Avoid "Chinglish"Written by Scott Dreyer
(Reading level: Intermediate)
What is "Chinglish"?
Where does Chinglish come from?
Before words can come out of your mouth, the idea has to first form in your brain. So far so good. The problem comes when you try to speak in a foreign language, especially one you are still new at. In those cases, we tend to think up an idea in our mind, in our native language, and then translate it into the foreign language. This is where problems can happen. The normal method is to learn individual words in the new language, and then try to translate them directly. However, between languages, many ideas, words or phrases do not translate directly. Let me explain with some examples. When I was in 9th grade, I had my first real experience with foreign languages, in German I. I had learned that "happy" was "froelich," and "birthday" was "Geburtstag." So, quite impressed with my new German, I wished someone "Froelich Geburtstag." That was the direct translation, yes...but I was wrong. Germans do not say it that way. In German, the actual blessing is "Alles Gute zum Geburtstag." The German phrasing translates more like, "All the best for your birthday." Fast forward about ten years, and I was then in Taiwan learning Mandarin Chinese. Same story. I had been there for a few months and had been picking up some words and phrases. A friend's birthday was approaching, and I knew the word for happy was 快樂 (kuaile) and birthday was 生日 (shengri). So, quite ready to demonstrate how much Chinese I had learned, I smiled and wished her a hearty 快樂 生日 (kuaile shengri)! But instead of the smiles I thought I was sure to get for my "good Chinese," I got wide eyes and looks of shock. "Oh no, you can't say that! It's 生日 快樂 (shengri kuaile)."
"Birthday Happy!?" For a split second I mentally protested. "'Birthday Happy' doesn't make any sense!" I thought to myself. Then I realized it. It's probably best not to argue against 5,000 years of culture and language. If it's literally Birthday Happy to the 1.4 billion Chinese speakers, then it will have to be Birthday Happy to me, and that was an important moment in my Mandarin language acquisition. Do not think too much in your mother tongue and try to translate directly word for word. Instead, try to learn actual phrases and ideas in the foreign language, and you will pick it up faster. (See the example? "Pick it up" can literally mean "to lift something with your hands," but it can also mean "to learn something new.")
How can I stop Chinglish?
So, the list begins below. These examples are in no particular order of importance or category. I will simply post them in the order that I think of them or they come up in some of our ESL classes. To encourage you to visit this blog often to see new examples of Chingish, I will post recent examples at the top, right below the stars (*****). For years I have been explaining these points and many more in my ESL classes. Now, here begins a list for all to see and learn from.
1. Read/Look/See/Watch/View -- This is another example where you have one Chinese word (看), but English has several words to express this. These words all involve receiving input and images from the eyes, which then go to the brain. However, these words also involve some differences, which I will try to explain, with sample sentences for each.
- Reading something daily is a good life habit.
B. Look: This usually means to direct your eyes and attention to something new.
C. See: to physically perceive and look at with the eyes (Note: this sounds the same as "sea," a small ocean, and the letter "C.")
- It's hard to see in a dark room.
D. Watch: This is close to "see," but a little different. "Watch" implies to continually look at something for an extended time. (Note: this is also a noun, the small clock you wear on your wrist.)
- It's fun to watch birds fly into and out of a bird feeder.
E. View: This is similar to "look" or "see." It can be a verb, but it can also be a noun. As a verb, it can mean "to look at" or "to have a particular attitude or way of considering something."
- This overlook is a great place to view the valley below. (to look at)
- You can view the Statue of Liberty from across the harbor.
- Dad viewed his daughter's new boyfriend with displeasure. (to consider or believe)
As a noun, it can mean a way or attitude of considering or believing something.
- Some people love President Trump's views, while others hate them.
- What is your view about students having after-school jobs? Do you think that is a good or bad idea?
2. Color - In Chinese, you add the word "color" after the actual color. So, the Chinese 白色 should be "It is white (correct) NOT It is white color (wrong). Examples:
3. Yesterday night / Last night - The Chinese for "yesterday" is 昨天, and you CAN say "yesterday morning" or "yesterday afternoon," but you cannot say "yesterday night."
