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Chinglish a problem for teachers

Local English newspapers were quick to jump on a story this week from Shanghai on the topic of Chinglish.

Let us admit “Chinglish” is not as new a word as it may appear. I heard it for the first time here in Taipei 30 years ago when I first began teaching English. It had probably been around years earlier.

“I'm trying to get my students to do it right,” a colleague said to me. The “it” was English. “I want them to stop writing and speaking Chinglish, you know? I want them to learn English.”

My friend went on to describe for me that savory mixture of Chinese and English that we have over the years come to know as Chinglish. Indeed, if Professor Higgins grows accustomed to Eliza Doolittle's face as “My Fair Lady” draws to a close, many of us have grown more than accustomed to Chinglish in our lives in Taiwan.

At times Chinglish can be a bit mysterious, but in an entertaining way. It may also be charming. At the wrong moment, however, Chinglish can annoy a reader or listener, and be a source of crimson-faced embarrassment to a non-native speaker of English.

A fellow by the name of Oliver Radtke published a text entitled “Chinglish: Found in Translation” in 2007. More than 50,000 copies of the text have been snapped up, as they say in the book business, and Mr. Radtke has cranked out a second volume on the topic. Radtke is particularly interested in the Chinglish he finds on a spate of signs, menus, public announcement boards and the like in Shanghai and other places in China.

Radtke told reporters recently that Chinglish is “so much more than just incompetent English or incorrect English.” One of the examples he cited was this one, taken from a sign near a public restroom: “You can enjoy the fresh air after finishing a civilized urinating.”

I cannot say I have lacked opportunities to gather my own examples of Chinglish in a fat note pad, Chinglish Taiwan style, that is. Radtke has beaten me to the draw. One of the reasons I've hesitated to compile a personal list of favorite Chinglish expressions is that I honestly have mixed feelings about this peculiar hybrid of language.

Mr. Radtke feels Chinglish communicates “a certain Chinese way of thinking,” and he may be right. Why do most westerners feel somehow alienated by “a civilized urinating”? Why are we squeamish about natural bodily functions? I don't deny the value of that question.

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