How English became such a dominant second language in China today

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In a comment to "An orgy of code-switching" (11/6/15), I wrote:

In connection with the ABC Chinese-English dictionary database which they wanted to buy, I had some dealings with Microsoft in China about 15 years ago. Already then, their internal language in the Beijing and Shanghai offices was English. Around the same time, I also had contact with several other major companies in China where the situation was exactly the same.

To go back even much further than the time I alluded to in that comment, more than three decades ago, around the early to mid-80s, China was a very different place from what it is now.  Streets were narrow, there were innumerable bicycles but no private cars, frogs were still croaking in rice fields in the Pudong district of Shanghai (where now soar some of the world's tallest buildings), the built-up area around Peking University called Zhongguancun was — as its name implies — still a dusty village, and nearby Haidian — now China's Silicon Valley — was an even sleepier place.

I remember — as one of the most poignant experiences of my life — running into a Boston College biochemistry professor in the Lanzhou airport and having a fascinating conversation about language with him.  In those days, Lanzhou was still very much a far western, backward backwater in the poor province of Gansu.  I went to Lanzhou often to visit the museum, the university, and scholars there, but more importantly because it was where I caught the smoky steam train to Dunhuang even farther west, some 500 kilometers away at the other end of the narrow province, and Dunhuang was where the manuscripts I spent the first 20 years of my scholarly career working on came from.

In those days, the Lanzhou airport was far from the then thin, long city that stretched for more than 60 kilometers along the banks of the Yellow River.  My recollection is that we had to drive a couple of hours along isolated, unpopulated roads leading into the loessial uplands where the airport was located on a dry, barren plateau.  The terminal was little more than a shed, quite unlike today's sprawling edifice through which fly millions of passengers every year.

There was only one other passenger in the waiting room, and the plane to Beijing (or perhaps Xi'an) was not due to fly out for an hour or two, so we had time for a good chat.  The Boston College biochemistry professor was in China to give lectures at various universities.  I think that he had grown up in Taiwan, and like tens of thousands of other students from Taiwan, had gone to America for his higher education and ended up teaching there for the next few decades.  But he was also a patriotic Chinese, so — again like countless other academics and researchers with a background similar to his — he had an intense desire to transfer American technological expertise to China, so that explains why he made so many extended trips back to China (very different from me, who made scores of trips to China to learn about that nation's past).

I asked the BC professor how his lectures were going, and he told me that he found it extremely frustrating to talk about his specialty in Chinese.  In those days, the level of English knowledge was still minimal in most sectors of the population, including in the universities.  He told me that he spent most of his time just trying to convey in Mandarin the meaning of essential technical terms in English.  It often ended up that, in essence, he was serving both as a fund of information about biochemistry and also as a teacher of technical English vocabulary.

Being the incorrigible language enthusiast that I am, I asked him if he was successful in coming up with suitable Mandarin equivalents for all the biochemical terms that were his daily fare in English.  He confessed that he found that to be utterly impossible when what he was really trying to teach his Chinese colleagues and students were the complex biochemical phenomena that he taught and did research on every day when he was back in America.  So he basically stuck to using English for the most specific, technical terms to describe those phenomena, and his Chinese colleagues and students simply had to learn them.

That's just one field in which technical and linguistic transfer were going on simultaneously.  It was happening in virtually every field of science and technology, and in later decades it happened in the social sciences and the humanities as well.  During the 80s, even in remote places like Xinjiang, I met Western aeronautical engineers, geologists, botanists, zoologists, and other scientists and technicians who were engaged in this massive transmission of information from the West and the language through which it was conveyed.

My encounter with the Boston College biochemist in the Lanzhou airport in the early 80s would have been remarkable enough just as I have described it above.  What makes it even more amazing is that he was my sister-in-law's adviser.


  1. Alex said,

    November 8, 2015 @ 11:21 am

    Well, I suppose it's pretty common to import the vocabulary with the concept. That's why most scientific terms in English are of Latin or Greek origin (dynamics, compound), and why so many interior decoration terms in Spanish are from Arabic (la alfombra, la almohada). So that, oddly enough, in borrowing scientific terms from English, the Chinese are adopting terms that are loans from classical languages and not part of basic English vocabulary. There's nothing essentially English about most of them, since they tend to have very close cognates in most of the European languages (technology, la tecnología).

  2. Michael Watts said,

    November 8, 2015 @ 1:17 pm

    It was my impression that English scientific terms based on Greek (or Latin, I guess) roots were coined for use in English by English speakers, not borrowed from Greek or Latin, which didn't have much in the way of scientific concepts.

  3. Michael Watts said,

    November 8, 2015 @ 1:19 pm

    Correction: or for use in French by French speakers, etc.

    The point is, they're not loans from the languages the roots are ostensibly "from"; they're innovative, coined with foreign roots for aesthetic reasons.

  4. Xmun said,

    November 8, 2015 @ 1:23 pm

    English also appears to be the lingua franca of the very mixed expatriate communities in Berlin. However, I have found one place at least where the lingua franca is indeed French: New Caledonia, there the thirty-odd or more indigenous languages are mutually unintelligible.

  5. Y said,

    November 8, 2015 @ 2:14 pm

    Do Chinese linguists try harder to avoid English technical terms?

  6. Jonathan Badger said,

    November 9, 2015 @ 5:45 am

    In natural science especially there is the issue that increasingly English is the language that results need to get published in eventually, so it may not really be worth coining native technical terms. This wasn't always so, of course — in the Cold War era, Chinese scientists still tended to publish in Chinese-language journals, Soviet scientists in Russian-language ones, etc.

  7. Mark Meckes said,

    November 9, 2015 @ 1:34 pm

    As an undergraduate taking an advanced mathematics course in Munich, the professor once consulted me during lecture (as the only native English speaker in the room) about how I would render a particular technical term in German, which was an interesting question to be asked. Though in this case, the challenge was that it was hard to parallel in German the sequence of (Norwegian) proper name -> adjective -> verb -> noun which resulted in the English term "abelianization".

  8. K Chang said,

    November 9, 2015 @ 1:57 pm

    @Y — there's a tendency in China to transliterate or translate EVERYTHING, even proper names and technical terms… if they can.

    American place names like Rancho Cucamonga (LA surburb) is rendered as 庫卡蒙加牧場 (ku-ka-mon-jia ranch) and LiFePO4 (lithium ferrophosphate, which makes up LFE battery) is 磷酸亚铁锂.

    I have NO IDEA how they'd translate the super technical jargon in biotech and such.

  9. David Marjanović said,

    November 9, 2015 @ 6:13 pm

    Though in this case, the challenge was that it was hard to parallel in German the sequence of (Norwegian) proper name -> adjective -> verb -> noun which resulted in the English term "abelianization".

    Abelisation? Abelisierung?

    I have NO IDEA how they'd translate the super technical jargon in biotech and such.

    In extreme cases, they give up and just plunk the English term, untranscribed, in the middle of Chinese text. In less extreme cases, they coin a translation and put the English term in parentheses so their fellow Chinese-speakers will know what they're actually talking about. All the rest is translated.

  10. Chas Belov said,

    November 14, 2015 @ 1:23 am

    @K Chang: San Francisco has a particularly apt transliteration, at least in Cantonese, which you are probably already aware of, 三藩市 (Saam fahn sih) Three boundary city, very appropriate for a city at the tip of a peninsula. I was delighted when Yosemite turned up on the weather forecast as 優勝美地 (Yauh saan mei deih) or Excellent Mountain, Beautiful Earth.

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