4. Future times - We use the word "next" much when discussing times or events. In English you can talk about: next week, next month, next semester, even next year. But, we NEVER repeat the word next. So, if this is the first week of October, then the second week is next week, but we call the third week of October 下下個星期 "Two weeks from now" or you can also say "the week after next." Do NOT say "next next week."
I am writing this post on a Wednesday. So, tomorrow is Thursday. But what do we call Friday? The Chinese call it 後天, but in English we do not have a specific name for it, so we call it "the day after tomorrow" or "two days from now." How about 大後天? We do not have a specific name for that in English either, so we just call that "three days from now." Maybe this helps:
5. I have ever been there. - We use "ever" in a question, such as:
- I have ever seen a Blue Jay. (Chinglish) I have seen a Blue Jay before. (right)
6. Been to there, been to here - This is a bit tricky. Normally when you say where you have visited, you add a "to" before the place.
7. When to use "to" with a verb...and when NOT to.
Use "to" before an infinitive verb (不定式動詞). That is, use "to" before a verb in its normal form, without -ing, -ed, -es, etc. For example:
You can use it in questions too:
Sometimes, you can use to + infinitive verb + -ing verb:
Do NOT use "to" directly with an -ing verb.
8. Live vs. Stay. - This is a common problem, even among people who have been studying English for years. In Chinese, you use the verb "to live" for a place you spend the night, for either a short or long time. In English, we normally use "live" for a place where you have lived for a long time, as your main residence. For example: "I lived in beautiful Roanoke, Virginia until I went away to college." This implies a place where you have all or most of your clothes, furniture, etc. For a shorter time, from one night up to maybe several weeks or months, in English we use the verb "stay." For example: "Mom, can I stay at my friend's house tonight?" "The kids from China stayed with us for four weeks for their summer camp." This implies your home is somewhere else, but you are living temporarily at another place, like a friend's house, hotel, etc.
This live/stay issue can cause misunderstandings. For example, on page 2 of the Grade 4 Reading book we use at DreyerCoaching.com, there is a passage about a boy named Cameron who goes to visit his grandfather in the US state of Maine for a short while in the summer. The passage explains how the two walk to the beach and Cameron is excited to see lots of ocean life and tide pools, etc. After the passage there is a comprehension question: Do you think Cameron lives near a beach? Why or why not?
This is a higher-level question, even for native speakers of English, because the answer is not in black and white in the passage. The reader has to "connect the dots" to figure out the answer. Since Cameron is excited to see new things at the beach near his grandfather's house, that implies that Cameron does NOT live near a beach, so the answer should be "no." However, if you do not understand the live/stay issue, you might think "Cameron lives with his grandfather, and they could walk to the beach, so the answer is 'yes.'" Since Cameron is visiting his grandfather for a short time over the summer vacation, Cameron is STAYING at his grandfather's house in Maine, but he does NOT LIVE in Maine. So in this case, the answer should be "No, Cameron does not live near a beach, because he is excited to see new things at the beach and this shows us that ocean life is new and unfamiliar to him."
9. Move house. - The literal Chinese is: "They next month will move house." But in English, we infer that one is changing one's residence, so we just say, "They will move next month." Now you might be thinking: isn't that the same as just "moving around." We can say: "The wind moved the dry leaves." "Mom moved the chair across the room." "The teacher yelled because the students kept moving." Yes, you are right. It is the same verb. But from the context we can normally figure out that a person or family is moving from one place to live to another.
Now, for MORE fun. Yes, you CAN actually say, "move house," but that means to physically dig up the house, put it on a truck, and drive it down the road to a new location.
10. Marry with. - In Chinese, we literally say "He with her got married." But in English, we normally do not use "with." So just say, "He married her" or "He will marry his high school sweetheart, Margaret."
11. Use the plural noun when you are discussing something in a general sense.
12. Explaining frequency. - Chinese gives the time frame first then the frequency, but English does just the opposite.
13. English uses "it" a lot, especially in places where Chinese uses the verb have.
14. Crazy prepositions (介詞). These are the little words that show relationships, such as: in, under, below, on top of, between, next to, in front of, etc.
