Pinyin for ABCs

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If you didn't know it already, "ABC" means "American-born Chinese".  There's no reason why ABCs should necessarily speak Chinese, no more than why ABGs (American-born Germans) should speak German or why ABVs (American-born Vietnamese) should speak Vietnamese, etc.  In this video, ABCs explain for themselves why they can't speak Chinese.  This is a long (23:14) podcast.  Feel free to watch all of it if you are so inclined, but for efficiency's sake I will guide you through it in instructions below the page break.


If you don't have the patience / time to watch the whole thing, here are 8 of the reasons they give:

Why else do you think a lot of Asian kids can't speak Chinese? This is not only for Chinese kids! LIST OF WHY ABC'S MIGHT SUCK AT CHINESE

1. It’s a hard language to learn

2. There wasn’t a lot of cool ways to learn Chinese growing up

3. Which Chinese do you learn?

4. Chinese-Americans don’t really speak Chinglish with each other

5. If there’s not some REAL pressure then you won’t go and learn it

6. People were always super critical when you try and always try to correct you

7. A lot of Chinese parents just want their kids to achieve so bad that they will just teach their kids English to ensure their best chances of conventional success

8. A lot of the Chinese that came over were not necessarily educated themselves so they don’t teach their kids advanced levels of Chinese

They never get to the other two reasons.

Whether 8 or 10 reasons, what do they all boil down to?  For those who are too impatient or too busy to listen to all of their reasoning, I suggest that you skip to 21:30, and here you will hear them say that they "push for Pinyin", that they're fans of Pinyin.  Earlier in the podcast, they had already mentioned the ubiquity of Pinyin on the internet, and also stressed the necessity of being good at English.

Despite their hip-hop ways, the Fung Bros and their friend offer a thoughtful analysis of the sociolinguistic situation regarding Chinese languages in the modern world.  As for the future of Chinese, "nobody's gonna be able to predict it.  It's just gonna look like something else".

Note that they have more than two million subscribers (this video alone has around 350,000 views), so this podcast likely offers a good sample of the thinking of ABCs and their friends / fans about Chinese language and its future.


Selected readings

[Thanks to Alex Wang]


  1. Dick Margulis said,

    June 14, 2020 @ 7:57 am

    I had a friend many years ago (died in the first wave of the AIDS crisis) who explained ABC and MIT* to us, the abbreviations as well as some of the politics. His father had been the Chinese (read: Taiwanese) ambassador to the Vatican and later was head of mission to the UN. He told us that people he encountered would often exclaim at how well he spoke English. "Why shouldn't I?" was his standard response. "I was born in New Jersey." I don't recall whether he was fluent in Taiwanese; I don't think the subject ever came up.

    * Reciprocal slurs: American-born Chinese vs. Made In Taiwan

  2. Bathrobe said,

    June 14, 2020 @ 10:16 am

    No it doesn't; it means 'Australian-born Chinese'…

  3. Jenny Chu said,

    June 14, 2020 @ 10:42 am

    It makes me think of the pressures on my kids, who are the opposite – China-born Americans – and how the pressures differ or not. My kids have worked hard but still struggled to learn Chinese (Cantonese in their case, with Putonghua as a 3rd language), and although they have done very well indeed, achieving what I believe to be native level grammaticality judgments, they still strongly favor English. So, is it true, what everyone tells me – "Cantonese is a very difficult language!"? Of course not. But the pressures of English are universal at this point in history.

  4. Jerry Friedman said,

    June 14, 2020 @ 10:57 am

    ABCD, of course, is "American-born, confused Desi". I decline to comment on the applicability of "confused". "Emigrant from Gujarat, habitant in Jersey" (referring to New Jersey) seems contrived to me.

    One could go on in other ways, though. My best friend in middle school was an American-born child of displaced Englishpeople. I know an American-born, cab-driving, equally fatherly & grandfatherly Hungarian-Italian.

  5. mg said,

    June 14, 2020 @ 11:35 am

    This sent me back to thinking of the reasons so many of my parents' generation (born in the 1920s and 30s) didn't learn Yiddish, which are different from the ones cited by the Fung Bros. First, in those days, the pressure to assimilate was very high. No one was talking about taking pride in your heritage or "multiculturalism". Second, if parents were fluent in both English and Yiddish, Yiddish was the language they used when they didn't want the children to understand what they were saying.

    Which also reminds me of my Chinese co-worker whose ABC son called her and spoke in Chinese so his non-Chinese roommate wouldn't understand him, but she had trouble understanding because his Chinese was so bad.

  6. Andreas Johansson said,

    June 14, 2020 @ 11:51 am

    About a century ago, my American relatives actively avoided their kids learning Swedish, because they wanted them to be "proper Americans".

  7. alex said,

    June 14, 2020 @ 3:37 pm

    What I found interesting is that now as an adult he wanted to learn. It reminds me of piano. Many ABC's who gave up on piano after a few years start learning again as young adults.

    Jenny Chu said, "But the pressures of English are universal at this point in history."

