14 May 2009

Early Modern Chinglish: 101

There is a name for every regional variation of English brought about by local conditions, historical migrations, and interactions between other language groups. Singaporeans refer to the occasional loan words and some syntactical influences notably from Chinese as Singlish. And I am certain that many PhD dissertations have been written just on this one variant. Such variations can also be used to justify Canadian English and Australian English dictionaries. These such variations, however, occur in all sufficiently large sampling of speakers of any living language.

This should, nevertheless, not be confused with a relatively new phenomenon known as Chinglish. One might be tempted to suggest that Chinglish is akin to a pidgin language, which emerges when different speaking groups want a simple means by which to quickly engage in commerce. They feature reduced inflections, and simplified vocabulary and syntax with deference to the dominant group’s linguistic features. Chinglish is solely the product of the Chinese educational system. English is typically introduced here in the third grade. Its inclusion came about when the central government in Beijing mandated English education for all students in China as part of the national curriculum, commencing some time after the opening up under Deng Xiaoping. Relatively overnight Chinese students put their noses to the grindstone and began preparing for the subsequent tests that would evaluate their ability to study for tests thereafter focussed on English grammar and translation. Often the tests are simply badly translated passages that require the students to translate the English text back into the original Chinese.They also often feature multiple choice questions for which the students must choose which one of the two or three possibly correct answers the examiners want the students to select.

So for every newly identified phenomenon, there quickly arise postdoctorates hoping to develop enough expertise to justify landing a tenured position. A center for advanced Chinglish studies shall likely take root wherever Dr. Michael Erard ends up teaching. I bet he dreams of the day when he can get out of the freelance business and start going to department sponsored mixers and draw upon his two years in Taiwan as a cultural anthropologist, disguised as an out of work English graduate teaching ESL in a cram school.

In an article that appeared in Wired, he speculated as much as his unshaven face and glasses can lend gravitas to the profundity of his thinking about the future of communication in English, implying that Chinglish was somehow part of the ongoing evolution of the English language. The man does have the paperwork to prove that he studied linguistics, which might explain how well the doctor can embarrass himself in so many languages. Being a jack of all languages and master of none, Mr. Erard’s main skill is getting published, anticipating the academic dictum of publish or perish demanded in universities. For true Chinglish scholars, I offer for the following adage in the target language: Make article or be died.

I can convince an audience of native Chinese speakers that Chinglish is not, in fact, a phase in the evolution of English but simply a dialect (albeit loosely defined) of Chinese itself. Bluntly, it is nonsense to suggest that Chinglish is anything more than sloppily and poorly translated Chinese idioms replete with misspelt and invented words, which, in its worst manifestations, cannot even be understand by Chinese speakers themselves. At a minimum, it requires a general understanding of Chinese grammar and the common faults of English education on mainland China to be understood. One advantage of having linguistics enshrined in places of higher learning and treating it as a profession is that it can offer some advantage to general society. Wouldbe faculty members like Dr. Erard (MA Linguistics, PhD English) who keep themselves busy by finding stuff to fill column inches and bookcovers with while they plot about how they can best convince others that they understand better than another candidate marketably arcane topics are on today's pathway to the ivory towers.

By the way,I hate to be pedantic but rest in peace in Spanish is properly ‘descanse en paz’. Dr. Erard, if you really want another job in an institution where competent scholars really do study other languages, you ought to redo the epitaph for your uncle. But it might be forgivable. Selection committees love creatively pompous selfdescriptions like yours:

"A linguist by training, I'm a writer by birth. [...] The transition from academia made for the second most profound year of my life. I'm committed to marrying narrative power to specialist knowledge, and to helping produce a more mature discourse about language in the US. I'm also committed to doing so accurately, responsibly, and creatively." 1

Nobody can fault the man's verbal creativity, especially when it comes to the booktitle.

There is yet one more contender for the head of a Chinglish language department. Who knew that there could be so many selfappointed scholars in this field? But as they say in academia: the competition is fierce because the rewards are so meaningless. Herr Oliver Radtke in the tradition of Teutonic linguistic methodology wants to record every single instance of Chinglish for posterity and further academic inquiry. At least, he wants to keep publishing books on the same theme. Referred to as a German sinologist, Herr Radtke’s main skill is being sly about his motives for producing photo collections that go straight to the marked down table. It’s really a bargain at $7.95!

