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Friday, 07 October 2016 22:50

Avoid "Chinglish"

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(Reading level: Intermediate)
English is a wonderful language for several reasons, one of which is, you can make up new words. "Chinglish" is one such made-up word.

What is "Chinglish"?
It refers to the garbled combination of Chinese and English. In defense of Chinglish, let me say, it is a reality and easy to explain how it happens. Also, I'm not "casting stones" at Chinese speakers who struggle with English, although Chinglish is a reality for many of them. As an English-speaking American who has been learning Mandarin since 1989, I certainly have struggled with my own version of Chinglish.
One often sees Chinglish on signs, and this is one of my favorites. The sign-maker wanted to say "Handicapped Restroom," or better yet, "handicapped-accessible restroom." However, it came out as "deformed man toilet.""Deformed" means badly twisted or misshapen!


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?
In keeping with the mission of, to try to help as many people as we can, I am beginning this post on "Avoiding Chingish" where I will post some common errors that Chinese speakers may make when learning English. And the more Chinese I learn, the more I can see these mistakes are totally understandable. Plus, as an English as a Second Language (ESL) teacher, my Mandarin exposure helps me quickly identify and correct these common errors. (If you want help learning American English from native speakers, please click here to learn more and contact me today!)

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. Enjoy!

How many of these do you know?


1. Read/Look/See/Watch - 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.
  A. Read: This usually means "looking at words or text and getting meaning from it."
      - Read Chapter 25 tonight, about the start of World War II," Mr. Crawford told his history students.
      - Born in 1892, Aunt Lou was amazing: she read her Bible and two newspapers every day, until she passed away at the age of 105! (Note: in this sentence, "read" is in past tense; it is spelled the same, but sounds like "red."

      - Reading something daily is a good life habit.

  B. Look:This usually means to direct your eyes and attention to something new.
       - "Look at me, Daddy!" Hannah yelled as she was riding her bike by herself for the first time.
       - "Shh! Look at that hummingbird in the feeder!" Mom whispered.
       - "Close your eyes and don't look until I say so," Grandma said as she carried in the birthday cake.

  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.
       - I could hardly see while driving because it was raining so hard.
       - Let's go see a movie Friday night!
(Note: "See" can also mean to understand or imagine.)
       - I'm sorry, but I still don't see what you mean.
       - When you want to show people that you understand what they mean, you can smile, nod, and say "I see." That will make them feel happy.
       - Larry loves to be active and outdoors, so I just can't see him being happy on a job where he has to stay in a small office all day.


   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.)
       - Mom didn't want me to watch too much TV when I was a kid, so she would make me go outside to play some. (Note: we usually say "watch TV" but "see a movie.")
       - "A watched pot never boils" is an English saying that means, when you pay too much attention waiting for something to happen, it seems to take forever.

       - It's fun to watch birds fly into and out of a bird feeder.
       (Note: "watch" can also mean "to take care of or show concern for.)
       - The Smiths hired a babysitter to watch their toddler Saturday so they could have a date night out.


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:
    - I like my new backpack. It is orange color. (Chinglish).                  I like my new backpack. It is orange.
    - Brian's dog is black color. (Chinglish)                    Brian's dog is black.
    - The girls painted their bedroom blue color. (Chinglish)            The girls painted their bedroom blue.


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."
    - It rained yesterday morning. (correct)
    - Mom went shopping yesterday afternoon. (correct)
    - Dad went bowling yesterday night. (Chinglish)
    Instead of "yesterday night" for 昨天晚上 we say "last night."
    - We watched TV for two hours last night.
    - It rained heavily last night, but it is sunny today.
    (Note: this can also be used in another way, as in "final night," like 最後一夜.
    - Tonight is the last night Terry will be with us, because he is driving to Maryland tomorrow.


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:
 - Today is Wednesday.
 - Tomorrow is Thursday.
 - The day after tomorrow is Friday.
 - Three days from now is Saturday.


5. I have ever been there. - We use "ever" in a question, such as:
 - Have you ever been to New York?
 - Have you ever seen a Blue Jay?
 But we do NOT use "ever" in a sentence. Instead, we often add "before" at the end.
 - I have ever been to New York. (Chinglish)                I have been to New York before. (right)

 - 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.
 - I have been to New York.
 - Have you been to Florida?
 But, we do NOT use "to" with "here" or "there." So, common Chinglish sentences are "I have been to there" or "I have come to here before." Instead, we say:
 - I have been there before.
 - I have come here before.


