Extreme Code-switching with Chinese CEOs

Image from page 101 of "Switchboards for power, light and railway service, direct and alternating current, high and low tension" (1906)

David Moser recently attended a professional conference and shared this observation about code switching. I’ve edited the content just a little bit to anonymize it, but preserved the original text when possible:

> I attended an all-day series of talks today. Some of the panels were in Chinese, some in English. One that I found particularly interesting was an afternoon panel with [quite a few big-name CEOs]. The panel was supposed to be in Chinese, but I found it hilarious that all of these participants, steeped as they are in American and Western culture and business, seemingly can no longer speak pure Chinese. It is simply impossible for them. Some of the panelists could hardly speak even one sentence without throwing in an English word or two. I started writing down some of their code-switching, but it was so ubiquitous I soon stopped even trying. Here are some examples:

  1. 我们公司最近 celebrated 我们的 16th birthday.
  2. 小刘,我 wonder 你能不能预测这个 market trend 如何?
  3. 你要上课,必须得上那些可以 get involved 的东西。
  4. 你最好还是 enjoy 这个过程。
  5. 这么做,我真是出于 passion 才行。但这个 passion 的 definition 是啥?
  6. 这个 particular 中国 market 是非常 fragmented, 但那 bubble 后来 busted 之后,我们可以 reconsider 我们的 options.
  7. 他们从 blood 里面就有 business 的 DNA, 他们就算 natural innovators.
  8. 我觉得中国人比美国人有更多的 desire.
  9. 张先生是不是觉得有点被 left out在外, 我建议你参与进去就会 live up to 她刚才说的职员的那种 expectations.
  10. 我要讲一个 personal experience, 你可以 believe it or not.
  11. 没有,我 just kidding, 但不妨 tell you the truth…
  12. And this delightful misunderstanding:
    A: 这是为什么有人说我们中国人是 the Jews of the Orient.

    B: The juice of the Orient? 东方的橙汁??

> And on and on. These poor elite CEOs literally can no longer speak like normal people. This kind of linguistic mixing is incredibly common in China, as we all know, but I’ve never experienced such an orgy of code-switching in my life.

I like #6 the best. Thanks for sharing, Dr. Moser!


John Pasden

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


  1. Daniel Lundqvist Says: November 5, 2015 at 12:14 pm

    Fascinating. I wonder if they are aware of it themselves and if listening to someone else will they consider it strange.

    For me as a listener it adds a mental burden, regardless between which languages. But of course I do it as well, especially when writing/speaking Swedish as I sometimes can’t find proper Swedish words for common used English technical words. Or that the Swedish word would feel really strange to use 🙂

    • For me, in the business of teaching Chinese, it also adds a burden: what words are actually the most common? Should we, as foreigners, just say “presentation,” or should we use a more native (but potentially more awkward) Chinese word?

      I think most of us serious learners take great efforts to avoid using English as a crutch, but we also need to know when we SHOULD just use English. It’s tricky.

  2. I have to listen to this daily w/many of my coworkers. It drives me nuts. Each person has their own favorite set of English words to use. There is no standardization of which words get the “English treatment”, it’s a per person thing.

    Here, it seems more common with the younger crowd, regardless of English ability. And the biggest “offenders” usually have the worst/lowest English abilities.

    It’s quite funny when in a meeting and the speaker does this and the listeners do not understand for various reasons, e.g., mispronunciation, misuse, or do not know the word(s), etc..

  3. David Moser Says: November 5, 2015 at 3:22 pm

    I tend to agree that the biggest “code-switching offenders” usually have the worst English abilities. I think (generalization here) that people who code-switch excessively tend to have a rather lazy and careless attitude about language use. I think you see this sloppy approach in people who speak the second language very much as a tool, rather than as an intellectual challenge or a quest to obtain cultural knowledge. Which would include the millions of white collar Chinese who work in foreign companies or English business environments, most of whom just need to exchange information in the quickest and easiest way possible.

    Another good issue is the one John raises: When is it appropriate to insert an English word into a Chinese sentence, simply because it is le mot juste? (f you get my form-content melding here.) Good questions.

  4. Jon Nicklin Says: November 5, 2015 at 3:39 pm

    I work at a large MNC here in Shanghai and can confirm that this kind of rampant code-switching is very common, at least in foreign companies in Shanghai.

    It has actually been very bad for my Chinese, as I have never heard the Chinese versions of some words. Of the top of my head, English words commonly dropped in are: assume, concern, staff, con-call, approve, email, budget, etc etc.

    The funniest thing is when English words are used in Chinese ways!

  5. Being a native speaker of Chinese and having lived in the U.S. for 13 years, I found myself (even from a long time ago) with constant code-switching when talking to Chinese people in the states. Examples of highly frequent used English words inserted in my Chinese conversation:
    enjoy, appreciate, make sense, Awwwww, offer, free, coupon, conflict, park, parking, …

    I have a hard time talking to my mom (who doesn’t speak any Chinese) when I need to find Chinese equivalent to these words..

  6. Susan Chang Says: November 13, 2015 at 3:43 pm

    Actually, I find it interesting that similar code-switching in Spanish occurs in Cherrie Moraga’s plays, such as Watsonville. In Moraga’s plays, and I’m sure in other works of Latino/Chicano theater, the interweaving of Spanish and English in the dialogues serves to illustrate a more realistic and rich portrayal of the Latino/Chicano experience. My question is, is it right for me to see the prevalence of Chinese/English code-switching, especially in the corporate world, as the result of Western imperialism, or should I be embracing it as a product of the developing Sino-American corporate culture?

  7. I recently studied at 南京大学 and although English was the default language, being surrounded by Chinese learners, it’s pretty silly how many Chinese words actually started to be thrown into conversation.

  8. On code-switching, you can see plenty of examples here in tiny Singapore.

    I am ok with code-switching on technical jargons/initials like (internet) server, GDP etc as they are mostly terms that are conceived due to modernisation, but I am against substituting common Chinese words with its English counterparts.

    I am a Chinese language teacher teaching foreigners but I make it a habit to speak proper English instead of falling back on my inclination to speak Singapore’s pidgin English known as Singlish. If you make it a point to be conscious of what you are saying, it will become a habit. I find it ludicrous that native Chinese could forget words like particular, market etc. Based on Singapore’s experience, it smacks of Pinkerton Syndrome of the language kind.

    I admit there are cases when words are found wanting, but it is always a good practice to TRY to translate an English word into a Chinese word immediately so that you keep practicising it and that’s how you keep the language memory alive.

  9. Part of this is due to education. Many students use English language textbooks (especially those planning to study abroad). Either in China or studying abroad, it’s common to discuss the studies in Chinese with various keywords. Even in cases where Chinese texts are used, certain keywords are often given either in English or in both languages. This is especially prevalent in computing.

    Back when I was at a tech start-up in Beijing, I regularly hear things like 我们这个method要用callback. And when I looked at the various technical books lying around the office, sure enough they used English keywords throughout after briefly defining the terms in Chinese at the beginning.

    My guess is that many of the CEOs at this conference or at the very least many of their most senior employees studied abroad and / or studied quite a few texts that taught them concepts via their English names.

  10. I am French, working in a French bank in France, and (maybe partly because of the domain, finance) there are a lot of English terms in daily conversation. But it doesn’t come nearly as often or in such inadequate situations (where there are perfectly valid local words) as what you quote! Pretty funny…

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