x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Chinese traditionalists fear rush to English

Concerns grow over preserving the purity of indigenous culture as an increasing number of English words make inroads into Chinese.

Diao Jun, a rubbish collector, feels his English is good enough to land him a better job.
Diao Jun, a rubbish collector, feels his English is good enough to land him a better job.

BEIJING // As Diao Jun throws rubbish into his pedal-powered dustcart, a small radio plays in the background. This may be the Chinese capital, but in between songs, the DJs on the radio do not chat in Mandarin Chinese. On Easy FM, the Beijing station Mr Diao prefers to listen to, they chat in English.

And each evening, after he gets home from shovelling rubbish at an apartment block near Beijing's central business district, Mr Diao, 43, likes to spend an hour or so practising the world's lingua franca. "I think my English is good enough to look for a good job," he said. "So many people like to speak English. International communication is becoming more and more common." As well as speaking English well, Mr Diao also occasionally drops in English words when he talks in his native language. Ask him how he is in Chinese and he may reply "so-so" in English. Many others do the same, in written as well as spoken Chinese, and it is causing alarm in a country where, as in the Arab world, language is intimately bound up with culture, history and traditions.

At the recent National People's Congress, China's annual parliament, there were calls for English words and abbreviations such as CEO (chief executive officer) and GDP (gross domestic product) to be banned from speeches and documents by senior government officials. Setting up a group to translate such terms into Chinese was also proposed, because the English phrases are often incorporated into Chinese as there is no universally accepted translation.

The growth of the internet, the importation of foreign goods with labels in English and possibly the opening of more foreign restaurants and coffee shops with bilingual menus have hastened the incorporation of foreign words into Mandarin and other dialects, although it has long been common in Hong Kong Cantonese. Sun Yuwen, a professor of Chinese literature at Peking University, said the "blending and borrowing" of English words had been taking place since Deng Xiaoping began the "opening up" of China in the late 1970s. While the National People's Congress raised concerns 10 years ago, Mr Sun said recently it had become "a very hot topic", particularly among scholars.

"It's because the strength of China is increasing and they have more self-pride in their language," he said. "They feel, as one of the oldest civilisations on the planet, we have an obligation to preserve the purity of the language and the purity of the culture." The increasing use of English words in written and spoken Chinese comes as the learning of English as a second language becomes ever more popular in China.

English is now a compulsory subject in primary schools and as many as 300 million Chinese study the language, with the 2008 Beijing Olympics having added to the English-speaking frenzy. One of the country's top English-language teachers, Li Yang, famous for his "Crazy English" classes, has lectured to arenas holding as many as 10,000 people. With this level of fervour, those who believe Chinese should be preserved without foreign influence face an uphill battle, especially since young people in particular seem unconcerned about English's growing influence.

"In my circle [of friends and colleagues] a lot of people speak English - one Chinese sentence and one English sentence. I think it's a good thing," said Ding Junyuan, 24, who works in the insurance sector in Beijing. According to Xu Nan, 26, a travel agency employee in the Chinese capital, people use English words or phrases "because it's fashionable". "It's unnecessary to restrict or take measures to curtail it," he said. "Our language has a long history and it's deeply rooted in our culture, so it's not needed."

A similar view is taken by Cai Jianfen, the editor-in-chief of one of China's largest publishers, the Foreign Language Teaching and Research Press, which mostly produces English-language books. Mr Cai said the "inevitable" use of English words "will not threaten the authority of the mother tongue". In any case, he believes as more people are able to speak English, fewer people will choose to mix English in with Chinese.

"Those who do so are likely to be criticised for showing off their English," he said, adding that language learning was "a two-way thing" and that just as more Chinese can speak English, so more foreigners were coming to the world's most populous nation to learn Chinese. Chinese government figures show that in 2009, there were more than 230,000 foreign students in China - a record - up 6.6 per cent on the previous year and more than 50 per cent more than the 2005 figure of 141,000. Last year 68 per cent of students came from Asia, 15 per cent from Europe and 10.7 per cent from the Americas. Figures for previous years indicate that more than half of foreign students come to study Mandarin.

While recognising that many fellow scholars are worried, Mr Sun at Peking University agrees that concerns have been overblown. He said the "lending" of words between languages had a long history in Europe as well as China. "In the Tang dynasty [between the years 618 to 907], we borrowed phrases from Buddhism," he said. "As long as the borrowing of words and phrases does not affect the Chinese way of thinking, that's the most important thing.

"The Chinese language is very resilient and most of the Chinese language elements, like grammar and basic vocabulary, are not affected by the use of English words." dbardsley@thenational.ae