The Linguistic Conundrum: Chinglish and Teachers with Foreign Accents

I’ve never been to China, but what I have seen on sites such as Engrish Funny has given me the impression that there is a prominent language barrier. Personally, I don’t mind the confusion and translation malfunctions that come with trying to communicate with someone who speaks another language. I went to the Czech Republic for five weeks with a three-word lexicon: prosím pivo děkuji, please beer thank you. Which are, incidentally enough, the only three words you need to survive in the Czech Republic. Though I departed with a much larger vocabulary, large enough to chat with the cashier at Tesco about Mentos, anyway, it was the process of being clueless and the proud triumph of catching on that was the most enjoyable.

However, I know that not all English speaking travelers feel the same way. Some expect flawless English from those around them or, at least, easily readable signs and maps to guide them on their foreign journey. And The Shanghai Commission for the Management of Language Use (yes, that’s a thing) agrees. The New York Times reported recently on the commission’s mass effort to tidy up poorly translated signs, menus, etc. I.e., they want to eliminate the hybrid language of Chinese and English: Chinglish. This seems like a good idea, but don’t pamper us too much, China. Native English speakers should put in a little effort too.

English is the universal language, fast becoming a real-life Esperanto, and the No. 1 foreign language taught in classrooms. About 93 percent of students in the European Union learn English, starting as early as age six. A lot of people want to learn English and a large population already speaks it. This does not give native speakers the right to expect English from everyone. So here are some tips for those who don’t want to look like complete jackasses when trying to communicate with locals in different countries:

1. DON’T SHOUT. This should be something that everybody already knows, but I still see it way too often. If the person you are talking to knows English, speak slowly and clearly. Though they do speak English, they might not have had enough exposure to it to actually understand everything you are saying. If you speak some of their language, it works the other way around.

2. Don’t be colloquial. Unless the person your speaking with has spent time in your English speaking country, they probably won’t be able to understand the slang and everyday sayings you use. Try and use more generic words.

3. Do take a dictionary. A nice mini-dictionary is easy to pack and carry around in a purse or cargo pant. If you can’t break the language barrier with speech, you can always just point to the word and see if they understand.

4. Don’t laugh. If you see a sign or read a menu that has clearly been lost in translation, try not to snicker. It can be offensive. This is one of the reasons The Shanghai Commission for the Management of Language Use is taking action against poor translations.

5. Do learn a little before you go. Even a few words such as left, right, street, hotel, restaurant, please and thank you can get you far in the country’s native language. It’s pretty easy to do, too. Collins provides a wide range of phrase books complete with CD and byki is a great flash card software that can be downloaded for free.

No doubt the Chinglish cleanup will be greatly appreciated, but it’s OK to leave the foreigners to fend for themselves, too.

Also: Firing English teachers because they have a foreign accent? This isn’t helping your discrimination reputation, Arizona. By the way, foreign speakers usually know the grammatical process better than native English speakers.

Also Also: Don’t threaten women on the subway.

Photo of the Week: Buttons

I took this a couple months ago in Japan and I feel it suits today’s topic well.


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