Thursday, April 2, 2009

China's Second Language

Fortunately for those of us who use or understand English, it is easier to get around in foreign countries than it used to be. English is becoming the international language. Certainly it is the language of international business. At Xi’an International Studies University in China where I teach, it is the most popular foreign language because students who have any desire for continuing contacts with the West (or to work for an international business) realize that English is essential. English is taught as a required subject in most schools in China at both the elementary and high school levels.


In fact, when mainland Chinese students learn English they actually have to learn two languages. That is because they have to learn an intermediate language called “pinyin.” This language converts Chinese characters into a phonetic version using the Latin or English alphabet. Thus the personal name of 杨晓华 is rendered as Yang Xiaohua in pinyin, which can then be read and understood by English speakers.

The use of computers has probably raised pinyin from being an obscure language system of interest only to linguists. The Chinese have their own software for creating documents in Chinese characters on the computer, but given the fact that they use the same “qwerty” keyboard as Westerns, there has to be an intermediate language. Using a Chinese language plug-in, the Chinese can use Microsoft Word to type in pinyin words and have them converted to a choice of Chinese characters. The writer then only has to select which Chinese characters are closest to his or her meaning and they become part of the text.

Furthermore, the Chinese have adopted the almost exclusive use of Arabic numerals in expressing numbers. I have been in business offices where accountants are working in large MS Exel spreadsheets where the words are in Chinese characters but the numbers are all the recognizable 1, 2, or 3. This is the numeral system used with mobile phones, sticker prices, advertising, and so on. The ancient Chinese numerals are rarely seen.

China’s Second Language

For these reasons, plus government urging, English has become the defacto second language of China. Most street signs in major cities and the directional signs on major highways are in both Chinese and English. This would be the equivalent of seeing all the signage along I-80 or the M-5 appear in English with Chinese subtitles.

English appears along with Chinese on the signs above many shops. In English-speaking countries this would happen only in Chinatown shopping districts.

The labeling in stores of products made by Western companies is usually in Chinese, but there is often enough English on the packaging (albeit in small lettering) to recognize what it is.


Nevertheless, the prevalence of English in China is only a thin veneer. Once you get away from the tourist or university environments the number of English-capable Chinese drops off radically. Although most young people have acquired some English proficiency in school, if they do not use it, the words evaporate.

So I have often been stuck when encountering a sea of Chinese writing I do not understand, such as a shelf of Chinese products in the grocery store where not one word is in English.

I have a similar feeling when confronted with a computer (such as in the computer labs where I sometime teach) where you know you are looking at a Windows XP screen because all the icons are recognizable but it is otherwise unreadable because all the words are in Chinese. I can navigate for awhile just using icons, but eventually I get down to screens with Chinese words only, and then I am stuck.

Sign Language

So what is an English-only-speaking person to do? It is amazing how much can be accomplished with sign language. One can think of a whole range of hand gestures and head shakes that can communicate yes or no, bigger or smaller, too much or too little. My wife and I bought a camera the other day where the two lovely young sales girls did not understand any English, and we did not understand any Chinese. We pointed out what camera we were interested in, and they showed it to us. The on-screen menu was all Chinese, but they were able to navigate to the settings in the camera that set English as the standard language.

They had a brochure in English that described the specifications of the camera, and we mutually went over the number of mega pixels, camera speed, zoom capability, etc, exclusively with head nods. They showed us the sticker price. A headshake and hand wave by us indicated that the price was too high. They handed us a small hand-held calculator where we punched in our counter price. A look of agony passed over their faces as if we were driving them to the poor house, and they typed in their counter-counter price. Then we looked pained. They threw in a camera case. We crunched more numbers. They threw in a flash card. Body language indicated they had nearly reached their limit. One final number was entered into the calculator and the deal was done. There were smiles and handshakes all around without a word of English having been spoken.


Written Chinese characters are beautiful, and they are very economical. You can express thoughts in only a few characters that it would take a sentence to express in English. I see them on signs and shops all around town expressed in multiple forms. Some are in block style, some in what we would call italics, and some in a flowing script. As with English letters, they can be written to evoke a sense of elegance on the one hand or in a comic style on the other.

Some of the characters are downright beautiful, and the Chinese take pains to make them even more so through the delicate art of calligraphy. To them calligraphy is art. The art museum in Shanghai has a gallery dedicated just to calligraphy.

Masters of calligraphy become famous, and books have been written about them and their styles, such as Chu Suiliang, a chancellor in the Tang Dynasty over a thousand years ago.1

In many of the parks around China, retired people can be seen practicing calligraphy by writing on the pavement with long brushes dipped in water or a stick with water-soaked padding on the end. They write long passages of poetry in water that then evaporates an hour later under the hot sun. To keep themselves alert, they write one passage with their right hand and then another with their left. It becomes a kind of Tai Chi for the mind.

There is much to appreciate about the Chinese language. It is strange and mysterious on the one hand and beautiful and appealing on the other. For an outsider like me, it seems like an only partially-blossomed flower whose true beauty can be revealed in full bloom only if I take the time to learn its secrets.

1 comment:

Leah said...

It's great to visit your blog, and get inspired by your words and special perspectives. I felt that Chinese language and culture began to mean much more to me than before, and I actually had never thought that my language was so unique and mysterious......