Dedicated follower of Chinglish

Hands up if you ever had a t-shirt with Chinese characters on it. Any idea what they meant? Or whether they were even real Chinese? Or you didn’t really care, because they just looked cool?

This is one of the reasons for the growth of Chinglish, according to Oliver Lutz Radtke. He believes it is often used for decorative purposes and no-one really minds what it says. Oliver majored in Chinese and is author of the book ‘Chinglish: Found in Translation’ and The Chinglish Files, a blog about everyday examples of Chinglish.

deformed-man-toilet.jpgThis obsession with Chinglish is not meant as a joke, however. Rather, he sees Chinglish as a great opportunity for Westerners to understand differences between Western and Chinese culture. For example as Westerners we find some examples of Chinglish shocking or funny because they talk directly about subjects our culture has taught us to avoid talking about.

Chinglish is becoming more and more common as China learns English, and some think it could be accepted in the future as a standard variation of English.

PocketCultures asked Oliver some questions about his love affair with Chinglish.

1. Oliver, Where are you based now?

I am based in Beijing now, which feels great to be back in the Chinglish cradle again. [After studying in China, Oliver has been based in Singapore for the last few years] I’ve been to Beijing for the last time in 2004 and the city has changed enormously. Many public signs are corrected. Many restaurant menus are not; despite the effort of the Beijing Tourism Bureau to issue a standard set of 2000 plus dish names last year.

2. In the introduction of your book you state that the Chinglish found on written signs in China is an endangered species. But there are reports that spoken Chinglish is starting to take on a life of its own, assimilating grammatical attributes of Chinese languages.

What do you think are the chances that it will someday be recognised as a standard variation of English?

We have to differentiate between written and spoken Chinglish. In the academic context Chinglish is rather referred to as China English and I am pretty sure it’s a trend you can’t stop.

Languages keep changing and English has proven to be one of the liveliest languages ever, just take a look at how much French you find in there! So I guess certain expressions have already started to make their rounds around the globe and more and more will.

I am not at all in favour of teaching a language without using a local context and I don’t think that AE or BE will be the standard of the future, with billions around the globe learning English as a foreign language. Besides, research has shown that native speakers aren’t necessarily the ones that are being understood the easiest, rather the opposite.

3. Out of the (1000+!) examples of Chinglish you have gathered over the last few years what is your personal favourite?

I think it is definitely a tough choice between the first one “Don’t forget to carry your thing”, because it keeps reminding you that Chinglish is mostly about laughing at yourself and not others and “Little grass has life, please watch your step”, since in a wonderfully anthropomorphized way clearly shows the Chinese love for flowers.

Photos from The Chinglish Files

Many thanks to Oliver for his help with this post.

More like this:
Is Chinglish the future of English?: most English conversations do not involve a native speaker
Top 20 languages of the World: What are the most widely spoken languages in the world?
Languages fight for global dominance: more about the prospects for English as language of international communication

About the author

Lucy (Liz) Chatburn
Lucy is English and first ventured out of the UK she was 19. Since then she has lived in 4 different countries and tried to see as much of the world as possible. She loves learning languages, learning about different cultures and hearing different points of view.
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  • It’s going to be interesting to see what happens when the tendency goes in the other direction as well, and more people starts to learn to speak Chinese. English is comparatively easy – I think the possible ways to come off as weird are far more plentiful in Chinese.

    I remember trying to learn Chinese a year ago and having a native speaker help me with my pronunciaton. After lots and lots and lots of struggling she looked at me and said – “my God – it’s like listening to mud flowing out of a water pipe”. The Chinese’ way with metaphors is just so ingrained in their language :)

    Interesting post!

  • Don’t have as much experience with Chinese, but the same thing is true with Japanese. I did buy a t-shirt while in Japan, but made sure that I knew exactly what it said!

    By the way, the science-fiction-western movie/TV show Firefly saw this coming. In that version of the future, Chinglish was the primary language (though for the benefit of English speaking viewers, it was mostly English with some Chinese exclamations thrown in where the meaning was already quite clear).

  • This phenomena is prevalent throughout Asia, and even Chinatowns in North America!

    Personally, I think there are multiple reasons why Chinglish and its cousin Engrish (Japanese English) exists.

    #1 is as Oliver has pointed out. China and other many East Asian countries view English as a language of superiority of some sort. It’s one of the residues of colonial mentality. As such, many Asian firms use English words as a sort of decoration on their products. The most obvious would be stationery. Something like “Sweet pretty cool!” will always be written on erasers and pencil cases. It’s kinda interesting, actually.

    #2: Chinglish arose probably as a result of the failure of the Google Translator. If I owned a small company, which does not have the budget to hire a bilingual Chinese/English speaker, I would naturally rely on free and accessible translators like Google. And of course, Google translations are horrible.

