One thing I’m pretty “sure” about this picture is it’s going to tick quite a number of language purists off. But then, a shocking majority of young Chinese will often mix English into their otherwise Mandarin Chinese conversations. This got to the better of me at Baker Street tube station earlier today, when I was running out of words in Chinese with a fellow academic colleague (also Chinese), and I had to resort to a little bit of “assisted English” to get the message across.
My end, this is less a matter of concern for “lingo purists” as I’m somewhat with them — fully aware that Chinese is at the risk of being “eaten away” by “100% English”. Hu Jintao’s years saw a campaign, if ever so brief, to force government TV anchors to completely abandon Chinese as much as possible. Even TLAs (three-letter abbreviations) in English were officially frowned upon. But then, the language purification campaign came and went. ▶
Beginning today, I’ll gladly do pro bono language lessons in the following languages for the following bodies in the following countries:
Bodies: National railways, city metro, transport police, visas, and immigration.
Languages and Countries: English for China (with future option of German, French, Italian, and, at a much later date, Rumantsch); English and Chinese for Switzerland.
And the reason(s) why? In bullet-point form, real quick, here’s why:
- The 2014 Handbook of Everyday English for Beijing, a work of a whole smorgasbord of language and media experts, had me deeply involved in the project. It was a great project to work together on — we met with some of the most knowledgeable experts in the field, which included translators at the Chinese Foreign Ministry and at key national universities. I did much of the translation and a fair load of the proofreading, as well as the VOs and video show presentations (hopefully they’ll be live soon).
- That Handbook had a lot of content which was precisely related to public transit, visas and immigration, and how the police are asked questions by visitors. I’ve also been through many of these (over a million kilometres in 220+ cities across 24 countries / territories); I’m now on my sixth passport). ▶
There are two camps in China when it comes to foreign languages: left-leaning campers are known for being nationalistic and prefer that foreigners learn Chinese instead of making locals learn English for expats. The other camp is more realistic, and realises China stands to benefit a lot by allowing foreign tongues on their soil.
That’s the stance I love.
I’m headed to London later this year. I like the bit of London that is Chinatown not because it’s a bit of home (in fact, I stay away from the Chinatowns overseas as it’s what I tried to get myself out of in the first place), but because street signs are bilingual: Chinese and English.
When Beijing’s Koreatown, Wangjing, wanted trilingual signs (Chinese, English, Korean), I thought this was a great idea. When Beijing Airport sported quadlingual signs, I thought it was neat as well. But what I saw at Red Snail Temple (Hongluo Si) was something that was beyond my expectations: signs in six languages. These were Chinese, English, Korean, Japanese, Thai and Russian. ▶
Did the official, national China Railways Weibo account just start tweeting things in English?
If everything was in Chinese back then, it made sense. But then we had Deng’s reforms. Then we had the Olympics. The World Expo. The Asian Games. Two Universiades. You got people from all creeds, all religions, all countries and territories, in essence pouring into the country and onto our trains. (I’m typing this in a café with Italians next to me!) It kind of made sense to be bilingual. Bilingual signage popped up everywhere — at Beijing South, on trains, everywhere.
For a moment, most of us believed our railways turned bilingual overnight.
That’s the case for much of the written signage. But if you’ve done a lot of travelling in China by train, you’ll see probably more than a few gaping gaps between — say, the train and the platform. You’ll see gaps in different expressions being used for the very same things. Whilst you might use an Exit at Beijing South, the signs point you to a Way Out in other stations. Then there’s how we name stations. Or name new things, like personal tickets and their replaceable equivalents. Or how we should get the English right, as a whole. I’ve also heard stories from rail crew — basic things like grabbing stuff at the dining car would leave crew at a loss — simply because of the language barrier. ▶
As of late, I’ve been downloading uTalk language iApps like crazy. I desperately want those in Manju gisun (the Manchu language), Shanghainese, Tianjinese and Persian / Farsi, but already, I’m happy with the set I have: Cantonese, Tibetan, Swiss-German, French, Italian, Romansh, Spanish, Portuguese, Brasilero, Dutch, Korean, Latin, Arabic, Russian, Swedish, Bengali, Greek, Hebrew, Hindu, Indonesian, Irish, Japanese, Luxembourgish, Mongolian, Thai, Turkish, Vietnamese and Esperanto. (That’s 28 in all. It’s scary for a start…)
That encompasses my “6+4” lingo list: the ten languages I know. They include the core languages (English and Mandarin Chinese), all four Swiss national languages (German, French, Italian and Romansh), as well as Spanish, Korean, Dutch and Latin. (Tibi optima gracias ago — thanks in Latin — for bearing with me this long…) ▶