Beyond Chinglish

Ho Chi Minh City, VIETNAM

If I may, I’d like to begin this blog on a somewhat superficial note. This entry has been in part inspired by the recent NY Times Op-Ed piece written by Andrew Jacobs, titled “Shanghai Is Trying to Untangle the Mangled English of Chinglish”.¹  Jacobs enumerates the countervailing stances with regards to the plentitude of public signs, menu mishaps, and various traffic signals, etc. etc., which now fall under this umbrella we refer to as Chinglish.

It seems the majority of concerned citizens, public servants, and curious passersby, throughout the Southeast Asian region would like to change these mistranslations for the better, both to avoid further confusion and to move beyond what some perceive as lamentable error. Take for example China’s massive reform effort to replace hundreds of thousands of street signs and public notices leading up to the Beijing Olympics in August 2008. No doubt this spared many tourists, visitors, and professionals, a great deal of bewilderment.

But there are others who have taken up the flag of defending this unique adaptation of language, a product of the era of rapid globalization and massive urban development that is unable to keep up with the level of English fluency necessary to preclude any margin of error in translation. These staunch guardians of the Chinglish “language” – if we might call it that – emerging as it is from the relationship between languages put into an uneasy and tumultuous relationship, see it as other dying byproduct of the World Is Flat syndrome. As we trample out minority language after language ad infinitum with the rat race that is globalization, the Chinglish supporters argue that we lose sight of a window into the mode in which different cultures like the Chinese fundamentally view language itself.

In a brilliant pan-ethnic lecture series on various ancient wisdoms around the globe, Nat. Geo. Explorer in Residence Wade Davis comes to the defense of these waning bastions of cultural and linguistic richness.² He appeals, perhaps a little too sentimentally, to our romantic conscience, begging the reader not to overlook this great loss: language extinction reduces the “entire range of the human imagination…to a more narrow modality of thought”.³

In my own experience as an English teacher living in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam for two years, and traveling around Southeast Asia extensively, I have myriad examples of menu mistranslations, public notice goof-ups, and conversational inaccuracies to point to. Here are a few of my favorite and most illustrative ones:

Example 1: In a public park in downtown Ho Chi Minh City can be found the following sign:

No! walk on grass!
No! fly kite!
No! play games!

It seems a crude gesture at restricting the free activity of park-goers, but it gets the job done, albeit moving many a tourist to snap a quick photo of the sign in good humor.

Example 2: Sitting down at one street-side restaurant in the tourist district near the park, I found this appealing dish in my menu: “Fried Crap”. It produced a good laugh with my friends, and our guess was correct: what the proprietor had meant was, indeed, Fried Crab.

Jogging in a public park once, I was asked by an elderly man who shared my stride, “How national are you?” I paused momentarily but instantly understood the slip-up he was making, and I replied, America. Though I wanted to engage him with a lengthy English lesson, I was halfway in to my routine run in the park, a state in which I am neither bubbly nor loquacious.

And when someone repeats the oft-heard “same same but different” Southeast Asian near-axiom, I don’t laugh and use it again. It would be hypocritical of my case to reinforce the trend.

It is my opinion that the emerging languages of Chinglish, or Vietnam-English for that matter, reflect amateurism where there is need for linguistic improvement. The naïve sentimentality with which proponents of recording and saving these aberrations make their case only serves to cloud the issue at stake. Why do we applaud those putting forth a sincere effort to master English, who are in fact leaps and bounds away from functional fluency? This position encourages complacency with a maladapted, broken form of the English language, and it reifies those errors indelibly. To disparage Chinglish and Vietnam-English as I may be doing is not simply cultural egotism or linguistic ethnocentrism. It is rather the concerned efforts of an experienced English teacher trying to gradually correct and mend the profound confusion and innocent error that goes into the arduous process of learning any language.

Let’s not unduly laud the B- markmanship, the 7-out-of-10 score, and the sometimes humorous mishaps, of other cultures’ diligent efforts to master English. It would be wrong to stop there. Instead, let us push forward at this critical juncture of cultural and inter-lingual communications and make steady progress toward a fuller appreciation of linguistic fluency around the globe.

¹Jacobs, The New York Times, 3 May 2010. <>.

²Davis, Wade.  The Wayfinders: Why Ancient Wisdom Matters in the Modern World (CBC Massey Lecture), Toronto: House of Anansi Press, 2009.

³Davis, “”On endangered cultures”.” TED Talks. Monterey, CA. Feb 2003. Lecture. 22 Oct 2009. <>.

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5 Responses to Beyond Chinglish

  1. Hunter3 says:

    How you speak great? I very much like.

  2. Alex says:

    Hunter, good discussion here. At first I thought you were going to end up defending Chinglish as a viable linguistic product of a global world. I’m glad you didn’t. It is one thing to have languages inform one another due to years of cultural intermarriage (see English in India: Still all the Raj by Pico Iyer, an excellent discussion of how Colonialism works both ways in effecting culture and language: It is another to defend a “language” as valid and worth saving simply because of poor translation. I, will, however, defend to the death “Fried Crap”.

  3. Pingback: Masters of Propaganda « Where the Buffalo Roam

  4. zlew says:

    me viet na mee, youu. you

  5. Pingback: 2010 in Review | Where the Buffalo Roam

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