2016-09-04

Chinglish Explained: Yang Jia Cheng's
"Chinglish (中式英語)"

First, Mr. Yang's Two Cents; Then, Mine

What Is Chinglish?

Basically, any language that becomes non-standard thanks to foreign-language influences wins a prize: its own portmanteau. English speakers usually make theirs by plucking the first syllable of the foreign language and blending -nglish for its second, giving us Spanglish, Franglish, etc. These terms refer either to a language that English has influenced or to English that a foreign language has influenced. Here, we will be talking about the latter, English that Chinese has influenced.

The standards that these latter glishes ignore usually have to show that English is not the glish speaker's native language. That is, a glish can't just be English plus some loanwords or code-switching. Foreign phonological, morphological, lexical, and syntactic imports all have to be there. They also have to be endemic. That is, a lot of foreign-language natives have to make the same kinds of "errors" when attempting to comprehend or use English.

The words "errors" above belong in quotation marks. "As long as people can understand what the hell you're saying, then […] it's good English." In fancier terms, Mr. Yang is a linguistic descriptivist, not a prescriptivist. The difference? If an utterance doesn't fit an English description, English natives won't be able to recognize it as English. If, however, an utterance doesn't fit an English prescription, snooty English natives won't be willing to recognize it as English. Now, there are reasons to care about prescriptions. Sometimes we have to fit in with the snoots or produce clearer utterances. Mr. Yang's point, however, is that most foreign English speakers don't.

You can explain some Chinglish give me?

Mr. Yang's snapshot of Chinglish lightly pokes at Chinese English learners' failed acquisition of some standard English phonology and syntax. However, he funnily treats Chinglish as an argot which native English speakers can learn. What's interesting, however, is not that they "go wrong," but where specifically they "go wrong."

Chinglish Phonology:

How Mr. Yang puts it:
  • "Lesson 1: Pronounce every word extra clearly and with a weird tone."
How a phonologist might put it:
  • "Lesson 1.1: Speak English words by vocalizing all stop consonants if they are written in the language's orthography."
  • "Lesson 1.2: Break the final coda from the English word, and then add /ɤ/ to the dangling onset, or remove the dangling onset, whichever matches a Mandarin syllable more closely."
The results?
  • First, pronounced /ˈfɜrs⟨t⟩/ in English, becomes /ˈfɜrsɤˈtʰɤ/ in Chinglish;
  • Yes, pronounced /ˈyɛs/ in English, becomes /yɛˈsɤ/ in Chinglish; and
  • Right, pronounced /ˈraɪ⟨t⟩/ in English, becomes /ˈraɪ˧˥/ in Chinglish.
How Mr. Yang puts it:
  • "Lesson 2: Randomly put letters in words."
    • "We never pronounce the ⟨th⟩."
How a phonologist might put it:
  • "Lesson 2.1: If a consonant immediately precedes /i/ in the final syllable, replace it with /eɪ/."
  • "Lesson 2.2: Replace /ɪ/ with /eɪ/."
  • "Lesson 2.3: Replace /θ/ with /s/."
  • "Lesson 2.4: Replace /ʌn/ with /əŋ/."
  • "Lesson 2.5: Replace /mɪ/ with /mi/."
The results?
  • Sorry, pronounced /ˈsɒri/ in English, becomes /ˈsɒreɪ/ in Chinglish;
  • Lonely, pronounced /ˈloʊnli/ in English, becomes /ˈloʊnleɪ/ in Chinglish;
  • Carefully, pronounced /ˌkɛərfəˈli/ in English, becomes /ˌkɛərfəˈleɪ/ in Chinglish;
  • Ugly, pronounced /ˈʌgli/ in English, becomes /ˈʌgɤˈleɪ/ in Chinglish;
  • Fish, pronounced /fɪʃ/ in English, becomes /feɪʃ/ in Chinglish;
  • Something, pronounced /ˈsʌmˌθɪŋ/ in English, becomes /ˈsʌmˌsɪŋ/ in Chinglish;
  • Monday, pronounced /ˈmʌndeɪ/ in English, becomes /ˈməŋdeɪ/ in Chinglish; and
  • Miss, pronounced /mɪs/ in English, becomes /mis/ in Chinglish.
This is just a partial list of the rules that Mr. Yang is following. However, explaining it in full will have to wait for another day.