    How do you think the pandemic has effected this pressure to learn English? Also the trade war? May I ask if you children attend private international school or public? It seems to me in Shenzhen the pressure to learn English has dropped a little.

  8. Shannon said,

    June 14, 2020 @ 4:03 pm

    "There's no reason why ABCs should necessarily speak Chinese, no more than why ABGs (American-born Germans) should speak German or why ABVs (American-born Vietnamese) should speak Vietnamese, etc."

    That's the thing. How many of the given and discussed reasons are particular to Chinese Americans vs. Americans of any other ethnicity who don't understand or learn their forebears' language, I wonder? The complex writing system and its romanization debates are particular to Chinese, yes. But if (and I don't know the data on comparative heritage language retention) the relative proportions of American-born folks of Chinese descent knowing a Chinese language are not substantially more or less than any other kids of non-English-speaking immigrant groups, there doesn't need to be that much to be explained besides what already holds for assimilation of all those other groups broadly.

    The difference might be between the progeny of immigrants who spoke, or still speak, non-English languages in general vs. Spanish, which has a larger critical mass, and given its particular geographical ties and history in the US (including Puerto Rico, and the fact that US borders on the major region of Latin America to the south) may have more staying power.

    Also, on a related note, I see other commenters bring up other variants of the American-born (insert ethnicity), or (some nationality)-born (ethnicity). More common and what I've almost always encountered as being much more formal, as in the names of organizations, on documents etc., is the hypenated-American approach or the modifier added to American (e.g. Chinese-American or Chinese American) although that does not indicate or emphasize birth origin. Occasionally you hear simply the flipped form of the hypenated (or modified) American, like American Italians in contrast to Italians in the old country who even can be called Italian Italians (sometimes reduplication for emphasis for the old worlders). Is there any rhyme or reason to how to name diasporas (perhaps they're used when punny like the examples commenters give — ABC, ABCD, MIT and a few other variants like BBC or CBC for Brits and Canucks respectively etc. but not otherwise) or are they idiosyncratic?

    How common is this phrasing of X-born Y across the wide span of ethnic groups, and which groups were first to use it (was ABC among the earlier or later coinages)? I've also heard that it's often old worlders that prefer the X-born Y coinage with their emphasis on ethnicity (e.g. The Chinese in Chinese or recent immigrants who call their co-ethnics ABC to a larger extent than other people do) while the new worlders seem to like Y-American, Y-Australian etc. to emphasize nationality.

  9. Alex said,

    June 14, 2020 @ 4:41 pm

    I wonder if its because how strongly different groups associate their culture/identity with the language.

    I grew up in a Jewish dense area and the kids went to Hebrew school. That said I assume the religious practices such as during holidays seemed more important than learning the language itself other than for ceremonies such as bar mitzvah and bat mitzvah.

    I can definitely say that not being able to speak and read the language is a big worry here in China of grandparents for their grand-kids when they move abroad at a young age.

  10. Andrew Usher said,

    June 14, 2020 @ 9:45 pm

    I must wonder why write 'American-born Chinese' rather than 'Chinese-Americans'? The first term seems to reflect an attitude that suggests difference with other ethnicities that typically use the latter form – a difference that would make speaking Chinese more salient.

    I don't know if it originates with you or the video, but that list contains a nasty grammatical problem that leads to ambiguity: in 7, "want their children to achieve so bad …" – as it modifies 'want', it should be 'badly'. I noticed this because I first interpreted 'achieve so bad' as 'do poorly' even though that doesn't make a lot of sense in context. I'm not sure how long it took before I hit on the right interpretation. If it had been 'badly', I would have done so right away as there'd be no ambiguity.

    k_over_hbarc at

  11. Jean-Sébastien Girard said,

    June 15, 2020 @ 12:10 am

    @Andrew Usher "why write 'American-born Chinese' rather than 'Chinese-Americans'?"

    … because the discussion is SPECIFICALLY concerned with a distinct subset of Chinese-American? I mean, no one needs to ask why those who directly emigrated out of China don't learn their own native language. At least I should hope so!

  12. Andrew Usher said,

    June 15, 2020 @ 5:45 am

    But the point is that phrasing isn't used with other ethnicities, regardless of what is meant. That doesn't change with your _rather obvious_ point.

  13. Victor Mair said,

    June 15, 2020 @ 6:01 am

    From a colleague:

    After I subscribed to that Fung brothers channel, google offered up cantomando 418k subscribers


    THIS is What Happens When Chinese Americans Write Chinese

    They wrote

    “If you guys liked the reading challenge, you'll love this one where we try to write BASIC Chinese characters. Writing Chinese is soooooooo hard :'( We definitely need to relearn how to write chinese hahaha. We write chinese in both traditional chinese and simplified chinese it's not really a traditional vs simplified but we just grew up learning different ones. Hope you enjoy this Chinese Writing Challenge”

    Chinese Americans FAIL at Reading BASIC Chinese

  14. Victor Mair said,

    June 15, 2020 @ 6:21 am

    @Andrew Usher

    "'…want their children to achieve so bad…'"

    I noticed that, but it didn't bother me. Rather, I just took it in stride as part of their hip hop ways and ABC subculture.

