Chinglish – the influence of English in China?

by YPU Admin on February 27, 2014. Tags: languages, Research, and undergraduate

Our ‘Undergraduate Research’ section will provide an insight into research conducted at an undergraduate level and feature case studies of undergraduate researchers at the University of Manchester.

Introduction 

Hello! My name is Susie Jones, and I graduated from The University of Manchester in 2013 with a joint honours degree in English Language and Chinese.

The topics I studied in English were very different from those studied in 6th form – there was a greater focus on linguistics (the scientific study of language). Although different, I found it really interesting and decided to focus my studies on language variation in my final year. I was interested in how and why certain groups of people speak differently, whether these differences have changed over time and across space, and whether they have an impact on people’s attitudes towards language.

As for the Chinese side of my course, I started studying it from scratch and my year abroad in China inspired me to find out more about the language and how it works. Although writing a research dissertation wasn’t a compulsory element of my course, I felt it would be a good way to get a deeper understanding of the language I was learning and develop a range of skills.


My research

While I was in China, I noticed that people often used different words for the same thing. Not a particularly strange phenomenon (this occurs frequently in English too), but I found it odd that in Chinese, some of these would sound quite similar to English. For instance, a bus would sometimes be called ‘gong-gong-chee-chur’ but could also be called ‘ba-suh’, which is obviously inspired by the English pronunciation.

There are lots of examples of these two languages ‘borrowing’ from each. Did you know, the saying “long time no see” is actually taken from Chinese? It’s a result of language contact as the world becomes smaller and people have become more geographically mobile.

So I set about putting together a questionnaire to test whether Chinese speakers in China were more likely to use an ‘Englishised’ version of a word (one that sounds similar to English), or an indigenous equivalent (one that is originally made from Chinese sounds).  My supervisor (a specialist in language variation and change) helped me design a questionnaire  to test the words that speakers would use, which included naming pictures, filling in gaps and judging the acceptability of sentences containing ‘Englishised’ words.

The questionnaire was sent to 72 Chinese speakers in China who were of a range of different ages, came from different areas of China and had varying levels of education. This way, I would be able to see whether these three variables would have an effect on the words that they chose.


Conclusion

Before doing the research, I had predicted that a speaker’s age, location and level of education would have an impact on whether they chose a more ‘Englishised’ word or not. However, my results showed that these factors didn’t have much of a bearing on their linguistic choices. Rather, speakers were more sensitive to the deeper linguistic characteristics of the word itself (the number of syllables or location of stress for example). With further research, these types of findings could have a significant impact on the work of translators, dictionary writers and those who work on language policy.

Overall, the influence of English in mainland China has not been as extensive as it has been in other Chinese speaking regions such as Hong Kong and Taiwan, which have been historically more open to the rest of the world. It’s a nice example of how socio-political circumstance can have an impact on the way we speak and demonstrates how language is intrinsically connected with the way the world works. 

Any time you think some other language is strange, remember that yours is just as strange - you're just used to it.
Linguistic Mystic.

Going further

For more information about the English Language and Linguistics courses at the University of Manchester, click here.

For information about languages at the University of Manchester, click here.

Mandarin Chinese isn’t as difficult as you might think! Find out why here.

There are many reasons to study languages - find out why here.

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