Chinese speakers: WASH your English

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: 

  • tense
  • article
  • number, and
  • gender.

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.


4 thoughts on “Chinese speakers: WASH your English

  1. Problems with tense aren’t peculiar to Chinese speakers learning English. English speakers have problems with Spanish tenses too.

    In English we can say I went to Grandma’s yesterday and I went to Grandma’s every Sunday but in Spanish they’d use a different form of the past for having gone yesterday and having made several visits over time.

    They also have two forms of the verb to be, ser and estar. There are rules about which to use – ser is usually for permanent things (name, nationality)and estar is usually for temporary things (location, mood) but there are exceptions which make it really difficult for students because it’s not something you can understand, you just have to learn it.

    Interestingly, they use estar which is usually for temporary states with dead – I wonder if that has anything to do with the Catholic influence and belief in an after life?

    I’ve noticed Spanish speakers often say she when they mean he too – I think it’s because they sound similar and they forget which is which.

  2. Fascinating, homepaddock.

    My Taiwanese wife got her degree in Spanish. Iris has always said it was an easy language to learn compared with English.

    But then I suppose every language is.

  3. Iris obviously knows a lot more about Spanish than I do.

    However, while Spanish pronunciation is regular so much easier than it is for English, I think our grammar is definitely simpler. We don’t have to worry about gender for nouns nor matching the gender and number of adjectives to the nouns they describe; we don’t alter verbs for imperatives and we rarely use the subjunctive.

  4. Korean speakers don’t have problems with tenses, their problem is that subject is often omitted because it is assumed that the speakers know who or what the speaker is talking about. Actually just about anything obvious is omitted to a Korean speaker.

    Eng I am going to my house by car.

    Kor, Car by house go

    The rest of the examples you give are rather pertinent.

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