Chinglish Syntax:

Mr. Yang's Chinglish syntax lesson calls on us to "speak English with Chinese grammar." He then provides examples of common word-for-word Chinese-to-English translations.

In some cases, Mr. Yang is actually pointing out how foreign-language learners assume that ellipsis works the same way across languages, so they translate the Chinese sentence before inserting the words that English natives would not have removed:

Example 1:
  • 怎麼說?
    → How to say?
Now let's show what the ellipsis cut out and see what we get when we translate it:
  • 【你】怎麼說【‘X’這個字】?
    :: How do [you] say [this (i.e. that) word 'X']?
    → How do you say that?
    (Note: The English auxiliary do has no exact match in Mandarin, so is highlighted above.)
Example 2:
  • 我很喜歡。
    → I very like.
  • 我很喜歡【它】。
    :: I very much like [it].
    → I like it very much.

    (Note: '很' can translate to 'very' and 'very much'. Also, when it refers to a situation or is a dummy pronoun, to insert a pronoun '它' would be a symptom of Westernized Chinese [歐化中文].)
Example 3:

  • 你壞壞!
    → You bad bad!
  • 你壞壞!
    :: You are (i.e. so) bad!
    → You're so bad!

    (Note: Reduplications of Chinese "stative" verbs can intensify them, similarly to how English does with the intensifier 'so' in adjective phrases.)
Sometimes, Chinese speakers simply translate terms wrongly, as in this example:
  • 我想跟你在一起。
    → I want to hang out together with you.

    → I want to play together with you.
    (Note: This may be the result of confusing two senses of '廝混', one meaning 'hang out', and another meaning 'play around' in a more flirtatious or sexual context.)
And, in some cases, Chinese natives receive standard English input. Then, they translate that English into their native Chinese. Finally, they try to translate that Chinese back into English. But, since Chinese and English indicate mood, tense, and aspect very differently, English verb conjugation often doesn't make the trip:
  • I have already eaten.
    → 我已經吃過了。
  • 我已經吃過了。
    → I already eat. / I eat already.
  • I already went there.
    → 我已經去那邊。
  • 我已經去那邊。
    → I already go there. / I go there already.
  • I had already met her.
    → 我已經見過她。
  • 我已經見過她。
    → I already meet her. / I meet her already.

What's Mr. Yang's beef with drilling vocabulary?

Were I a Chinese English student,
my first wish would be
for the sweet release of death!
He's telling it like it is: Vocabulary drilling is a waste of time, especially how Chinese English students do it. Their first move is to buy mini translation dictionaries known as "word books" (單子書). Next, they drill each page for a few minutes, turn the page, and lose whatever they learned the page before. It's a cramming method, and cramming methods don't lead to acquisition.

These books are not made to be read, anyway. Rather, they're made to be made to be read. The purpose of word books is to pass blame from teachers to students. Instead of language teachers' actually giving their students broader, firmer comprehension of fewer English terms, they force them to buy these mini dictionaries and read them like chapter books. This allows Chinese teachers to "test" their students' vocabulary retention each week. But, what about three weeks from that test date? Their answer: "Who cares?" If a student gets a good grade, both the teacher and the student look good. If a student gets a bad grade, though, only the student gets blamed. He clearly needs to study more from this book. After all, it offers:
  • No spaced repetition, 
    "是我閉目塞聽嗎?
    才不是啦!是孩子們犯錯了!"
  • Hardly any context, 
  • Barely enough word senses, and 
  • No sense of pacing.
Clearly, the student must be at fault here…

Mr. Yang and I agree on this point: Honing all of one's efforts on any one aspect of a language will come at the cost of not attending to others. A sane language-learning method should engage as many aspects as it can at once, but not force you to cram any one aspect in its entirety. Like swimming, the coordination of parts matters most. If you don't want to drown, get in the water, but stay at the shallow end. Then, at your own pace, wade into deeper waters. That's how language acquisition should feel, and that's the best course I know around the Chinglish Channel.

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