NKOLE NKOLE, Beijing
AFTER crossing the border into another country, language is the next barrier that must be crossed.
Although Mandarin Chinese is the official language of mainland China, English is becoming more widely used, especially since China’s Open Door policy was set in motion in December 1978 and opened up the country to the rest of the world.
It is perhaps the Chinese way of adapting to the global society that it is now a part of, by incorporating the most commonly used language in the world.
Incorrect English phrases, however, are nearly everywhere in China – on street signposts, in public restrooms, hotel rooms, restaurants and even at tourist sites.
Take for instance the incorrect phrase “Visitors No Go To” to mean “No Visitors Beyond This Point”, which you find printed on a sign post at the former residence of China’s first Premier, Zhou Enlai in Chongqing city.
Another one is printed on glass panels at the Chongqing International Airport and it reads, “Carefully Glass”, as a caution to travellers not to touch the panels.
Yet another example is from a Chinese hotel room with a sign reading, “People leave, Power off!” as a tip to hotel guests to switch off the power when leaving a room.
Aside from the erroneously worded signage, navigating the language barrier in China is still largely a challenge for many English speakers, which makes commuting using local transport quite the adventure.
If you are using the metro, chances are you can get away with saying very little. As long as you know the bus stop at which to disembark, getting to your destination should not be too complicated.
Hopping on a taxi, on the other hand, may be slightly more challenging but if you already have a specific address jotted on a piece of paper, the driver can use it to locate the address via Baidu Maps, the Chinese equivalent of Google Maps.
The remaining task would be to negotiate the fare using very elementary English which should be less of a struggle once the taxi driver has calculated the distance to your destination.
Shopping at malls or the pharmacy can be a frustrating experience as well if sellers of products cannot speak English but an online translator helps. Young people in China who cannot speak English use online translators to communicate with strangers. The conversation gets stifled after only a few minutes, but at least there will be a slightly longer exchange beyond just “Ni Hao Ma”, which is Chinese for “How are you?”
In restaurants like KFC or Macdonald’s you may be lucky to find a couple of Chinese people who can converse in English and help you make an order. It’s easier this way if you want certain chicken pieces or extra ketchup or are eating in rather than ordering a take-out.
In shopping areas of Beijing like the Silk and Pearl markets which draw many shoppers of different nationalities, English is more widely heard among the traders. This makes the process of bargaining easier even though a lot of inappropriate phrases or words may pop up and make the experience a tad uncomfortable but also hilarious.
“English is not our first language, so sometimes we do not use it correctly,” admits Kang Jincheng, who is a former general director of the International Cooperation Bureau of the Chinese Academy of Engineering.
Mr Kang is middle-aged with worldly knowledge and speaks fluent English. Many Chinese of his generation are unable to converse in English, but by contrast, many young Chinese can speak English today because it is included in the curriculum of different schools.
Zhang Huijuan is one such Chinese who is presently studying Foreign Linguistics at the Beijing Language and Culture University.
She started learning English at the age of nine while in Grade Three and says it has taken her years of practice to speak English at her present rate of proficiency.
Also born and bred in China but a fluent speaker of English is 28-year-old Dong Weiwei who points out that China’s Open Door policy is making it possible for more and more Chinese to learn English.
“Before the policy China was not as open as it is today, so people didn’t need to speak English because our only interactions as Chinese were with fellow Chinese. The older generation Chinese didn’t have too many chances to meet foreigners,” Dong explains.
After the reform and opening up policy, Chinese people began visiting countries outside China and foreigners also started to visit China.
“This is when we noticed that English is very necessary for us to communicate with friends from different countries and since then the English course was introduced in our education system,” she shares.
English lessons begin at different grades in different cities and provinces. While Dong was in kindergarten, she was taught the English alphabet and by grade one had mastered all of its 26 letters.
In Grade Three she began doing English oral lessons organised by her primary school and taught by a foreign teacher of English who was hired solely to help with oral English communication.
Chinese students spend six years in primary school, three years in junior school and another three years in high school.
While Dong was doing her second year of junior school, French was also added to her school syllabus although it was only taught for a year and more priority was still given to English as the most widely spoken language internationally. Dong continued to learn English even while pursuing her undergraduate degree.
“From my own experience, although we kept learning English for many years, it was not sufficient. After my Bachelor’s degree I moved to the UK for three years and my English became more fluent because there, you know, I had to use it every day,” she says.
Learning the techniques and grammar of a language is important to Dong but she thinks the most important bit is still the practice.
After China’s Open Door policy was established, Dong’s father got lucky. The National College Entrance Examination commonly called Gaokao in China was introduced following high school graduation.
If one passed this exam, it meant they could study at a higher learning institution. When Dong’s father passed the exam and qualified to go to university, he began learning English at university.
“That’s why he is very grateful to Deng Xiaoping, who led the reform and opening up policy,” she shares.
Like Zhang, Zhao Lin began learning English in grade three but struggled with it until the fourth year of primary school when she began taking extra classes.
Eventually she became one of the best English speakers in her class, motivating her to later pursue an undergraduate degree in Language at the Beijing Language and Culture University.
“My major is teaching Chinese to speakers of other languages. That means I should use English to teach Chinese,” Zhao explains.
From her experience and through interacting with people from other parts of the world, she believes anyone who wants to speak English fluently must study it by themselves.
To become a more confident speaker of English, Zhao watched movies and sang songs done in English and when she went to university, she had the chance to speak it regularly through interaction with foreign students.
Dong explains that logic and culture also play a part in one’s adaptability to a language, which is why some jokes may be found funny in one culture and offensive in another.
“That’s why Chinese people sometimes feel that foreigners are more straightforward than Chinese people,” she says.
Interestingly, although many young Chinese learn English during both their primary and high school years and are assessed through grammar and audio tests, they still cannot speak it. The reason for this, according to Dong and Zhao, is lack of practice by speaking with foreign English speakers and the Chinese people’s natural habit of being shy.
But with China’s Open Door policy clocking 40 years this month and more Chinese travelling to various parts of the world than ever before, that shyness is slowly fading. This should in turn lead to less peculiar wording on signposts.
Speaking English in China
NKOLE NKOLE, Beijing