Chinese Language Blog

Chinglish Posted by on Dec 22, 2010 in Uncategorized

In one hundred years from now, what language will we be speaking? Will Chinese prevail as the global dominant language or will English continue its stranglehold on business, culture and academia? Will Chinese and English bridge the gap between two very different languages or will they continue on their separate ways? Anyone that’s been to China will tell you that both are destined to be inexplicably intertwined as the 21st century progresses and the way that will happen is through Chinglish.

Speaking Chinglish, which is the amalgam of Chinese and English, is a growing trend taking root in mainland China and parts of the U.S. where large Chinese populations exist. It’s not surprising considering that Chinese is the most popular language spoken globally, with more than 1.3 billion mandarin speakers, while English is a close second, nearing the 1 billion mark. While English is still considered the international language of the world, Chinese is quickly working its way throughout S.E. Asia, central Asia and parts of Europe, West Africa and North and South America. As these two leviathans of language interact more, the barriers between the two start to blur.

In the U.S., Mandarin has surpassed Spanish as the most sought after learning language for children, students and young adults. Even to a greater extent, in China, the fervor in which mainlanders seek English fluency is astounding as a love affair with English has blossomed. In cities like Beijing, most store fronts, advertisements and media outlets take a two pronged attack at their potential consumers, having both Chinese characters and English transliterations. English is seen as something exotic and foreign–a true sign of wealth, prosperity and social mobility. In the U.S., China is the next emerging superpower, making Chinese an invaluable skill set for the business-savy. While the U.S. may be waning in military might, economic power and political presence, one area we continue to excel at is exporting our culture, media and tastes across the Pacific Ocean.

For those struggling with English, here’s a lesson in how to avoid Chinglish:

Just turn on a Chinese TV and what do you see? An NBA broadcast? Chinese “American Idol”? Commercials with confused looking foreigners speaking broken Chinese and catch phrases in English? Trailers for U.S. based movies? They’re all there, all the time. Then there are the myriad of Universities, primary and secondary schools (not to mention tutors) that are promoting English learning as paramount to career success or leaving the mainland for greener pastures.

Chinglish exists throughout Chinese culture and society, and can be heard on a bus, subway or train, at work or even in schools. While learning English as a Chinese speaking native is difficult, and vice versa for English natives learning mandarin, the basic greetings, phrases and pop-culture references are easy enough to mimic and latch onto. The result: a culture of Chinglish speakers that pick the “cool” aspects of one culture and pair it with their native language.

When native Chinese speakers say goodbye on the phone, it’s usually a mix of zai jian, OK and bye bye le (think bai bai). In cabs it’s “welcome to take beijing taxi”. In clubs it’s “happy fun time” or “sexy party drinks”. In restaurants it’s “number one eat place” or my personal favorite “smile stomach kuai le”.

On the other end, it’s a way for foreigners in China and Chinese natives in English settings to improve on their study of the language. Maybe you can’t eek out a full sentence in Chinese, but you certainly can say “lets go grab a pingzi of pijiu” or “I want to chi some jiaozi”. It’s simply a way to wrap your brain around the great discrepancy between English and Chinese, regardless of the direction your translations are heading in.

But whatever Chinglish emerges, it’s a direct link between two, often opposing, powerhouses of language and culture. It’s a sign of discombobulation and cognitive dissonance, met with bubbling optimism. A culture of Chinglish exists in the phrases that you learn (more often than not) from repetition and mimicry of those around you. Sites like “I can haz Cheezburger” or “lol cats” are a tribute to how far Chinglish has come in just a few decades. Think of it as a testament to the adulation of learning Chinese or English, because after all, “mimicry is the sincerest form of flattery”.

Some Hilarious Chinglish phrases:

  • Slip carefully. A bilingual sign in Sichuan mistranslates Xiaoxin huadao (小心滑倒 “Be careful not to slip and fall”).
  • To take notice of safe: The slippery are very crafty. A comparable sign in a Beijing garage reads Zhuyi anquan podaolu hua (注意安全 坡道路滑 “Pay attention to safety The ramp is slippery”).
  • Workshop for concrete agitation appears on a sign in a Sichuan factory. Jiaoban fang (攪拌房), which combines jiaoban meaning “stir; mix; agitate” and fang“house; room”, translates as “mixing room”.
  • Spread to fuck the fruit is a Chinese supermarket sign mistranslation of sàn gānguǒ (simplified Chinese: 散干果; traditional Chinese: 散乾果; literally “loose dried fruits”).
  • Please steek gently appears on a Taipei government building door. This form of Chinglish uses obscure English terms, namely, Scottish English steek “enclose; chose; shut” instead of the common word.
  • Bumf Box for shouzhi xiang (手纸箱 “toilet paper box/case”), employs the outmoded British English word bumf, which is a shortened form of bumfodder “toilet paper; useless documents”.
  • Fried enema on a menu mistranslates zha guanchang (炸灌腸 “fried sausage [with flour stuffed into hog casings])”. The Jinshan Ciba dictionary confused the cooking and medical meanings of guanchang “(make) a sausage; (give) an enema”

and my personal favorite:

  • Exterminate Capitalism Lobster Package was the Chinglish rendering of Taotie longxia can (饕餮龙虾餐 “gourmand lobster meal”) on a menu mentioned by the New York Times.

Who says communism isn’t still alive in China?

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About the Author: Stephen

Writer and blogger for all things China related. Follow me on twitter: @seeitbelieveit -- My Background: Fluent Mandarin speaker with 3+ years working, living, studying and teaching throughout the mainland. Student of Kung Fu and avid photographer and documentarian.

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