Tag Archives: language

Come Magnificent With Me!

You can’t help but love Chinglish.  It’s so much fun.  I mean this in the most respectful and affectionate way.  The fact that so many things even have English translations is so very considerate. How often do you drive down the road and see a sign with Mandarin characters advertising a new park and child play area? That’s right. Not many.  The delightful way these signs and posters are often translated makes for a language almost its own. Of course, I’m speaking of ‘Chinglish’.

There are signs in English for a reason – if you’re going to advertise, you better speak the language of your target audience. If you want western tourists to use your travel services it would be best to not use exclusively Chinese.

It probably won’t be too long and the typo’s will be corrected, the grammar fixed , and all the signs corrected by a native speaker. Until then, I will revel in the mis-use of whatever online translator they’re using.

Walk down the street and see a little hole-in-the-wall store front with a sign “Cigarettes – Wine – Beer – Perfume – Firm “.  What on EARTH is ‘Firm’?  Firm what?? The friend I was walking with suggested maybe it had been a mis-translation (obviously) and they meant something like “Corporation” – not ‘firm’ as in the adjective (‘firm’ tofu), but the noun (law ‘firm’).  Even if this is so, it was a funny way to write the sign. “Cigarettes – Beer – Shop”.

The title of this post I saw on a billboard while taking a taxi across town. Unfortunately I wasn’t fast enough to get a picture. The billboard had a cartoon character girl leaping in the air with the caption, “Come magnificent with me!!”  Apparently, magnificent-ing is exactly what happens when you visit a nearby park that features not just a playground but small amusement rides and paddle boats and whatever else one can do in a monster sized park.

Let me share some of my other recent favorites :


I couldn’t really decide if it was a translation flaw … or if it really IS a foot massage museum!  I really want to think it’s a ‘foot massage salon‘ or something of the type. I haven’t yet worked up enough courage to take the steps leading down the basement and find out – I’ll get back to you though. Perhaps it would be even more amazing if it were a foot massage museum. Apparently there IS a museum of ‘tap water’ (perhaps they meant ‘plumbing’?) – I saw it in a guide book.


While walking along one of the lake-parks near the forbidden city I spotted this sign. Interesting because according to the pictures one must “Not pollute the water”, then “Not leave your children unattended” and finally, “do not litter”. However according to what the text is telling me (as it is somewhat difficult to read from the photo) I must “Keep the lake clean”, and “Behave in a proper manner” (This phrasing is especially Chinese), and “Behave in a proper manner”.  Not surprising that in a culture where ritual and deference to one’s elders is so important, “behaving in a proper manner” is twice as important as not littering.


The third sign I found in the window of a woman’s clothing shop. Quite frankly, I’m more than a little baffled as to what it is trying to tell me. In their defense, it’s not so important what it says because the concept of walking in the shop and buying something was pretty self-evident. But these are the most confusing types of signs.  Sometimes you see words in English, and the message they’re trying to convey is just completely dumbfounding. “What do you suppose I’m supposed to do/not do ??”.

Frankly, I magnificent that I am daily entertained by the Chinglish language. I’ll probably be back to you soon with further discoveries. Until then, do remember to Behave In a Proper Manner!



I checked the Chinese characters for the Foot Message Museum – and guess what! It really IS a museum!  crazy! Apparently the last character, 馆 “guan”, means museum.



Filed under life in china, out and about

One day I’ll wake up and….

I sometimes have the feeling that one morning I’ll just wake up and be able to speak and understand Chinese fluently.

This is, of course absurd.  Chinese, like any language, requires an immense amount of rote study and memorization.  In a lot of ways, Chinese is worse than most languages. The list of characters, although limited, must just be memorized. There are some clues to their meaning sometimes, but in the end, there’s no way around the heaps of memorization.

Why, you might ask, do I have this feeling? That someday I’ll just be able to speak it – or at least understand it?  This is what I mean.

There are roughly 12,000 syllables in the English language (this is by no means a scientific answer, but just my quick online research). Some are less frequently used, but for the most part English has a fairly varied phonetic structure, and leaves room for a number of ways to arrange letters to form a sound. Most letters can form both the beginning and ends of syllables (pal as well as lap are legitimate syllables), most consonants are allowed to be grouped together (squawk), and both vowels and consonants are legitimate beginners and enders of syllables.

Chinese, however, is much more strict. Only certain letters are allowed to be at the beginning of syllables and only certain ones at the end (usually a vowel, n or ng). The number of syllables that exist in chinese therefore shrinks down to around 400. 400 syllables – for an entire language!

