Those who have spent a relatively long time (half a year or more) in China or have been frequently in touch with Chinese business partners might have found two things interesting: the general Chinese population are quite fond of the English language and tend to use it everywhere, and a large number of such English applications sound anywhere from “a bit weird” to “totally incomprehensible” to English speakers. Starting with this post, we are going to introduce, in details, what we call “Chinglish”, how to decipher it, and beyond.
“Chinglish” is not a new word. Look for it on any mainstream search engine, and you will get a huge pile of results. Still, our homegrown definition should be made clear here. By “Chinglish”, we are talking about the improper usage of the English language tainted by Chinese grammar, Chinese pronunciation habits, or popular Chinese translation software or web services.
Although it’s also frequently addresses as “Engrish”, for a scientific reason we do not encourage the usage of this term on what’s the topic of this post. Frankly, “Engrish” should be more attributed to the Japanese-influenced English. In the Japanese phonic symbol system (called “romaji”), there’s no such thing as the letter “L”, with all instances of L being replaced with R. Consequently, many Japanese might find it difficult producing the sound that the letter R should make in the English phonic system, because their daily conversation never involves it. Due to similar reason, some Japanese read instances of the letter V as B. It won’t be surprising if a native Japanese speaker reads “very much” as “belly much”. The Chinese make a totally different story. Only a portion of Chinese dialects have trouble distinguishing L from R or N. With Mandarin being mandated as the “national talk”, such cases are actually decreasing in number. Thus the term “Engrish” should be defined as “a Japanese equivalent to Chinglish”. Another difference between Engrish and Chinglish is that Japanese are seemingly fond of the deliberate usage of curse words, particularly on T-shirts; while English curse words on public signs in China are non-exceptionally caused by faulty translation software.
Back to Chinglish. Like everything else in China, it has quite some history. The earliest systematic Chinglish could be dated back to the middle of the 19thcentury, when western countries started creating concessions in Shanghai. To make communications with the “foreign devils” possible, therefore initiating possibilities for business, local people started to learn the foreign languages, English being the most popular among them. The result of such hasted learning is now commonly called “洋泾浜英语” (yáng jìng báng yīng yǔ). Yang Jing Bang was a river (no longer existed) cutting the British and French concessions from each other. For the ease of reference, let’s simply refer to it as “YJB English”, or just “YJB”.
YJB English has several characteristics:
- The total absence of English grammar. People started to “learn” English as quickly as possible, without any formal education resource available. Thus they simply replaced Chinese words with English ones in otherwise very Chinese expressions.
- Chaotic phonic system. Not having the chance to learn English phonic symbols properly, the speakers of YJB English conveniently mapped syllables to Chinese characters, which are read in their local dialect. This is fundamentally problematic because sounds such as “th” (as in “this”) just do not have exact match in Chinese pronunciation, and the Yangtze River regional dialect makes no sense to Chinese people living in the northern parts of the country. For good or bad, this might have played a significant role in YJB English’s failure to widespread.
- Extremely limited vocabulary. Speed is the key in learning YJB English, because being able to communicate with foreigners means new potential source of revenue. YJB speakers didn’t have the luxury of time to build up a reasonable-sized reserve of vocabularies. Instead, they tend to reload the same word with multiple meanings. Sometimes one word could carry as many as a dozen wildly differently meanings. For example, “belong” was employed to replace the verb “be” and all its possible varieties in all tenses, as well as its combination with prepositions, such as “be on”, “be in”, “be from”, and “be near”. According to certain studies, the vocabulary count of YJB English is as low as 700 or so. You get the picture. Interestingly, the constant reloading of meanings managed to eliminate the tenses of verbs and cases of nouns and pronouns, making things a lot less complicated, to YJB speakers at least.
- The lack of writing form. YJB English was invented for verbal communications only, and people didn’t have the resources or time to learn spelling anyway.
Fastfoward to now. You are sitting in front of a monitor, reading this post. I’m probably writing its sequel. Millions of Chinese students are having English classes or preparing for English tests. Still, you might find aforementioned YJB English resembling the usage of English you are exposed to during daily interaction with the Chinese in some ways… In some cases, like our old post from the 2010 World Expo, you would swear “This IS YJB English, it just HAS TO BE!”