- It's confusing to beginners. (wrong) It's confusing for beginners. (right)
- Stay in the trail. (wrong) Stay on the trail. (right) English is a crazy language, and sometimes the prepositions do not make any sense. We (usually) say:
We use ON to tell a day of the week.
And sometimes you can use all three in one sentence!
(For when to use "at" or "in" with a month, see # 23 below.)We usually use AT (or sometimes IN) with "school" but IN to describe a class at school.
- "We are all in the same room because there are little people here." (wrong) "We are all in the same room because there are few people here." (right)
16. Expect vs. looking forward to. - These can both have the same Chinese meaning (期待), but in English they are different.
Looking forward to something:This means there is something in the future that you are very excited and pleased about. It implies, you are very confident it will happen. It's just a matter of time. We also say, "I can't wait for it."
Expect: This also refers to something you believe will happen in the future, but you are not really excited about it. In fact, it could be a bad thing. But whether you like it or not, you believe there is a good chance it will happen.
17. Comparisons: With most short adjectives, of one or two syllables, we usually add an -er to show a comparison. Examples: shorter, taller, prettier, uglier, faster, slower, quicker, cheaper. However, "good" is an oddball. The comparison form is "better."
Generally, for adjectives of three syllables or longer, we add "more." Examples: more convenient, more understandable, more reliable, more expensive.
18. cook vs. cooker. This is one of my favorite examples, and it came up in a conversation class today. English is a crazy language. Many jobs in English DO end with -er or -or (teacher, manager, waiter, presenter, builder, lawyer, carpenter, hairdresser, porter, director, doctor, tailor.) However, cooker is not one of them. In English, a cooker is an electric device used to cook things. Most Chinese kitchens have a rice cooker. In contrast, the job where a person cooks is a cook. (You can also call this person a chef.) So, the cooker is the thing, and the cook is the person.
Three cooks, NOT three cookers
19. Some words are used in Chinese more often than in English, like: body, comfortable, and phenemonon. Read more here.
20. Hear/Listen This is much like #1 above; there are TWO English words for ONE Chinese word (听).
A. Hear: This is when your ears physically pick up sound waves, but you may or may not pay attention to it.
B. Listen: This is when you hear a sound or voice, and actually pay attention to it. You mentally note what the voice is saying. (This often implies listening for a duration of time, not just a moment.)
21. Speak / Say: This is similar to "hear/listen" (#20 above). There is ONE word in Chinese for this: (说 Shuō).
These two words both mean: "words coming out of a mouth." However, you use them at different times and for slightly different meanings.
(I realized these two words are a problem area when a very bright young lady, a senior in high school in Taipei who has studied with DreyerCoaching for many years, wrote this sentence:
A. Speak: You use this word for longer, more complicated verbal expressions, as in "speaking a language."
B. Say: You use this word for shorter verbal expressions, like single words.
22. Write/Do Homework: "Write homework (写功课 )is the literal Chinese. But in English, we say DO homework. Whether it implies writing an essay, doing math problems, reading part of a book, we usually say "Do homework."
Exception: You can use "write" if you specifically have to write a paper or essay.
23. Early, Middle, or Late part of a MONTH
A. at the beginning of April: this means at the very start of the month, on or about the first day. (note: use "at" and "the")
B. in early April: For the first few days of a month, about April 1-10, we usually say "in early April (or June, October etc.) (Note: use "in," unless you are starting a sentence.) You can also say "In the first part of April."
C. in the middle of April: the middle part of a month, approximately April 10-20. (Note: use "in" and "the") You can also say "in mid-April."
D. in late April: the last few days of a month, about April 20-30. (Note: use "in" unless you are starting a sentence.)
E. at the end of April: this means the very end of the month, on or about April 30. (Note: use "at" and "the")
24. Middle, Medium, Center, or Central?
Like # 1, 16, 20 and 21 above, these words can have just one meaning in Chinese, (中Zhōng).