But here’s the rub. Chinese is what we call a tonal language. Which means, if you say “Shi” with a vocal inflection upward, downward, flat, or down-then-up you can be communicating to your unsuspecting Chinese friend one of some 82 different meanings. 82! There are four different tonal marks for any syllable, and often (even usually) the same syllable with the same tonal mark can mean a few different things depending on context.

I dare you to check this out. Go to this website , and type in, say ‘shi’, and see what meanings you get out. Some two-thirds of the way down the list in the ‘falling tone’ mark you’ll see “is, are, am, yes, to be” – which is the most common meaning, along with, the number 10,  and “o’clock”.  You will notice though, that although the syllable you hear may be the same, there are again a multitude of different characters than can convey this sound when read.  It’s no easy feat.

Also, you can look at this site, which is an amateur, but fairly reasonable attempt to list out all the possible Chinese syllables. They can fit on your screen in one browser page!

What I’m getting at is this: for the untrained ear, (one that isn’t good at hearing the tones in the language – and let me tell you — It’s a trick!) when you listen to Chinese – you don’t hear too many sounds.  Along with this, I don’t usually get the impression that verbal creativity holds very much import.

In English the variety of the language lends to creative ways to say essentially the same thing, and thus makes it a very resourceful and imaginative tongue.  Chinese on the other hand, elevates the power of simplicity – the elegance of directness.  There simply isn’t such an overwhelming vocabulary in Chinese, and it seems ‘high-use’ words fill most of conversation.

So, if I just keep listening, (and golly I do a lot of listening!) one day I should be able to wake up and … you know… pretty much understand it!  Here’s to hoping!


1 Comment

Filed under language school

Why I struggle to write chinese (reason #14)

My handwriting can be described as ‘school boy’ at best. Not in any way what I would think of as feminine. The grace and elegance I once tried to cultivate in other areas of my life have somehow eluded me when it comes to my pen.

This is of course nothing unique to me, when you consider it in light of my generation of techies. Where once school marms spent hours on the proper instruction of penmanship, I remember being set behind computer programs like “Mavis Beacon.” I scrambled to punch in numbers for an imaginary conveyor belt of food item prices, and fumble for the correct keys while trying to out-type an imaginary opponent in a virtual race-car that ran on words per minute instead of gasoline.

Needless to say, learning to type took over the time that would have been spent in the practice of attractive penmanship.  It’s more than that though. My typing speed outstripped my handwriting in those early years before adolescence, and now I find it ever so tedious to use a pen and paper – which means I avoid all practice. When it comes to writing out thoughts and stories – a pen is out of the question. Thinking is  easier when not hindered by the medium being used to record it.

Lately, I’ve been trying to discipline myself to spend more time studying Chinese.  With the study of Chinese comes of course the study of the characters. Oh China, how you do torture me!  When I was studying French at least I could spell out the word, even if I hadn’t a clue what it meant. If I wanted to do more than just pronounce it I could easily look up anything in a dictionary. Chinese, on the other hand, seems very much a binary kind of language. You either know it or you don’t. And if you don’t, well, ya ain’t gonna fool no one.

You really do start from the bottom with Chinese. Although learning to read has always been difficult this is an entirely different planet. You either know it or you don’t. No sounding it out like a pussy. To it’s credit, once you’ve learned the first 500 basic symbols, there aren’t going to be too many more unknown words to you. Unlike in English, you’re much less likely to stumble across random words like sesquipedalian and poppysmic. Linguistic creativity is an art the Chinese language doesn’t look highly upon.

“You think Chinese is hard!!” my mandarin teacher told us once in class.

“You make English sooooo dIIficult!! Why so complicated!? Chandelier, giraffe?! All these extra words. In Chinese, we don’t have chANdelEAr. We use ‘fancy lamp’. And Giraffe!! What is girAAffe? We just have ‘long-necked deer’. So simple! You only need to learn first set of characters, and you know all language”.

It’s true. I never once sat in Chinese and thought ‘Dang. I wish they’d make it simple like English.’ It is all rather straightforward. That is, if you’ve got the rote memorization thing down.  That is a skill I, as a physicist, eschewed in my undergraduate career. Unfortunately. It’s also a skill that is no longer cultivated in American schools, and as a result…  I have a lot of practice to do.

So if you’ll excuse me…  I need to go memorize a list of characters.

Leave a comment

Filed under language school, life in china