name than 馆. Anyways, it’s all cool to see the two languages’ “takes” on each other. 🙂
Btw your blog has some really fun stuff.
Here in LA, bean curd refers to 豆腐乾 the pressed bean curd while Tofu just refers to 豆腐.
also 豆腐皮 or 豆腐竹 is called “dried bean curd skin” or “dried bean curd stick”. but for the most part, I don’t know of anybody who uses bean curd to tofu here in L.A.
豆腐絲 which is pressed tofu cut into strips is called “bean curd strips”.
Here in Taiwan, internet cafes are called 網咖, which makes perfect sense. 網吧 evokes a really weird image in my mind, like a physical bar with a bunch of laptops and mugs of beer on it. Just think of how many keyboards would be ruined after a happy hour or two!
“Shut yer mouth”? You could find that spoken in 19th century ‘Merica. (21th century as well).
re: oral english
i’ve told people that saying oral English is a bit like shortening 口语交流 ‘oral communication’ to 口交 ‘oral sex’. gets the point across.
I’ve been living in China for three years now, and I often find myself asking people, “Which village do you live in?” By “village” I mean “cun,” which should probably be translated as “neighborhood.” I’m living in a city of 10 million people and there is no way that the word “village” describes any part of the city, yet that is how my Chinese friends and all the signs refer to each neighborhood: BaiHua Village, LuDan Village, etc.
Additionally, I’m fairly certain I use the word “hometown” much less frequently in the States than I do here. In America, we generally say, “I’m going back home for the holidays” or “I’m going to visit my family in…” instead of “I’m going back to my hometown.” And we just say, “I’m from…” instead of “My hometown is…”
I am a Chinese, and I am living in US now. Before I came here I spoke Chinese English, even today I still speak some Chinese English sentences some times. I did not know about “Tofu” is real English here, I only know 豆腐 is “bean curd” on many dictionaries as you say. After I found “Tofu” in grocery store I give up “bean curd” for 豆腐. I think it is not strange when you translate one language to another. Most Chinese people learn English from school & college, we call “class English” （教科书英语）. They know English words, but hard to speak whole English sentence as native English speaker. They use Chinese grammar to translate Chinese to English, such as “Net Bar” for 网吧, “House” for 家, ( I don’t think “House” for 别墅 is right, actually it means individual building), “Name Card” for 名片. These words are translated directly, and it is very common in any country. I still confused about how to translate “High Way” to Chinese, if you say 高速公路, that is not right. Actually, “High Way” is same 国道和省级公路 in China, 高速公路 is same Interstate or Express Way in US. I remember I said “Very Thank You” instead of “Thank You Very Much” when I want thank somebody for help, my wife told me that is a Chinese English sentence. Yes, I knew that but my Chinese brain still running now. Too many samples you can see different language have different meanings in different countries. “Village” has different meaning between China and US. “Grocery Store” is same, if you translate it to Chinese “杂货店”, that is not right, because US grocery store is same Chinese supermarket. I think language is a interesting thing, that meaning is much more than language, it included whole culture.
[…] How China Destroys Your English […]
You know, Chicago has neighborhoods such as Roscoe Village, Little Village, and Ukrainian Village. This probably had to do with the fact that 100 years ago, Chicago was VERY segregated, and the (mostly East European, mostly peasant) immigrants who had recently come from the Old Country did consider their own ethnically homogenous neighborhood to be their village in a sea of outsiders.
Instead of saying “pasta,” I tend now to only use the word “noodles.”
Actually I think “Name card” is more reasonable and easy-to-understand than “business card”. I often give others my “business card” but unfortunately I am NOT a businessman. Same thing for my doctors from whom I get their “business cards”, however, obviously, they are not trying to do any “business” with me…
So this word is not kind of “destroying” but … I would say, it’s kind of “updating”. After all. LANGUAGE IS NOT FIXED, WASN’T AND WON’T BE.
