Barun Roy / New Delhi July 17, 2008, 0:12 IST
During the Olympics, Beijing will speak English English.
Long time no see" has become such a colloquial greeting among friends and acquaintances meeting after a long lapse of time that one forgets it has a Chinese origin. There are many other examples of a Chinese person's experiments with the English language that have come to be part of a growing global lexicon of bastard English. Terms like "Look-see," "Can do" (or its seemingly logical companion, "No can do"), and "No go" are now almost as legitimate as Chinese-origin words like tofu, honcho, typhoon, kowtow, chopsuey, and gung ho that litter the English dictionary and nobody sneers about.
But some other Chinglish expressions remain the butt of popular ridicule. "Travellers' Tales" in the Far Eastern Economic Review used to be full of them at one time. Like a "Left-Hand-Luggage Office" in Lanzhou, a factory selling "Copulation Accessories" in Guangdong, a "Complacent Industrial Co. Ltd." in Hong Kong, a "Brain Disease Curing Set" in Shaanxi, and a "Mr. Beef Seafood Restaurant" in Beijing. Even now, petrol stations are often called "Oil Gates," a tobacco products store advertises itself as "An Excellent Winding Smoke", signs at public places might say "The slippery are very crafty", meaning slippery when wet, and Beijing restaurants offer "Mixed Chow with Garlic Mud".
It's this Chinglishness that the authorities in Beijing and other cities seem determined to wipe out by the time the summer Olympics begin next month. Under a programme called "Beijing Speaks to the World", a committee of 35 experts is supervising the Chinese capital's transition to English English. Road signs have already been standardised. Beijing's "Hospital for Anus and Intestine Disease" is now called Hospital for Proctology. Outdoor advertisers must check with the committee first to clear the text of their hoardings. Visiting foreigners are asked to report any mistakes they may come across. Taxi drivers have been told their annual licences won't be renewed unless they pass a mandatory English test.
Menus and guideposts in Beijing have already gone bilingual. Signboards in both Chinese and English are being erected at the city's 324 major tourist spots, and six million bilingual pocket maps have been printed for distribution at airports, hotels and Olympic venues. Even a handbook of "security English" has been prepared for the benefit of Olympic law and order personnel. Authorities hope some 35 per cent of Beijing's population will have a working knowledge of understandable English in time for the Olympics.
Says Chen Lin, head of the "Beijing Speaks to the World" programme: "We want everything to be correct. Grammar, words, culture, everything. We don't want anyone laughing at us."
The Olympics may be the immediate provocation, but even otherwise an English frenzy is sweeping China as it expands its links with the global community. It's believed some 50 million Chinese are currently engaged in learning foreign languages and discount stores selling foreign language books are cropping up in many places.
According to an official estimate, a record 200,000 Chinese students are expected to go abroad for studies in 2008. Last year, some 210,000 Chinese took the international English language test run by the British Council. The number was 50 per cent higher than in 2006.
Another country that has taken cue is South Korea. Reports say more than a third of Korean workers are learning English to improve their job prospects, and parents are sending even elementary school children to the US and Canada to learn the language. Some are even going to China. Usually they go for a couple of years and come back to continue their education at home.
At least 300 schools in Seoul have already set up well-equipped classrooms only to teach English. By 2010, every school in the city is supposed to have such designated classrooms. At the same time, South Korean universities are increasing the number of English courses to raise their students' international competitiveness.
Interestingly, North Koreans are showing an interest too. Some 5,000 of them reportedly took the standard test for English as a second language in 2007, triple the number that took it a year before.
But back to Chinglish. Getting rid of it won't be easy.
It isn't easy for us. There used to be a standard joke about the Benglish spoken by flower sellers at Kolkata's New Market: "Take take, no take no take, ekbar toh see!" Even in the late 1970s, a shop in the city's Baghbazar area, well known for its fried snacks, had this written on its bilingual signboard: "Bengal Famous Oil-Fried Shop". However, always too clever by half, we've now learnt to do better. We're deliberately mixing it up and making a virtue of it, calling it a GenX language that people easily understand. At least, that's the bahana. A recent example: "Rs 195 mein Tata to Tata unlimited baatein."
Something the Chinese could follow?