Your feeling is correct. Although Chinese students are forced to take English classes as early as elementary school nowadays, the efficiency of the generally adopted teaching methodology has quite some room for improvement. While the public education has enabled almost all students to get a taste of the foreign language, some teaching problems are actually preventing students from acquiring genuine mastery.
First is the lack of flexibility, and the repulsive reaction to follow. It’s worth a mention that although foreign languages classes exist in basically all Chinese schools, students don’t have much say on that matter. Mostly they have to select from English, English, or English. Although some kids might be more interested in other languages such as Japanese or French, they still have to go with English, because that’s one of the major tests in the national university admission exam dubbed “Gaokao“. This mandate tends to bore people out, and they would ditch English, or actively forget most of it, when no more exams are required out of it.
Then comes the over-emphasis on memorizing vocabularies. Chinese parents and teachers, for some unknown reason, always measure the English capability of a student by the size of his/her vocabulary base. This usually follows “the more, the better” principle, with students sometimes recommended to recite a whole English dictionary. That should be great practice, if not a bit too Spartan. The problem is that, exactly how to put these vocabularies into real life scenario is seldom mentioned in the education system. As a result, it’s kind of common that a Chinese student could impress any native English speaker with his/her vocabulary reserve, but has trouble putting words together into natural expressions when needed. Such examples might include: “I won him the tennis game yesterday” (I beat him in the tennis game yesterday), “Your essay is funny” (Your essay is interesting), and “He caused a lot of difficulties to my job” (He’s making it hard for me to do my job). It’s pretty ironic that YJB was caused by the lack of vocabularies, while modern Chinglish is largely a result of the overflowing of them.
The abnormal emphasis on grammar theories rather than actual reading and writing is also rendering the English education in China not as efficient as it should be. Throughout six years in middle school and high school, and probably four years in the college as well, students are mostly trained on how to dissect single sentences and fill in missing elements, especially prepositions. The most often raised question in a Chinese classroom is not “Why does the author say so?”, but “Why is it a ‘through’ here, instead of a ‘by’?” The end result is that many Chinese students could lecture native English speakers on why this particular sentence needs an “in” instead of “on” (assuming verbal conversation in English isn’t a problem), but they easily get confused when required to read a short news story and summarize its meaning. The lack of serious reading and writing are further contributing to Chinese students’ not being able to put vocabularies into proper usage.
And there’s pronunciation and spelling, sometimes phrasing too. Some Chinese students are still trying to mark pronunciations with Chinese characters, but these are the minority these days. The new problem is that Chinese textbooks are employing British English and American English, sometimes both of them in the same book. My personal experience could serve as an example. My high school textbooks were a mixture of British pronunciation, (largely) American spelling, slang from both sources, plus some outdated expressions. You can imagine how confusing a place the real world must be, when you are suddenly released from an environment where people join “organizations” (American), get up and down skyscrapers on “lifts” (British), and greet strangers with extremely old fashioned “How do you do?”
At last there is the problem caused by translation software and web services. With all previous flaws of English education in Chinese schools combined, a graduate who used to score particularly high in English might find it brutally hard to write three lines on a poster when briefed by his/her boss. They tend to blow up the speech block by turning to translation software. Chinese is a language particularly heavy on ambiguity, pieced together with very loose grammar. You could guess what will most likely happen when it’s “translated” by a thoughtless machine. For some of the amusing end-results, please check this website. Be warned of adult content though, because translation software could sometimes be naughty. Do remember to steer away from those pictures captured in Japan. Those are authentic Engrish, while you should be focusing on Chinglish.
So let’s sum it up. Chinglish is a Chinese flavored usage of English that has a long history. Previously it’s caused by the lack of education, but nowadays it’s more like a result of Chinese students’ comparatively oversized vocabulary base and their not being able to effectively put these into real life communication. The problem is largely caused by a teaching methodology that is not exactly scientific. Since it’s usually caused by the same reason, there is an underlying pattern to it, thus Chinglish could possibly be reverse-engineered. How to do this will be the topic of our next post. Stay tuned.
Or drop us an email if your interest in Chinglish had been so greatly aroused that you can’t wait for it.