I’ve heard “name card” elsewhere. In Singapore, to mean “business card”, and in California to mean something like “business card you made yourself”
I grew up in Hawaii, and I always thought that “bean curd” was what mainlanders called “tofu,” the same way that they call “shoyu” “soy sauce.”
I’m a Chinese Malaysian. English is a common language here and I guess in general people speak better English here. Yet, some of my foreign friends have complained that their English was getting bad after living here for a while. They started to speak like locals such as using “can” to indicate they agree, such as “Can you pick me up?” “Can.” (or sometimes, can can to emphasis :P).
Here in Hunan, net cafe’s are called 网络会所 which I’ve taken to translating as “Net Guild”. Seems appropriate considering what all the 12-20 year-old guys in here are hacking away at (WoW, etc).
I totally agree that one’s English changes when you are in a language environment where English is not dominant.
But is that a bad thing? How many words in modern English come directly from Old English? Hardly any. Around 75% on current English vocabulary came into the language from Norman French via the Normans. English has likewise absorbed language from whatever it has come into contact with all along the way. It is in some ways miraculous how the language of a small European tribe has mutated to become the most spoken language on the planet, and I believe you can argue that this is because English has consistently absorbed and incorporated influences from other languages.
With the change in the influence China has over the world, I predict that English will lose all its tenses, articles, plurals, and third person verbs within 200 years.
By the way, for me, to call an apartment a house is normal in relaxed speech, and to speak of ‘tofu’ is not – it is beancurd. I don’t even know what a ‘condo’ is. Where I come from, we don’t have condos or apartments.
Mr Fish: English is not so widely spoken because it has some unique linguistic superiority (be it based on absorbing foreign influences or anything else), but due to the forces of colonisation and economic power.
I don’t think I use any Chinese grammatical structures (though occasionally I find myself saying suibian or wusuowei because they are so much more convenient than their English equivalents), but I do say “bye-bye” now the way Chinese people say it (bah-byyyyyyye). It drives my husband crazy.
They do call it “chafing dish”…or “chaffy dish”. It comes from their C-E Electronic dictionaries. I have pictures of a very swank lakeside Macao hot pot restaurant in Hangzhou (opened in 2005) which bills itself as Macao Chaffy Dish. Also, a recently opened “Chaffy Dish” restaurant has been passing flyers around Hangzhou.
Here’s my brief lesson to my students on this one:
1. Open your stupid C-E electronic dictionaries.
2. Translate 火锅.
3. “Chafing dish,” they respond.
4. Now translate the verb “chafe” from English into Chinese.
5. In the backward translation (E-C), the first entry in Chinese approximates “chafed or scraped skin”.
6. Ask the students: “Would you like to go to a restaurant which serves chafed skin ona plate?”
7. Students: Ewwww!!!!!
8. Me: Don’t trust your stupid C-E electronic dictionaries.
My students are down with that now; but I agree with you Micah…if I ever start referring to “Hot Pot” as chafing dish or chaffy dish, I need to get out of here, too.
@ Maria (#39):
Are your students mainlanders? If so, how old are they? Prior to 2003, the “Junior English” book – which was used in most mainland junior high schools – stated as fact that in the case of possesives, if the object was a “living thing”, then use the ___’s form. If not, use the ___ of ___ form.
And they were tested on this!
For example: “Close the door the car” is correct because it is a “non-living thing” (In English grammar – which the Chinese ENGLISH majors/teachers never use/teach, it’s called an inanimate object.)
So, Children of Men “should be” “Men’s Children” according to China Junior English:
The possive form of a living thing (men) should follow the same script as Chinese grammar: ___’s ___ :: ___ de ___ . Here, the Chinese “de” approximately equals the English ” ‘s ” and not the French “de”.
So if your students were puzzled by: Children of Men and insisted it should be Men’s Children, it’s probably because they first learned English on the mainland and their rules of possessive constructions come out of that old “Junior English” book.
