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 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.