By Jacqueline McEwan
Which would you choose from this range of sauces on display in a Shanghai restaurant?
- peru system red pepper sauce
- the peppery shrimp slips
- lives pulls out the soy sauce
- at the end of coriander
- explodes the garlic deer velvet
…and do you have a favourite from my Top 10 ‘Chingrish’ delights?
10 Stinky tofu (menu)
9 Rich People Internet Bar
8 Bring Forth ID card (hotel reception)
7 Fragile (clothes shop)
6 Clumsy Craftsman (nick nack shop)
5 Carefully, bang head (airport escalator)
4 Caution: risk of pinching hand (underground train sliding doors)
3 No admittance to persons with slippery dress (entrance to a bank)
2 Declined with thanks: beverage, sloppily dressed (book shop)
1 Happy ending massage (ad in Shanghai Daily)
I was in China, travelling from city to city on a training trip and became fascinated by these curious expressions, all of which have no doubt been through one sort of translation programme or another. Much of this is anecdotal, but all are genuine examples of what’s ‘out there’ and some of it involves systematic errors, affecting form.
So the China visit’s got me thinking. As they make their presence felt on the world stage, with people saying China will overtake the US economy in 20 years, we can only wonder at the effect they may have on EIL.
What follows isn’t a theory or suggestion I’m putting forward, but just a contribution to the discussion that’s out there on EIL (English as an International Language) and ELF (English as a Lingua Franca). It will do more to raise questions than provide answers, as I struggle to find where I stand on it all.
Is it ok that people speak a ‘strange’ or simplified version of our language? Well, there’s a problem right there. It’s not our language any more, is it? It’s not something we as native speakers can decide on. It’s just for us to respond as teachers, to reflect on the implications of what’s happening to English.
When talking to the Chinese teachers I was training, I found myself automatically simplifying what I said. Communicating in English seemed as much about my survival as theirs. I found myself saying ‘maybe they will’ rather than ‘it’s likely they’ll’ or even ‘they might’.
Similarly, in what has seemed a pragmatic and successful ‘if you can’t beat them join them’ approach, I’ve heard others saying ‘I can go…’ without the schwa sound in the weak form to get their point across to local staff in the office…though we still teach ‘I can go’ with schwa. So in my teaching, I model the weak form, often saying to myself that even if it’s not useful for production, it’s good listening training, but then might compromise and say the other, rendering my highlighting of the schwa rather redundant.
What’s developing in India, in China, in Korea, is a simpler form that can be more easily learned and used, that still does the job. It seems less and less appropriate to talk in terms of ‘broken English’ and my words when giving pronunciation input sessions on CELTA courses come back to me: the important thing is intelligibility, not to sound like a native speaker…can we say this applies to form as well as to pronunciation? My trainee Karina from Germany says ‘If somebody would have told me…’ and I understand her perfectly.
So de-grammaticised/ungrammaticised forms such as the lovely ‘account non-exists’ – as I try to log onto the internet ‘wideband’ in my Shanghai hotel – allow the Chinese to make themselves understood without the pain, inconvenience and expense of learning to use an auxiliary verb. Borrowing a prefix from an adjective as an alternative to the auxiliary, as on this sign on the grass in a Chinese park could also work: I like your smile but I unlike you put your shoes on my face’.
Perhaps it’s not so much de-grammaticised as pre-grammar. In the Shanghai metro, a guy looks at his mobile on the escalator as it tells him ‘you got message’. My masseuse tells me ‘massage finish’ and I understand her perfectly. Then back in London, I take time to develop my students’ use of the present perfect – pointless?
Here, we already do it, in the note form used in announcements and instructions. On the 88 from Clapham (does that make me the ‘woman on the Clapham Omnibus’?) I hear the automated voice: ‘please stand well clear of doors’. So we already have a use for the zero article form, might that convince EIL speakers it’s correct, and make the transition easier for us?
The big question that came to me was: the whole Chinese nation’s in a race to learn English, but are they going to learn from us fast enough, before their own brand of EIL sets in? We know millions are learning it our way to get an IELTS 6.5 and so achieve the prize of university entry in the UK. But the bottom line is that for most other things, doing business for the world, for example, will something simpler suffice, even work better, suiting their purpose more effectively? If it’s a race, should we take the opportunity while we still have it, to expose them to the English we feel is an acceptable standard, before that standard is itself irrelevant?
Can we differentiate between speaking and writing here, as speaking needs to be simpler to facilitate prompt comprehension and response, but a more complex written form can be more easily understood with the luxury of time.
What about our rich language? Catherine Bennett, writing in The Observer says that the British seem ready to concede that the mastery of their language has been greatly overrated. It seems to me that British English won’t die, it’s just that not everyone will have at their fingertips ten words for how their food tastes, they’ll have two because that’s all they’ll need to make their point. We’ll continue to enjoy choosing from our range of ten words, and we might draw a parallel with the ‘pure Spanish’ of parts of central Spain such as Leon. Our journalism will still be of the same quality – and we’ll still be eloquent at dinner parties, but will we ourselves have to learn a different, simpler English to be understood by the rest of the world?