Go ahead – ask them! I’ll bet you that’s the source of their “confusion”.
The Good news for those of us teaching here on the mainland, the new “China Junior English” book released in 2004 dropped this whole misguided “living thing/non-living thing” (animate objects/inanimate objects) dichotomy.
P.S. This is probably more than you, or anyone else, including JP, wanted to hear about this subject. But Maria, I’d be interested to hear feedback from your students on this.
In the 1700′ & 1800’s (mostly in England) people would drop in on friends for a visit. If the time was inconvenient, the servant (so we’re talking high society here) would inform the visitor that the resident was unavailable. The visitor would then leave a “calling card” — or “name card” — which usually had only the visitor’s/caller’s name on it.
You grew up in a ‘healthful’ or health conscious generation. One of the “new” health foods was tofu. I doubt that many people in your generation know that tofu is actually soy bean curd.
Out, out, out. Yes, yes, yes. Good, good, good.
I often feel the need to say things in three these days. 对对对。
Tim P.: Huh, I think modern people know what tofu is made of, but I doubt many people know what curd is. From the context of what you’re saying, maybe it’s kind of disgusting? I know Little Miss Muffet ate it, so it couldn’t be all bad.
Another term I try to avoid is “W.C.” to mean toilet (Australian) or bathroom (American). Is this term used in any other countries as much as it is used in China?
Recently, someone even showed me a new gesture that you can use to ask where the toilet is: a bit like the “ok” sign but with the curved thumb and forefinger not actually touching, it’s supposed to represent W (three straight fingers) + C (thumb and forefinger).
Yesterday, I said “Not enough students signed up for French so they couldn’t open the class”….
While back to high school, we used to have fun with translating chinese sentences directly into English. One of the most popular ones are “If you old three old four, I will give you some color look look”.
I am not agree with “China destroys your english”. The reason caused phenomenon is the cultural difference between oriental and european background. You cannot brag that China DESTROYS english. After all, such usage wl not be spread worldwide. Likewise, many english words became a part of Chinese culture. Do in Rome as Rome does!
Dear Mr Todd,
Interesting comment, and a point of view that is often argued.
However, I think the view is a little simplistic, and I certainly didn’t argue that English had any kind of superiority. We are dealing with facts, after all, not ideology.
Firstly, English began its journey to its current position as the international language a good 800 to 1000 years before the age of British colonialism, indeed, a long time before there was any such thing as Britain. Perhaps Mr Todd could explain how English went form being a European language spoken by one Germanic tribe to being the language of an emerging colonial power? It could have been any number of dialects or languages, why was it English?
Secondly, not every colonial language has become successful. A perfect example is that of French. The French conquered England in 1066, and for several centuries the official language of government and law in England was French. Perhaps Mr Todd could explain why, instead of speaking French, as the colonialism theory would suggest they should, the English people incorporated the French vocabulary into English?
So I think that while to say that the ascendance of English is due to colonialism is convenient and suits certain points of view, in itself it isn’t sufficient to explain why English has been so successful.
I’d be interested in your comments, Mr Todd.
I like the way you’ve put it fortunefortune… bravo!
Take adjectives or verbs and add/remove random suffixes.
This project is very excited.
The streets are so crowding.
Also stress random syllables. I notice this in Cantonese speakers.
Ex: FRUStrated becomes frusTRAted
To put it all together in a mass carnage of non native english:
Ex: What a pity! I cannot downLOADed anything.
I once caught myself saying, “The students are becoming less and less.” I couldn’t remember an appropriate way to say, “学生越来越少了”.
Even if I had said “fewer and fewer”, it still would’ve been awkward!
Normally, you just don’t find as many instances of “more and more” and “less and less” in English compared to Chinese….but when you live in China they quickly become easy phrases to insert in many sentences, until you find yourself using them more and more and better-constructed phrases less and less!
What about 大厦 for a big office building. I don’t know about UK, but in the US we do not use mansion for a big office building.
