I was the guest speaker at China Toastmasters in Taipei a few years ago.
My topic was The Crazy English Language.
I desperately wanted to be of use to these brave people. (Learning to speak in public is hard enough, let alone in your second language.)
So I sweated for three weeks to think of what I could say that would help them in their heroic efforts to master my mother tongue.
Nothing happened in my head that was remotely useful.
Then at 3pm on the day of the speech that was due to start at 6pm, it finally dawned on me what I should do.
I’d write a poem about the mistakes Chinese people make in English, and how they can avoid them.
I worked out there are four parts of speech that they typically scramble and cause us confusion:
- number, and
Iris told me why.
It’s because they don’t use these devices in Chinese.
For example, say a Chinese speaker is telling you about something happening yesterday, today or tomorrow.
They’ll establish which day it is right upfront, at the start of the sentence.
Then they’ll just stick with the normal present tense after that.
They’ll say, “Yesterday I go to beach”.
They quite logically wonder why the stupid English speaker would want to bother with ‘went’ or ‘was going’, when ‘go’ is really all you need.
And if it’s tomorrow that you’re doing the going, why waste valuable brainpower putting together ‘I will go’ or ‘I will be going’?
‘I go’ works just fine there too.
(You’ll see they also see no need for a ‘the’.)
That, in short, is why Chinese speakers speak English in shorthand. They’re just being logical.
(Mind you, I’m not sure that logic always holds true. I had to politely correct my China Toastmasters introducer for saying, “Our next speaker, she is from New Zealand.”)
For those Taiwanese and Chinese friends who want to be more clearly understood in English, memorise this little rhyming checklist:
WASH your English
Was or will be?
A or the?
S or no S?
He or she?
© J Ansell 2004
If you’re a linguist with Chinese experience, you may wish to expand on this, as I’m by no means an expert.