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Un-de-re-en-ciphering ‘Chinglish’

Written By: daveski on August 30, 2009 2 Comments

Last week, on the same day, I got emails from both my brother and a Linguistic Landscape research group discussion list, with links to the same article on the BBC News’ site. I knew this thing must be going around the internet…how often do multilingual signs make the news?

The featured article was actually a slideshow entitled “Deciphering ‘Chinglish’: Your pictures“–a series of 8 photos taken by ordinary folks who were apparently surprised at the way English manifests in translation on public signage in China. The first one shows an icon of someone slipping ( on a staircase?), with the English “Don’t Fall Down” appearing below the original Chinese “当心滑跌”. Click on the next image, and you’re shown a sign taken by someone in the tourist area of Mt. Tai in Shandong Province, warning English readers, “You are possibly in the supervision video. Please behave well and be a nice tourist.” And so on and so forth.

Aren’t you amused? Aren’t these signs funny? On my reading, the audience of this slideshow is not only supposed to try to figure out what this ‘non-standard’ English is supposed to mean, but to share a quick laugh or two at the lexical incongruities, the grammatical goofs, even the strange visuals and color combinations used to encode these public messages. How oddly they say it in China!

While there are just 8 pictures here, a web search for “Engrish” might lead you to a website popularized for hundreds of visual examples of what Wikipedia calls “non-standard variations of English often found in East Asian countries”. Flickr, the popular site for sharing images, has many groups with such collections; some sites, like lolengrish.com, are dedicated solely to the ‘funny’ English that can be found on the streets of Japan and other places, and the BBC itself seems to regularly feature readers’ photos of such signs (here’s an example from 2006).

Anyone reading this might be able to sense already that I’m only partially amused by these signs, or especially by their display by major news corporations–the label “Chinglish” sounds condescending to me coming from the BBC when writers like Carmen Chung use the term in their writing to describe their own struggles growing up bilingual, trying to communicate with family between English and Cantonese, for example. The only thing that makes the “folks” who took the photos on the BBC site “ordinary” (as I wrote above) is their assumed status as ‘native’ English speakers, and, I assume, non-speakers of Chinese. (and of course I HAVE been a stickler and party-pooper on FIT in the past about what’s funny what’s not in the seemingly innocent arena of warning signs, road signs, billboards, and the like–one example’s here.)

But today I’m writing with a question in mind: can the “Chinglish”, “Spanglish”, or other varieties of English that appear in multilingual signs and other texts actually help language learners to understand their target language, and to develop a critical awareness of how linguistic expression ties to cultural perception? Taking a few examples from the signs on the BBC site: does “supervision” (as in “supervision camera”) mean something similar to “surveillance”? How do you articulate this difference in Chinese? How do you say “nice” (as in “be a nice tourist”) in Chinese, and in what situations would you say someone’s “nice”?

Victor Mair over at the Language Log (linked in the FIT blogroll to the right) has some interesting observations about a similar topic–an emerging variety of English usage that is different than most western conceptions of “Standard English”, yes, but predictable and “distinctive enough to be recognizable as an emerging dialect.”

From the vantage point of language learners and language teachers, what can be learned from ‘reverse-engineering’ varieties like “Xinhua English” and “Zhonglish”? Can we as language learners do more with funny signs than just laugh?

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2 Responses to “Un-de-re-en-ciphering ‘Chinglish’”

  1. Paul Louis on: 20 September 2009 at 11:55 am

    To answer your question “can the “Chinglish”, “Spanglish”, or other varieties of English that appear in multilingual signs and other texts actually help language learners to understand their target language, and to develop a critical awareness of how linguistic expression ties to cultural perception?”: in my experience the answer is most definitely yes. I’m currently teaching English in China (to a range of students, from school kids to university professors and party officials to Buddhist monks) and one of the classes I do is on Chinglish, both in the “funny sign” sense and the broader linguistic sense.

    In my Chinglish class I incorporate examples of signs (and other written material) such as “Slip carefully” and then explain to the students why these would be seen as comical to an English speaker (though some of the better students can pick it up themselves). And though I do somewhat share your dislike of the occasionally sneering tone of English speaking publications (and occasionally English speaking expats) towards examples of Chinglish, the comedic aspect of some of the signs can serve both to inject some fun into the class and highlight the potential pitfalls of attempting direct translation from Chinese to English.

    This relates to the main focus of what I try to teach through using Chinglish examples, namely that the disparate histories and linguistical structures of English and Chinese mean that treating English as Chinese with different sounds (as some students do) is invariably doomed to (sometimes comical) failiure. One of the biggest problems students face is assuming a 1:1 correspondence between Chinese vocabulary and English vocabulary, when in fact most Chinese words have dozens if not scores of potential (and quite different to a native speaker’s ear) translations. Combine this with the fact that much basic vocabulary is learned at a young age and you have situations like middle aged Chinese men saying “I like to play with my friends on the weekends” because the Chinese word 玩 can variously mean “play, hang out, have fun, spend time with, activity” and so on in English, and the first definition they come across is play.

    Which this brings me to my last point, which is the fact that there is a tendency amongst some to treat Chinglish as a developing dialect of English, along the lines of the more established portmentau of Singlish. And while there’s something to be said for not treating English as a pristine jewel never to be sullied by the tongues of barbarians, and for not pushing too hard for absolute perfection in language learners, the simple fact is that failing to address the problems of Chinglish is failing to adequately prepare Chinese English learners for native speaking environments. And I’m sure my students are glad to know that saying “we should play with each other tonight” to native speakers of the opposite sex is liable to end up in some highly awkward situations.

  2. daveski on: 21 September 2009 at 10:03 am

    Wow, thanks for this very thoughtful comment. As a teacher of English in Japan for a while and in ESL classes here in the SF Bay Area (and even a short camp experience in Yangzhou a few summers ago), I’ve wrestled with this a lot myself, and have come to many of the same conclusions. Right down to the word “play”.

    What the “Chinglish” signs and all the talk about Chinglish in the (occasional) media, and in EFL and ESL classrooms reminds me, though, is that in big parts of the English-speaking world it all seems like a one-way street. These signs and the expressions that adorn t-shirts are obviously striking (funny, odd, even offensive sometimes) to people who consider themselves ‘native English speakers’. And those ‘native’ speakers almost invariably end up thinking of themselves as teachers, and the writers/speakers of Chinglish as students of English at best.

    Natural enough, perhaps, but I think there’s a big opportunity lost for those English speakers who have found their own language ‘foreignized’ or denaturalized in this way to use it as an opportunity to LEARN, to see the other way and learn a thing or two about Chinese, or Japanese, or whatever language it may be. Could we imagine “Chinglish” signs as being valuable learning tools in Chinese language classrooms for English speakers, as saying something important and accessible about Chinese, in addition to whatever they say about English?

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