Also, I happen to be writing this at the company. As in, at 公司. Usually we say things like, 不在公司，会公司… But in English we do not say I am going to the company, we say I am going to the office.
It is an interesting phenomena that languages influences each other. As for our chinese student who major in English, English has changed our Chinese a little.Not only the words, but also the syntactic structure of some sentencse change into English version. We call it language transfer.
Mo Rice’s example “FRUStrated becomes frusTRAted” in Hong Kong is because they usually use UK English.
Also, it’s totally normal to talk about “oral English”, “oral Chinese” or “oral examinations” in UK English.
Is “long time no see” standard English now?
I’m a Chinese.
My coworker always says “yeah, yeah, yeah”, when agreeing with something. (Like 对对对。)
I, on the other hand, grunt my agreement to everything. “En.”
The other day, I was explaining a certain Chinese condiment to another foreigner and and I said, “It makes your food have flavor.”
I am a chinese pereson , i think chinese english is a good thing,so it can make our communicate easily.
though i am a chinese man ,but i’d like to make frinds with foreigners. one hand ,it can improve my english ,the other hand i could know more about the things of other countrys.hehe!!
it’s very interesting post I’ve ever seen. The main reason for above list I think the English education all along in China. If you ever seen the Chinese school book for English class, you will know why.
But I dont think it’s bad things. At least it shows many Chinese people starts speak English and many foreigners come to China, the different two culture influences and infiltrates each other. The earch become a big family.
As long as you make yourselves understood, does it matter if it is good English or whatever language it is.
It is the truth indeed~
but we didn’t meanto, did we?
this is called ChineseEnglish which was unacceptable for me~
but there are JapaneseEnglish IndiaEnglish ArabianEnglish etc. all around the world~
do roman’s do when you in rome
not so bad~haha~
3q (you can get it~) for your article~~~
haha, ChineseEnglish, it always happen when I speak English,but my friends can understand me. Actually, I know some of them are wrong English, I just couldn’t make it right when I speak it out. just like do and does……Because we chinese always have a “chinese system” in our mind, we prepare what we want to say in chinese, and translate it in English directly or indirectly. It’s perfect to delete you own language system as you study other languages, but it’s so hard to do so. Sorry for you native English speakers le, hahaha
First of all, I do respect your language ability as a grad student in applied linguistic.
I think you should read more into the difference of Chinese and English.
You may have comfortable a cafe where you surf internet
with a different environment which differs completely from what you can find
the “网吧” in China. Net bar is fine, it creats sth that both Chinese and English can understand.
and your ability to use the expression “Internet Cafes”is intact.
Whether they have forgotten how to use the standard English expression,
I don’t think many people have a clue. I don’t really think that
most native English speakers know much about the Chinese language,
i even doubt that if many of them know much about their mother language.
Let alone the complicated translation system, or interpretation.
I do view it as most of them who are calling “business cards” as “name card”
when they deal with those Chinese people who don’t speak good English.
And when it comes to those good English masters, they will creat good jokes.
No matter a house, a condo, an apartment. or a villia, people in China
view it as a home, where the heart is.
Or if you are really well-off to own a “别墅’, or focus on the rich in China
who only can afford a “House”.
Maybe you should only correct your fellow English students how to
technically tell which one should be called condo but not a house or apt
in your own country. Or maybe it’s even wiser to just use English in your country
and when you come to China, don’t try to tell common people that who run for
their life for a “home” that they shouldn’t call it a “house” or an apt, only because they are not rich.
Talking about Bean curd,when it comes to translation,
i think you are a little bit confused when you say that
“bean curd” is more a definition than a comfortablt translation.
You can call 豆腐”doufu” , “tofu” (Both of them should be free translation from Chinese.)
, or ” bean curd”( literal translation).
I’ve seen foreigners doing things in China like that,
doing things as the local people do.