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:
 - Eden likes to visit coffee shops.
 - Deborah loves to play the harp or paint when she has free time.
You can use it in questions too:
 - Do you like to swim?
 - Do you want to improve your English?
Sometimes, you can use to + infinitive verb + -ing verb:
 - Ann likes to go shopping.
 - We like to go swimming in the summer.
 - We used to enjoy skiing when we lived in Colorado.
Do NOT use "to" directly with an -ing verb.
 - Do you like to shopping? (Chinglish).                      Do you like to shop? OR Do you like to go shopping? (correct)
 - Do you like to speaking English? (Chinglish)          Do you like speaking English OR Do you like to speak English? (correct)
 - We went to shopping. (Chinglish)                           We went shopping. (correct)


8. Live vs. Stay. - This is a common problem. 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.



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."
 - He will marry with her in June. (Chinglish)                       He will marry her in June. (right)



11. Use the plural noun when you are discussing something in a general sense.
 - I like dog.                  I like dogs. (In fact, saying "I like dog." sounds like you mean to say, "I like eating dog meat." For example, "I like chicken" means "I like to eat chicken meat." In contrast, "I like chickens." means "I like the small barnyard birds that lay eggs.")
 - Cat very independent. (wrong)                Cats are very independent. (right)
 - Baby is very small. (wrong)                     Babies are very small. (right)
 - I like to read book. (wrong)                      I like to read books. (right)
 - Motorcycle is dangerous. (wrong)           Motorcycles are dangerous. (right)


12. Explaining frequency. - Chinese gives the time frame first then the frequency, but English does just the opposite.
 Q. How often do you have English class?
 A. "Two times one week." (wrong)                    "Two times a week."  OR "Twice a week." (right)
 - I one time one week have a piano lesson. (wrong)           I have a piano lesson once a week. (right)


13. English uses "it" a lot, especially in places where Chinese uses the verb have.
 - "I like." (wrong)                   "I like it." (right)
 - "I like here." (wrong)           "I like it here." (right)
 - "Here very hot." (wrong)     "It's hot here." (right)
 - "Have rain." (wrong)           "It's raining." (right)


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:
  • in a car,
  • on a boat,
  • on a plane,
  • on a bus,
  • in a trailer,
  • on a train,
  • on the road,
  • in the driveway.
We use these to tell about time, too. We use AT for a specific time.
We use IN to tell a month, year or season.
  • Jack's birthday is in February.
  • Eva was born in 2004.
  • The leaves turn color and fall in autumn.


We use ON to tell a day of the week.

  • Jackson's birthday is on February 18.
  • We have our Friendly Free Fridays class on Fridays. 
  • Many people go to church on Sunday mornings. 


And sometimes you can use all three in one sentence!

  • Marie was born in 1995, on March 15, at 3:10 p.m.
  • The cat jumped on the car in the driveway at the end of the day.
  • Many kids go Trick-or-Treating at night on Halloween in October. 
Learn more about prepositions in this video.
15. Few people vs. little people. - "Few" means a small number, but "little" means small in size.
 - "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."
 - I'm looking forward to going to the beach this summer with my family.
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.
 - I expect it will rain all weekend, because that's what they said on TV.
 - I expect Ben will need to work harder in college than he did in high school, because it's harder.
 - "I'm expecting Christmas." (wrong)                          "I'm looking forward to Christmas." (right)


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.
 But even here, English is a crazy language. Some short adjectives still use "more," as in: more modern, more bizarre.
  "It's more better." (wrong)        "It's better." (right)


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.
 - Mom will bring her casserole to the church potluck in her rice cooker, to keep it warm.
 - People who want to learn to be a cook should study culinary arts in high school and college.

three cooks

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


Read this funny news story about Chinglish here

Take the "Chinglish Challenge" now:
Take this little quiz to check your understanding. Read each sentence carefully. On your own paper, write the numbers and then "E" if the sentence uses standard English or "C" if it is Chinglish. If you think the sentence has Chinglish, rewrite it in proper English (there might be more than one correct English way to rewrite it.) Answers are below.  

  1. It rained yesterday morning.
  2. Do you like it here?
  3. Yes, I like here.
  4. I really expect Christmas. It will be nice to have a long break from school.
  5. We named our cat "snowball," because she is white color.
  6. We watched a movie yesterday night.
  7. This is the last night I can watch this movie, because I will return it to the library tomorrow.
  8. I am going back to China next next week.
  9. I am going to the gas station now.
  10. I am going to there now.
  11. Have you ever been to LA before?
  12. Yes, I have ever been to there before.
  13. When I went to LA, I lived in a nice hotel for three nights.
  14. Do you want to shopping this weekend?
  15. Do you like to speaking English?
  16. Dad was born in January.
  17. The Smiths have been our neighbors for many years, but they will move house next next week.
  18. Our son one week two times have piano lessons.
  19. Learning English from is more better than going to a cram school, because you can learn at home and your teachers speak American English.
  20. Her birthday is on October.
  21. Hurry up! Mom is already on the car and she wants to leave now.
  22. We are tired because we were in the train for more than five hours.
  23. After three days on the road for business, dad was glad to be home.
  24. Do you want to go out tonight or just stay home and see some TV?
  25. Read something in English every day and your skills will get better!
1. E
2. E
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.
7. E
8. C I am going back to China the week after next. OR I am going back to China two weeks from now.
9 .E
10. C I am going there now.
11. E
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?
16. E
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 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.
23. E
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.
Read 4302 times Last modified on Friday, 12 January 2018 21:31
Scott Dreyer

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.
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