Creeping English in Chinese

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Many years ago, I predicted that — due to the exigencies of technological change and the increasing tempo of life — China would willy-nilly gravitate either toward romanization of Mandarin (and the other Sinitic languages) or the gradual adoption of English for many aspects of written communication (e.g., business, science, medicine) because they are perceived as faster and more efficient.  In truth, I thought, and still do think, that there would be a transitional period during which both processes transpired, though naturally Chinese characters would continue to be used as well.  The evidence with which we are daily confronted, much of it presented in Language Log posts, confirms that my suspicions are being borne out.

Take a look at this certification score card for a dance class at a school in Shenzhen:

Is it not remarkable that the only grades on this report card are in English:  Excellent, Good, Passed, Failed.  There are perfectly serviceable Chinese equivalents for all of these grade levels, so why was English used instead of them?

Sometimes it seems as though Romanization and English are not just creeping into Chinese but are racing in, faster and faster.

[Thanks to Alex Wang, Julie Wei, and Heidi Krohne]


  1. Victor Mair said,

    January 23, 2017 @ 5:39 pm

    From Hue Tam Tai:

    Michele Ruggieri collaborated with Matteo Ricci to produce a Portuguese-Chinese dictionary using the Roman alphabet to render Chinese, similar (and prior) to Alexandre de Rhodes Dictionarium-Lusitanum-Annamiticum of 1650 which is the origin of modern Vietnamese. Wikipedia has a picture of one page of the Ruggieri-Ricci dictionary.

    According to Janet Chen, there were some attempts during the Republican period to romanize Chinese, with a large contingent advocating Cantonese as the standard pronunciation.

  2. Guy said,

    January 23, 2017 @ 7:29 pm

    Although the first block of links is interesting, was it accidentally pasted in from the wrong document? I don't understand the relevance of those links to the topics of the post.

  3. Ken said,

    January 23, 2017 @ 7:45 pm

    "Is it not remarkable that the only grades on this report card are in English: Excellent, Good, Passed, Failed. There are perfectly serviceable Chinese equivalents for all of these grade levels, so why was English used instead of them?"

    Not only are there "perfectly serviceable Chinese equivalents," but they actually appear in the column on the far left: 优秀,良好,合格,不合格. This person received 良好 in each of the five categories of evaluation and so received an overall grade of "Good."

  4. WSM said,

    January 23, 2017 @ 7:46 pm

    Indeed, said perfectly serviceable Chinese equivalents are right there in the first column, under 成绩. ; maybe the equivalent English is being used to lend the evaluations some kind of international sophistication, which maybe makes sense for a dance school? Everything else on the page is in Chinese characters, so this doesn't really strike me as particularly good evidence that English is being used because it's more efficient.

  5. cliff arroyo said,

    January 24, 2017 @ 2:51 am

    What I would expect to happen (roughly) is:

    English appearing redundantly (for it's 'international sophistication') in situations with no real rational need for it. The Chinese is still visible and seems primary.

    Gradually, the Chinese disappears creating a new dynamic. Mostly written English with a few Chinese characters added redundantly for decorative purposes.

  6. Andreas Johansson said,

    January 24, 2017 @ 4:49 am

    I struggle to imagine how the English words here would be more "efficient" than Chinese characters. If it's not simply for prestige (isn't it nice that your dance school is internationally sophisticated?) I would guess it's using some sort of international standardized grade scale where the official grade designations are in English.

    You see a lot of gratuitous English in Latin-script countries, and most of the time there can be no question of improved "efficiency"; it's all about perceived sophistication. I would expect the same to account for much unnecessary English in China.

    (Of course you also see English used in order to be accessible to foreigners, but that doesn't count as gratuitous.)

  7. Alex said,

    January 24, 2017 @ 7:10 pm

    I can not read the Chinese but from what I am told it isn't a form from the dance school. It is supposed to be a national test that can be used to receive credit in the public schools here.

  8. WSM said,

    January 25, 2017 @ 7:32 am

    Right – I should have been more precise, this is a form for a dance class, not necessarily a dance school. However it looks from a quick Google like the instructor Zhang Weiya operates out of "The Weiya International Youth Arts Group" or something like that – note the "International" and the fact that the instructor spent some time abroad! – and that this grade form is maybe from an extracurricular at that institution?

  9. JK said,

    January 26, 2017 @ 9:49 am

    Here's a couple of news headlines that show both sides of the issue: has this blog headline that includes an English word: 中国要领导世界了,HOW?

    Xinhua has this headline that would be rather confusing if written in pinyin instead of Hanzi because of homophones: 美国人持枪的"惑"与"祸"

  10. John Chew said,

    January 27, 2017 @ 10:01 pm

    I'm not a lawyer, but did you make sure you had parental consent to post on your website this 8-year-old boy's full name, date of birth, hometown and school grades, in what would otherwise be a COPPA violation?

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