Sometimes, no matter they are wrong or right,
say, crossing the road without paying attention to the lights.
Or maybe makeing grammatical mistakes when they use English which
is their own language that they think they are experts.
It is a fallacy.
Say i’m majoring in English, one day i found that my Chinese got deteriorated.
I soon blame the poor English that it was English murdered my ability to speak good mandarin,
and my ability to remember and to write Chinese characters.
Delighted to read your pathetic Post Hoc.
Try to understand foreign culture and now ” foreigners”.
nothing,take it easy,you foreigners.
as we speak english,most of the purpose is to comunicated with you native english speaker in the language itself. we seldom have a chance to sharp it.it might be better for you to tell your local partner how to say it in english.
frankly speaking, i do know this our name card is not your name card today.hehe
That’s an interesting discussion you have here. Yeah, I agree with those above who suggest that the deterioriation of your English standards is more likely a natural, albeit undesired, consequence of you juggling two languages, which, in my opinion, have some very constrasting sentence structures. And so it happens to everyone. I grew up in Singapore (this sunny island in Asia) drilled in both English and Chinese (the education system is based in English, while the majority of us are Chinese), and a rather common aspect of sg conversations is to switch to Chinese when you get a mental blank in thinking of a English word to express yourself, and vice versa. So basically, casual conversations here, among the general young at least, are usually amusing smatterings of english and chinese. For eg.: 请问 MRT station 在哪儿?, instead of 请问地铁站在哪儿? We follow the UK education system up to tertiary levels, and thus, have ‘oral examinations’ as well. I must say I was surprised to read that it is a rather foreign term in the US. Culture aside, it means, literally, to test your oral language abilities, no? chuckles
My years living in China and Taiwan definitely took its toll on my English. I thought it was rather funny when I could not remember words in my native tongue, better yet, my friends would comment on how my emails had turned into Chinglish.
However, I am proud to say that I never, ever succombed to that terrible mainland Chinese habit of saying “oral” when they should say “spoken”.
Come on all you native English speakers. We don’t say “oral English”, we say “spoken English”. Oral english has to do with good bed techique.
I’m a Chnese student, a sophomore. There are really a lot of defferences between English and Chinese, because of the different culture we have. Some times,we find it hard to describe someting very in English, which we say in Chinese everyday.
“Power on” or “power off” your phone are phrases I particularly hate. Maybe that’s American, never heard of it before I came to China.
“Let” something “to do” something is another one.
The worst mistakes: “how to say”, “Ually” (usually, but pronounced without the ‘s’)
If you continue to stay in China for another 6 to 7 years, I think you will get used to the way Chinese think.
Sometimes because of the competition brought by the large population, Chinese don’t want to spend much of their time seeking for the perfect thing.
For example, a car called Chery QQ is very popular here. Why? It meets the needs of people — having a car that can move at a speed of 60 to 80 kilos an hour in the city. We don’t expect more, like beauty, safety, sense of driving. Just something that can meet our bottom needs.
It is the same about the translation and English learning. Most Chinese TESOL teachers are not well-trained and haven’t been in English-speaking countries. Most Chinese students prefer to learn English as fast as possible. Instant English learning, like instant noodles popular in east-asian countries, has met people’s need of doing maximum things in minimum time.
Anyway, you are a victim of that. But if you stay here long enough, you will feel it right. By that time, you will not be a foreigher here. You will be integrated into China.
Don’t be fussy about the Chinglish. We, the Chinese, will hold the Olympic Games next year in Beijing. Everyone, no matter the old and the young, is trying their best to learn English in order to make overseas friends feel at home. Maybe the expressions are not appropriately used by us, such as “网吧–net bar” or “名片–name card”, but it undeniable that the Chinese speak English more natually compared to 20 years ago. China is experiencing a rapid develpment, so does the Chinglish.