Referring to the incomprehensible examples that can be found on everything in China from warning signs to plagiarized homework assignments, Mr. Radtke makes a plea for the conservation and the academic scholarship of Chinglish. He asserts as one does when polishing a doctoral defense to a a committee conditioned to be culturally aware:

"I'm trying to challenge the notion that there is only one type of standard English - the English that's spoken in America or in the British Isles - which is shortsighted, because Chinglish is already being used by millions of people to communicate with one another."2

One of the hallmarks of an academic researcher in search of tenure today is how he claims to want to challenge the very same system, which he eventually hopes to become part of. One type of standard English? Whoever proposed that there was even a standard to begin with. It was a professor I had in university who made it clear that English, unlike other languages with language academies to prescribe orthography and usage, but which inevitably fail in the task [pause for knowing tittering], English has no such institution that sets its usage standards. My classmates and I, of course, dutifully wrote down his words and accepted them without question.

As any businessperson from outside China who does business inside China via email can relate, Chinglish is indeed used for communication. It doesn’t, however, mean that such communication is ideal or regularly clear. I cannot claim with certainty, but I think that in dealing with Chinese traders, many foreigners imitate the Chinglish patterns in an effort to streamline their communication and to feel more assured that the meaning is not lost on the Chinese side. This has the unfortunate result of normalizing the Chinglish in the minds of some Chinese speakers.

The claim that millions use it goes beyond reasonable credulity. Native born Chinese speakers themselves don’t use it other than to help them pass examinations or to lend cachet to places of business. It's not used for communication as much for decoration. The same garbled menu tomes exist in mainland China, too, even in restaurants that might never be visited by a nonChinese speaker. Almost invariably, the mainland Chinese ignore any English words whenever the Chinese script is printed next to it. (Enough competent English speakers exist in places like Hong Kong and Singapore so that errors are more likely to be weeded out by conscientious civil servants and businesspersons.) In trying to understand why public signage intended to communicate to nonChinese speakers would so consistently produce incomprehensible examples such as: Calculate Experiment Base. The answer that best explains is that miserly managers want to believe that when any English words are used, the foreigners can figure them out. Optimistic to say the least.

In many academic circles, semantics has become a dead end for one’s career. It’s just too difficult to stake out an exclusive corner on accuracy and meaningfulness; whereas, interpretation and symbolism can be the ticket to lifetime employment. It is in this vein that Herr Radtke hedges a bit in his defense of Chinglish as he did in his interview.3 He quickly backs up from defending the nonsensical and incomprehensible, claiming that nobody wants to do that.

He refines his goal, instead, to wanting to preserve the new expressions to “Stay off the grass” which he regards as trite and believes that the English language could use some refreshing with the Chinese alternatives. Is it necessary to even include this as Chinglish, "Little grass has life, please watch your step" since there is so little meaning lost with the more verbose expression; whereas, with "wash after relief" it is not clear as to whether it is an admonition to flush or to wash one’s hands. He is far more intrigued by what the word relief culturally says about taboos regarding corporal functions. I am certain that an entire seminar can be held somewhere about this topic and how the Chinglish can be used as a starting point to explain the workings of the Chinese language. Such an erudite discussion is definitely not, however, on the mind of a foreign traveller who has just learned the hard way that Chinese public restrooms are commonly not supplied with toilet paper or soap. There is in his appeal to preserve Chinglish, a subtle nod to any future selection committee that Herr Radtke is well aware of the different norms and practices of foreign cultures. There must be an endowed position for him somewhere! Because as any department head of an American university knows, it requires a foreigner faculty member to teach properly about cultural presumptions and insensitivity.

Simply put Chinglish is just one aspect of my work that makes my life as an ESL teacher in China more complicated. Its ubiquity reinforces what I seemingly in vain struggle to undo on account of the English teaching practices used in China. It also reinforces itself by suggesting that there is no need to use English as an accurate means of communication. It is just there for an abstract purpose. It is something that must be studied because it is part of the curriculum that insures a Chinese student a bright future, right next to Maoist economic theory. But one should not tell that to the experts in Maoist economic theory. So often in education, it’s not what or how well you know any subject, but whether you can find a job teaching it.

When I first noticed this sign resting on a baby grand in a coffeeshop near where I work, my best guess told me that it meant: No Tipping the Invited Player. In fact, it means: Do Not Play the Piano.

Does Dr. Erard see this as a kind of missing link in the evolution of English?

Does this example of Chinglish add spice to Herr Radtke's understanding of how it can represent "something more creative and more local"? Is there anybody other than himself who feels that this garbled translation does anything more than to confuse the meaning of the more universally understood glyphs?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Sorry Mitch!,

I know I'm late on this. Those liberal-academics do realise the extent of Google/Bing/Yahoo translate abuse over there in good-old "short-cut to the lowest quality denominator" China.

They just bung the characters through, then copy and paste the resulting English. Damn the proof-reading!!

I say scr*w them - because remember "they're right and richer than you or I; backed up by 5000 years of history."

Ashley (now in UK)