The weekly column

Article 77, October 2001

On How to Avoid Writing Chinglish

JI Shaobin
Wenzhou College of Profession and Technology


The linguistic interference of one's mother tongue always poses an obstacle to his or her successful learning of foreign languages and teachers of English should try their best to help those who are inclined to make mistakes in writing English compositions. After a contrastive study of some linguistic features between Chinese and English, the author lists some common forms of Chinglish (the "created" language by Chinese students who misunderstand English through their Chinese interference) made by Chinese students of English and points out their causes and some possible solutions to them.

1. Introduction

It is well known that Chinese and English are poles apart. However, when Chinese students who are lacking a "real" English environment learn English, they easily tend to ignore the differences between the two languages. This is particularly the case with writing. The Chinese students are so familiar with their study habit of writing in Chinese practice that they often put it into practice in English writing. The result is the so-called Chinglish, an awkward mixture in which ideas conceived in Chinese are ungrammatically or unidiomatically expressed in English writing. The main cause of Chinglish is, apparently, linguistic interference, but to get rid of the negative influence of the mother tongue, on the other hand, remains of paramount importance for teachers of English Writing in China.

My years of experience in teaching English makes me aware of the differences between the two languages in word choice, syntactic structures, and thought patterns by analyzing typical examples of Chinglish in the students' compositions. Here I'd like to present some typical mistakes made by our Chinese students.

2. Lexical Deficiency

It seems easy to find out that Chinglish often appears in the form of redundancy, which arises when students fail to understand the exact meaning of an English word. Take the example of "a desk": Chinese students would say redundantly "a book desk" or "a writing desk" instead. They can't tell "a dance" and "a study" in English mean exactly "a dance party" and " a study room" in Chinese. Similarly, the following redundant sentences are often made by our students.

(1) Wrong: The old man made a living by catching fish.
Correct: The old man made a living by fishing.

(2) Wrong: Please hurry to walk or we'll be late.
Correct: Please hurry up or we'll be late.

(3) Wrong: Sue went to the shops to buy things for me yesterday.
Correct: Sue went shopping for me yesterday.

It is understandable to Chinese English teachers that Chinglish is caused by inaccurate understanding of English words as shown in the above examples. Nevertheless, misunderstanding the word brings about a kind of unbearable Chinglish. Take a look at the following sentences.

(1) Wrong: When I reached my wallet to find my money, I found it invisible.
Correct: When I reached my wallet to find my money, I found it missing/gone.

(2) Wrong: As the price for the jacket was too expensive, I decided not to buy it .
Correct: As the price for the jacket was unreasonable/too high, I decided not to buy it .

(3) Wrong: I feel very painful in my right hand.
Correct: I feel great pain in my right hand.

These sentences may sound funny to native speakers of English due to the misuse of words. Keeping a good dictionary at hand while writing seems to be a good remedy for the above-mentioned Chinglish. However, it is the teachers' responsibility to let their students know that an English word and its correspondent Chinese term don't always share the same semantic register. Another kind of Chinglish in the form of redundancy occurs when students are not aware that Chinese is a verb-abundant language while English is a preposition-and noun-oriented one.

(1) Wrong: He ran out when it was raining hard.
Correct: He ran out into a heavy rain.

(2) Wrong: He looked at her and felt surprised.
Correct: He looked at her in surprise.

(3) Wrong: We were shown in by those who wore uniforms.
Correct: We were shown in by those in uniforms.

Chinese students of English must be helped to learn that English prepositional phrases in many cases have the same semantic function as Chinese predicate verbs plus their objects. Knowing it will provide Chinese students with a very useful means of becoming effective and idiomatic in their English writing. Similar to redundancy, unnecessary repetition also causes Chinglish. The repetitious sentences are clearly reflecting the negative influence of the native language.

(1) Wrong: Our country is a great country with a long history.
Correct: Ours is a great country with a long history.

(2) Wrong: Fish must stay in water. If they don't, they will die.
Correct: Fish must stay in water or they will die.

(3) Wrong: He gave a lot of reasons for being late to class, but the reasons he gave didn't convince us.
Correct: He gave a lot of reasons for being late to class, but none of them was convincing.