People communicate with each other not only by spoken languages, but also by gestures or pictures, etc. If you cannot catch the idea through the words or expressions one used, you may ask him or her to express in other ways. On the other hand, Chinglish means Chinese people wants to know more about the outside world in which Enlgish is widely spoken. It seems irrelevent to the topic, but indeed, it touches upon the issue that how to regard other cultures with an objective point of view. The same thing is being named differently in various countries, just like “lift” and “elevator”, etc. as Sara has mentioned before. Since you accept this, why not hold a tolerant view on Chinglish.
As you said, you had been in China as a linguistic student for a few years. How about your Chinese?
I have found myself asking others to “open” the air conditioner on a few occasions since returning from China……what should this be called “Englese”…..has that one been coined yet??
Well, if formally educated, the Chinese people will never, i am sure, speak English in such way. These speakers might be people doing business in a retail shop. My teacher never taught me to say like that! From another point view, we should feel happy about the view that so many Chinese speaking English today than ever before!
The latter half of these comments seems to have been somewhat hijacked by people thinking that this is in someway a designed to attack chinese culture/language/people. The same is true of learning most languages and I think the thread is meant to be an observation.
To the people that said Chinglish is useful for learning english i would have to disagree. It’ll only form bad habits. I don’t see that anyone aiming would fluency would settle for “oh well you know what i’m getting at’ sort of language.
This reminds me of a Chinese friend who thought JK Rowling was anti chinese on the basis of a Harry potter book. Fu man chu was anti chinese. JK Rowling just was’nt aware that a simple character would mark her as some kind of racist…
Ivy needs to relax. We are just joking. Is there no foreign thing that makes you laugh? Besides, it seems you need a little help too. I counted 22 mistakes (major ones) in your lovely long writing. Maybe we should be critical of Chinese English mistakes. Do you think being critical will not help you? The only death to anyone’s language (foreign or not) is the lack of someone pointing out their mistakes for them. This goes for Susan also. And if you think native speakers of English are ignorant about their own language, maybe you shouldn’t hire them. Maybe it is difficult to find a person of good English quality at such a low salary offered to them. Or maybe you should as about how many Chinese are ignorant about their own language as well. Feel free to contact me at email@example.com Chinese or English or Japanese if you prefer.
I’m a North.A student currently studing in a plublic school in Shanghai.
The english teachers here are really narrow-minded. They think you can learn english just by using a dictionary and with common grammer, they forget about the cultural differences between the west and east , sure they sometimes gives us reading material about western culture, BUT! its all written by chinese people and most of them are MADE UP!!! This is the part that drives me crazy. For example there was a artical in our mid term test about Celebrating birthdays by butt spanking as a western custom, and weird made up table manners. Other thing worth a mention is their pronunciation, its ridiculous, I can understand other non-english speakers , but not my teacher’s , no , it sounds like german just worse. Everytime I try to correct them they just tell me to shut up(No kidding here , she accually told me to shut up)and says a bunch of bullshit about how Im not so american because I act and speal different from what they learned. Chinese’s english education is really messed up here. Someone should really come take a look.
I’d like to point out a few points from the original article. I have adopted some of these norms purposely. For example follow:
If I should compare the so-called net bar from the internet cafe in Canada, they are quite different; a net-cafe is generally much more spacious and comfortable, and allows you to order various kinds of meals and drinks. For this reason, the use of ‘cafe’ to refer to what we find in China would be inapproapriate. In fact, my use of the term ‘net bar’ stems not from my having lived a long time in China, but rather from a conscious decision to use more accurate terminology. The Chinese are correct on this point!
In Canada, even before ever having set foot on Chinese soil, I was familiar with both ‘name cards’ and ‘business cards’. they’re not the same thing: the name card is for personal use; the buseness card, for business. I’d always used this distinction.
While ‘bean curd’ may be a little old fashioned or dated, that alone doesn’t make it wrong. Even dictionaries in Canada list ‘bean curd’, though they refer to it as dated.