    #3: Translations is one of the most difficult aspect of language mastering. It’s not an easy task since a good translator needs to have mastered both languages or at least be quite proficient. At times, a thorough understanding of the culture is needed to give an accurate translation.

    For example, have a look at the picture you’ve posted on your other Chinglish post. Those Chinese words, if translated directly say, “Let us become friends with the birds.” Although I have translated the meaning exactly with no grammatical errors, it still sounds strange to a native Anglophone. The problem here is with the culture. Chinese people never speak directly because it considered rude and uncultured. Instead, they prefer to use an ‘indirect’ way of speech through idioms and other implicit tactics. The Western world, particularly the Americans, honor straightforwardness and effectiveness. So, this sign would’ve been written as “Please respect the birds” or something close to that.

  • I also have more experience with Japlish/ Engrish/ Japanese English than the Chinese version, but the similarity is that it is not and will never be a real variety of English like Singlish or Indian English, or at least not until Chinglish or Engrish is the only language spoken in someone’s home when they are growing up. For another example, look at the difference between Spanglish meaning the real Creole language that Puerto Ricans in New York speak (spoke?) and Spanglish as a mangling on English by teenagers in Spain/ adoption of false English expressions into Spanish (puenting etc).

    Chinglish as it exists could have an influence on the shape of any future ELF/ EIL pidgin though, just as it did on the original pidgin English.

  • Apologies to anyone who had trouble accessing PocketCultures over the last few days.

    Our hosting company switched off the site at short notice to transfer it to another server. It was meant to be back online on Saturday, but only just came back on this morning.

    Thanks for returning!

  • My personal favorite I saw in Nanjing was in a bank. A sign at the front was proudly encouraging customers to “question authority” (for “ask the teller” I guess!). Loved the anarchist innuendo! :lol:

    I’m going to Beijing in Aug. and I hope I can get my Chinglish back!

  • I hope you managed to control the urge to rebel :-)

    Sounds like Chinglish is quite infectious so I’m sure you won’t have any problems getting it back once you’re there!

  • Niche article, thanks you for write this article

  • 有一次,专考外国留学生的汉语“托福”试卷上出现了一道填题:“绞尽___汁”

      我曾教过一位即将赴华工作的英国工程师约翰,他决定临行前先恶补一下汉语口语。他指定要学的教材是BBC广播公司出版的汉语课本。该书扉页上的广吿词甚有煽动力,声称特别适合旅游者和商人的速成初级汉语,完全无汉语基础者也能“一看就会说”。我翻遍全书都找不着一个汉字,通篇皆是英文和汉语拼音,整个一本文盲汉语教科书。据说此书是专门为那些放弃学习像天书一样难学的汉字,只打算学会说点汉语口语者预备的。由于完全不看汉字单纯读拼,约翰一见我的面就自豪地卖弄起自己的汉语学问来:“你嚎( 好)小姐郭,我恨歌星(很高兴)扔死你(认识你)。”约翰很珍惜与中国人的对话机会,笑话便层出不穷,比如他吿诉我:“我的媳妇 (西服)在皮包里。”“今天早上担心马路太忙,我七点就‘出家了 ’。”他的中国好友回国了,于是约翰经常念叨的是:“一个火人(好人),飞去了(回去了)。”每次走到楼梯口,约翰都会略微躬着身,一派典型的英国绅士风度,口中念念有词:“请小心裸体(楼梯),下流、下流,一起下流(下楼)吧。

      中文里的四声,可谓是西方人的天敌。初到北京的英国留学生踏进饭馆开口就将包子说成为“报纸”,服务小姐还真耐心解释:“马路对面卖报纸,日报、晚报一应俱全。”想吃饺子,遗憾的是冲口而出的却是“轿子”,听得侍者如坠云雾之中。尤其令女侍者莫名其妙甚至气愤的是,他居然要求 “红烧屁股”,并声称这是他最喜爱的一道中国名菜。见女侍者的脸色不悦甚至恼怒起来,洋学生急忙将菜单指给她看。女侍者这才明白原来他是想吃“红烧排骨”。




      中国民俗十二生肖属相,也是西方人极感兴趣的话题,每个人都想查清楚自己是属什么动物的。不幸的是,“属”和 “属于”他们常常混淆。一位姑娘兴奋地报出:“我是属于猪的。”中文里用“雌性”或“雄性”来形容动物性别,这对洋学生来说未免太难为他们了,因在英语里无论形容人或动物都可通用male(男性)或fem ale(女性),一天下午在街上一位小姐牵着她的爱犬得意地向我介绍“这是我的女狗。”