Chinglish: A new and inventive kind of English

Editor's Note: Budgeteer contributor Jonas Kelsch has been in China since August. He is teaching English to Chinese college students and trying to travel and sightsee as much as he can. "It's been a compelling experience so far, and I have been t...

Chinglish at the Market
Chinglish ranges from complete overhauls of conventional English grammatical and spelling rules to fun-sounding brand names like "I'Believe" potato chips. Jonas Kelsch/For the Budgeteer

Editor's Note: Budgeteer contributor Jonas Kelsch has been in China since August. He is teaching English to Chinese college students and trying to travel and sightsee as much as he can. "It's been a compelling experience so far, and I have been trying to document it as best as I can," he reported back to us. This column is the first result of those observations.

The English translation featured on the sign of a particular restaurant in China's Hunan province boasts that the eatery serves up "Fragrant and Hot Marxism."

Though this expression is plenty interesting, the restaurant might attract a more-diverse English speaking clientele if it featured a more accurate and politically neutral phrase on its sign. For instance, "The Philosophy of Eating" might work much better -- or, as was proposed in a Beijing Today article which featured this same restaurant and its sign, "Spicy-Hot Ideology" would also be suitable.

For the English-speaking visitor to the People's Republic of China, one thing that is likely to provide an almost constant source of entertainment is the pervasive abundance of "Chinglish" -- word-for-word English translations of Chinese characters.

This unusual prose is often the product of the unchecked work of electronic translating computers and software programs that, however advanced they may be, unfortunately do not yet carry the computing capacity to accurately and tastefully transpose style, connotation and context across linguistic boundaries.


Working in China for the past two months as a college English teaching assistant, I have come across many notable examples of Chinglish, and I find myself continually entertained by the quirky and, at times, outrageous humor that can be gleaned from these expressions.

I have attempted in the following paragraphs to summarize my current understanding of Chinglish as a unique linguistic phenomenon of an ever-growing, internationalizing and increasingly English-speaking China.

In addition to my own experience with the pseudo-language, I have used several example phrases as well as accompanying translations provided by students and several of my colleagues at United International College (UIC) in Zhuhai. (In particular, credit is due to Professor Eva Lai and Darrel Rea, both English instructors in the English Language Center at UIC. Their slide show presentation "Chinglish" provided me with much inspiration in researching and writing this column.)

There is a great variety of Chinglish examples, ranging from complete overhauls of conventional English grammatical and spelling rules ("Slippery Floor. Please Be Careful." Becomes "Careful: Landslip Attention Security."), to fun-sounding brand names like "I'Believe" potato chips (pictured).

Despite the potential for such confusing and awkward constructions in Chinglish, if the interpreter keeps an open mind, most Chinglish is actually quite comprehensible.

For example, the instructions for an e-cigarette (a smoke-free "electronic cigarette" -- especially popular in Japan) tell the user that each e-cigarette nicotine cartridge is good for "about 150 mouths." "Mouths" equals "puffs" ... I get the idea.

To take an example from the UIC campus, the hand dryers in the school's men's restrooms feature a prominent sticker that says "Please Protect Public Property."

With that kind of language, one might not only feel responsible, but compelled to, look after the dryers.


Sometimes Chinglish can be rather poetic, as is the case with "The civilized and tidy circumstance is a kind of enjoyment."

Granted, the statement carries a definite air of nonsense, but it also has a pleasant ring to it -- calming, even. However, a clearer translation for this park sign might be "It is enjoyable to live in a clean environment."

Other Chinglish constructions can be deeply philosophical, like "Free yourself from the misery of an existence," a statement that many of my students have narrowed down to, interestingly, the name of a certain art shop.

One bit of Chinglish that I come across on an almost daily basis is "Cash Recycling Machine." This translation, while it certainly does not make the device sound very appealing to anyone looking to deposit money, really does make sense when one considers the cash-flow pattern of an ATM.

By the way, ATM does not stand for "Autonomous Telling Machine," which I have also seen ... but what are you supposed to call those no-name ATMs that you find at bars and Walgreens, anyway?

Another one of my colleagues, Vernessa Shih, a Chinese American from Los Angeles, is a speaker of Chinese, English and Chinglish. She tells me that Chinglish, specifically among Chinese Americans, is actually more of a spoken than a written language, just as the hybrid languages of Spanglish (Spanish English), Hinglish (Hindi English), Czenglish (Czech English) are all mostly spoken languages.

From this perspective, the "Chinglish" that is the main subject of this article is more of a popular trend of literal electronic translating than it is its own hybrid language.

Even though Chinglish signs, advisories and instructions can be quick to amuse, in some cases they can also be potentially dangerous distractions.


For instance, one of the UIC English instructors I work with, Vicki Steven, brought up one day in class how she repeatedly saw the advisory "Rear-End Collusion Zone" while she was on her way to the Changsha airport in Hunan province. The intended message of the sign was obviously to warn drivers to take extra care on the dangerous section of road.

However, what if some unfortunate English-speaking driver ended up plowing right into the car ahead of them because he or she was too busy laughing at the sign that was intended to protect them?

In another instance, the warning "Let your head knocked [here]" sounds like anything but a warning against bumping your head on the low ceiling. "Mind your head," a much more sensible translation, again was proposed by many of my more English-savvy students.

With all this said about the faults of Chinglish as a basically ineffective method of communication, I would like to be clear that Chinglish is not considered to be an acceptable form of English composition in China. The English that is taught in Chinese schools is not Chinglish.

Furthermore, as China is a world power, there are currently hundreds of millions of Chinese currently learning proper English.

That said, how many students in America are currently learning Mandarin Chinese, the principle language of one of the most economically powerful countries in the world?

In closing, through speaking with numerous Chinese students and faculty at UIC, none of them have yet given me any reason to believe that Chinglish has adversely affected their learning and understanding of the English language.

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