This has been quite an interesting discussion here and I feel compelled to share my own notes. I’ve been living in Asia (Beijing, HK and Singapore) for the past 15 years and must admit that the various English “dialects” and the various Chinese “dialects” have been challenging to learn. I called them dialects for lack of any other term but the distinctions to which I refer are: American, Canadian and British English vs. Beijing Mandarin, Singaporean Mandarin and HK Cantonese. It’s really tough to try to master any of these — my “mother” tongue being American English and Cantonese (but not HK Cantonese). When should one use “lift” instead of “elevator”? Or “taxi”, “cab” vs. 出租汽車, 的士? And the list goes on, as others have already pointed out. I agree that there can be a lot of frustration but there can be a lot of fun at the same time! Have a bit of fun.. smiling and laughing at oneself is the epitome of being humble. I certainly agree with the original post that one’s English (or native language) deteriorates as one immerses oneself into the local language. My daughter found herself grappling for the word “aquarium” in English…. the synapses in the brain must not have been firing the right way and all she could come up with was “fish zoo”. Sooo funny (and pathetic)! When this happens to you, it IS an indication that you are “becoming more local”… what’s left is to “be” more local, e.g. learning, understanding and tolerating the “foreign” culture. At the same time share your culture too. After all, what’s a “brown bag lunch” when brown bags are difficult to find these days (sorry.. it’s an American term).
ALL YOUR ENGLISH ARE BELONG TO US!!! HA HA HA HA!
house or condo?
if we say ‘ 买一套房子’ that’s a condo
if we say ‘ 买一栋房子 ‘ it means buy a house or a building ,villa
“How living in the US destroys my Chinese”…
For example, to wrap up a call, we often say in English “I have to go”.
So one time, when talking to a friend, I said 我要走啊. He asked “where are you going?!”
I always want to use 的 in describing something. Ex: “No, no, Idaho ‘de’ Dave.” I usually catch myself since it doesn’t sound quite right.
About US Chinese, do you ever say “给我五” or “什么上”?
John, you struck a nerve with this one! I also have a large file with dozens of examples over the year (mostly uttered by me). A few:
“I was sending her back.” 送她回家
“I must have looked at it wrong.” 看错了
“He got there a little more than 3:00.” 三点多
I’ll listen to him on this matter. (meaning “I’ll go along with whatever he says on this matter. ) 听他的.
Many people in China now raise dogs. 养狗
“I’ve been working on this for half a day.” 半天
Who are you giving a phone call to? (meaning “Who are you calling?” ) 你给谁打电话?
Okay, it’s this meaning. 是这个意思.
In the morning I really don’t think of eating anything. 不想吃东西, 什么都不想吃.
You two should study me! 学我
During the winter, a hot shower is really comfortable.” 舒服
He’s as afraid of the heat as I am. 怕热
And on and on.
Just a very brief comment–in Australia, at least, we tend to refer to a home of any size as a house. I never even thought of it as unusual until you flagged it here. Whether or not the logic behind it is the same as in Chinese, I couldn’t say. I suspect we’re just too lazy to differentiate.
My mandarin speaking family, when speaking english, constantly use the word ‘Watch’ meaning something between what and which.
it has leaked into my UK english standard speak.
for example “Watch bar you going to?”
or “Ask baba watch time it is”
This blog post is just the tip of the iceberg. Over the years I’ve accumulated my own collection of Chinglish. A few common ones that haven’t been discussed yet:
* With the development of society…
Language is about culture too
Prefacing everything with ‘let’s’…
Let’s going to the movies…
I might have corrected others at the start, but what’s the saying? If you can’t beat them join them?
Also another one I’ve just thought of – prefacing every question with ‘does’:
Does you hungry?
Does you angry?
Does you going to the movies?
Guess Chinglish seems pretty natural after a while….
To live in another country with a different language and to survive we need to use our language as simple as the natives can understand us, without stress. This, in a long time, has the effect to makes poor our own language.