A. Middle: usually refers to the middle of a time, situation, or physical space. (Note: usually use "the") In Chinese it can also be: (中间 Zhōngjiān)
B. Medium: usually refers to a physical size, like LARGE or SMALL. (Note: usually do NOT use "the," unless you want to specify one item, like "Get the medium shirt.")
C. Center: (noun) This means "in the middle of something," but while "middle" usually refers to a flat area (Kansas is in the middle of the USA), "center" usually refers something in the middle of a round shape. (Note: usually use "the")
"Center" can also mean a headquarters, meeting place, or activity center.
D. Central: (adj.) Describes something in the middle or center of something else
25. Habit vs. Hobby:
Many English-learners confuse these two words; they look and sound a bit similar, but have very different meanings.
A. Habit: An act or behavior that a person or animal does over and over, without thinking. (Chinese: 习惯 Xíguàn)
B. Hobby: a thing you do for fun or recreation when you have free time (Chinese: 爱好 Àihào)
26. Eat food/ Drink wine:
These are direct translations from Chinese. Normally in English, however,"eating" implies food and "drinking" implies alcohol. In other words, the only thing you can eat IS food.
Note: "wine" is a specific beverage made from grapes, while "alcohol" includes many drinks, such as wine, beer, whiskey, etc.
To be clear, you can specify what kind of beverage you want to refer to:
This word has many uses.
A. Play a musical instrument (verb): we usually add the word "the" before the instrument name.
B. Play a game or sport (verb): this usually does NOT add the word "the."
C. A drama or theater piece (noun):
D. Playing games or playing outside. Note: this is usually only used to refer to CHILDREN.
CHINGLISH: Normally do NOT use "play" to refer to adults having a good time.
When refering to adults, instead of saying "play" we usually say "have fun," "have a good time," "hang out" (slang) or "get together." For example we can rewrite the above sentences as:
Read this funny news story about Chinglish here.
Take the "Chinglish Challenge" now:
3. C Yes, I like it here.
4. C I really look forward to Christmas. OR I am really looking forward to Christmas. (continuous tense)
5. C We named our cat "snowball," because she is white.
6. C We watched a movie last night.
8. C I am going back to China the week after next. OR I am going back to China two weeks from now.
10. C I am going there now.
12. C Yes, I have been there before.
13. C When I went to LA, I stayed in a nice hotel for three nights.
14. C Do you want to go shopping this weekend? (better) OR Do you want to shop this weekend?
15. C Do you like to speak English?
17. C The Smiths have been our neighbors for many years, but they will move next next week.
18. C Our son has piano lessons two times a week. OR Our son has piano lessons twice a week.
19. C Learning English from DreyerCoaching.com is better than going to a cram school, because you can learn at home and your teachers speak American English. (Pardon the self-promotion!)
20. C Her birthday is in October.
21. C Hurry up! Mom is already in the car and she wants to leave now.
22. C We are tired because we were on the train for more than five hours.
24. C Do you want to go out tonight or just stay home and watch some TV?
25. E How did you do? Count the number you got correct.
25 correct - Congratulations! You are at native-speaker level!
23-24 correct - Great! You are near native-speaker level!
20-22 - Good job! You getting close to native-speaker level!
19 or under - Keep on working on your English!
Do you want to learn to avoid MORE common Chinglish errors? Join one or our online English classes! Plus, get my award-winning book, Write Like A Champion (美國老師教你寫出好英文) where one whole chapter is devoted to just this topic! Find out more about my book and get your own copy here.
A licensed teacher in the US state of Virginia since 1987, Scott Dreyer has been helping Chinese speakers improve their English since 1989. Dreyer lived in Taiwan from 1989-1999 where he learned Mandarin, met his wife, started his family, and realized he loved working with Chinese students. He became an award-winning author and started teaching ESL online in 2008. Dreyer and his wife and their four adult children make their home in the beautiful Roanoke Valley in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia.dreyercoaching.com/en/about/scott-dreyer
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