To avoid Chinglish, Chinese students of English must be aware that Chinese is, for the most part, a logically compact in its structure. English is strictly compact in its structure. English verbs and nouns seldom repeat themselves in the same sentence. That's why conjunctions, pronouns and other substitutional or introductory words are more frequently used in English than in Chinese.

3. Syntactical Incompetence

3.1 English sentences with inanimate subjects can be very vivid and expressive. Failure to observe this linguistic phenomenon often leads to tasteless, monotonous Chinese-stereotyped English sentences. Compare the following pairs of sentences:

(1) Wrong: She was very miserable and her heart broke.
Correct: Misery tore her into pieces.

(2) Wrong: She was so jealous that she became desperate.
Correct: Jealousy drove her to despair.

(3)Wrong: Because the cost of the medicine was reduced, people all over the country were able to use it in treating with many diseases.
Correct: The reduced cost made possible the nationwide use of the medicine in treating many diseases.

Language needs variety to be expressive. Animate subjects are often required before predicates of action both in spoken and written Chinese. In writing English, however, inanimate subjects of abstract ideas are frequently used before notional verbs of concrete action for the sake of brevity and vividness.

3.2 Ignorance or negligence of the correct syntactic structure and idiomatic collocation or usage in English:

(1) Wrong: His English knowledge is adequate for the job.
Correct: His knowledge of English is adequate for the job.

(2) Wrong: I'd like to have the newest news on Afghanistan.
Correct: I'd like to have the latest news on Afghanistan.

(3) Wrong: The bankruptcy of his father has made him impossible to go on studying.
Correct: The bankruptcy of his father has made it impossible for him to go on studying.

To eliminate Chinglish of this sort, teachers of teaching English composition must spare no effort to adapt the Chinese mind of students' into the English ways of expressing ideas.

3.3 A good command of the comparative degree of English adjectives and adverbs can help reduce occurrence of Chinglish.

(1) Wrong: He had so much money that he would not be able to spend it in his whole life.
Correct: He had more money than he would possibly spend in his life time.

(2) Wrong: I have read your novels but I didn't think you could be so young.
Correct: I read your novels and expected to meet an older man.

(3) Wrong: Human bodies are the only source of blood in hospitals so that its amount is very limited.
Correct: More blood is needed in hospitals than human bodies can supply.

It should be brought home to Chinese students of English that comparative degree of adjectives and adverbs is more widely used in English than in Chinese. Flexible use of the comparative undoubtedly enhances the effectiveness of the writing.

3.4 The English causative verb "make" in its structure "make somebody do something" is often abused by Chinese English students because there is an identical structure in Chinese to express the same idea.

(1) Wrong: Her red face made me see through his mind.
Correct: Her red face told me what she was thinking about.

(2) Wrong: The sight of these pictures made me remember my own childhood.
Correct: The sight of these pictures reminded me of my own childhood.

(3) Wrong: A sudden shout made him stand up.
Correct: A sudden shout brought him to feet.

The above pairs of sentences show to us clearly that to avoid overusing the causative "make" is one way to get rid of Chinglish.

3.5 Idee Fixe

Sometimes a change of perspectives in expressing ideas from Chinese into English will help do away with Chinglish.

(1) Wrong: Don't mind other people's business.
Correct: Mind your own business.

(2) Wrong: Do you need any help?
Correct: May I help you?

(3) Wrong: Don't pay attention to the dog.
Correct: Leave the dog alone.

As shown above, kind advice, polite requests, and euphemistic commands tend to be more objective in English than in Chinese. And in many cases, the Chinese usually think in the negative ways while the English in the positive.

4. Conclusion

Some teachers and educators in China argue that Chinglish is somehow bearable to our students considering the reality in our English learning environment. However, to my understanding, it is unacceptable unless writing should be taught in the "right" way. The purpose of this article is not only to show some typical examples of Chinglish but to kick off a controversial discussion on how to adjust the Chinese mind to the English way of thinking and writing.

About the author

I am an English teacher at Wenzhou College of Profession and Technology. My main research interest is English writing for Chinese English students in Chinese Colleges. I am presently involved in the research of E-mail and internet for Chinese English learners.




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