    I found myself charmed by almost everything they were saying.

    These bros are not dumb. They were educated at the University of Washington, an estimable institution. They say a lot of things that are cogent and observant. I can learn from them.

  15. Shannon said,

    June 15, 2020 @ 9:24 am

    Just some googling seems to suggest "American born Chinese" is more prevalent than the equivalent for other ethnicities, though numbers may be influenced by the title of a 2006 graphic novel of the same name by Gene Luen Yang.

    Just out of curiosity, I tried a bunch of search terms.

    "American born Chinese" 436,000 results on Google
    "American born Korean" 130,000 results
    "American born French" 118,000 results
    "American born English" 43,800 results
    "American born Japanese" 42,300 results
    "American born Mexican" 26,300 results
    "American born Indian" 22,300 results
    "American born Russian" 21,700 results
    "American born German" 19,100 results
    "American born Italian" 14,300 results
    "American born Irish" 13,600 results
    "American born Jewish" 12,100 results
    "American born Scottish" 7,760 results
    "American born Polish" 2,980 results

    Korean seems disproportionately high of these ones I searched (if after Chinese). Many famous "Ellis Island" European groups don't have a heavy use of this phrasing (e.g. Irish, Italians). But some Asian origins do not get this very much either — e.g. "American born Filipino" and "American born Vietnamese" only get thousands of hits, like Scottish and Polish do.

    Of course, there's lots of false positives, for instance "American born French" gets articles about Josephine Baker who was American-born, and then adopted France as her home to become a French entertainer.

  16. Shannon said,

    June 15, 2020 @ 9:30 am

    Regarding "so bad", I never thought that was an unusual thing, it seems really common to me to encounter clipping of "so badly" to "so bad" in informal colloquial language. Maybe it's a generational thing?


    "I'm craving this, I want this thing, real bad"

    "I need to go to the bathroom really bad!".

  17. David Marjanović said,

    June 15, 2020 @ 12:05 pm

    Donald Duck breaking off a twig, to his nephews: "I'll beat you up bad, but good!"

    (Completely lost in the German translation.)

  18. M Lin said,

    June 15, 2020 @ 2:32 pm

    I don't know why "American Born Chinese" is a more common term than its associate terms for other ethnicities. Demographics maybe. The Japanese don't say American Born Japanese because they typically use the Japanese terms Nissei/Sansei/etc to describe that population. Perhaps other groups have similar terminology that they prefer.

  19. Andrew Usher said,

    June 15, 2020 @ 6:13 pm

    I know of course that 'so bad' for 'so badly' is common. In this case, though, it caused a pretty obtrusive ambiguity (in the written form): "want their kids to (achieve so bad)" rather than "want (their kids to achieve) so bad", which would be the only reading with 'badly', I think.

    My comment said that the phrase 'American-born Chinese', instead of the more usual 'X-American', seems to indicate that that ethnicity compared to others does not wish to, or actually does not, try to assimilate and therefore still considers themselves only 'Chinese'. I am not repeating that stereotype (I don't have enough knowledge myself), but just observing that the wording seems to reflect it.

    David Marjanovic:
    There Donald Duck is using 'good' and 'bad' synonymously to mean 'thoroughly', the pun being of course that their surface meanings are opposite. I can see that other languages are unlikely to have an equivalent pair.

  20. Shannon said,

    June 15, 2020 @ 8:08 pm

    Regarding the ambiguity, I felt like for me pragmatics narrowed it down easily (intuitively perhaps maybe I didn't consider the possibility that parents would have wanted to see kids perform poorly). Also I feel like "achieve" is typically used with positive valence — e.g. high achievers, lists of achievements, whereas (maybe it's just my personal experience) I less often hear about achieving bad outcomes but more often about failing to achieve a good outcome. Then again, the term low achievers is a thing.

    Regarding the phrasing of America-born X, does it matter also who is the one using it? Is it members of one's own group calling themselves this or outsiders?

    I wonder if it is in some ways relevant that 19th century Chinese immigrants were the first group in the US to face a nationality-based immigration ban, and with the famous United States v. Wong Kim Ark court case regarding birthright citizenship, the act of being born American or not would probably have been salient for many. From what I hear, the Japanese Issei/Nisei etc. became popular in the 1920s. Did people in, say, Anna May Wong's era refer to her as American-born Chinese?

    I can't seem to find much about the history of American-born (name of ethnicity) and how it relates to assimilation but then again hypenated American terms themselves had a long history of being seen as negative (particularly in the late 19th, early 20th century), with Teddy Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson both famously denouncing the hyphen as representing disloyalty.

    At some point, hyphenated (or the ethnicity modifier without the hyphen) identity became a sign of pride (including when African American became popular as a term) with increased value in multiculturalism in the later 20th century.

    Gene Luen Yang's graphic novel "American born Chinese" is from 2006 so I have no idea iif it's a recent coinage or old one.

  21. John Swindle said,

    June 16, 2020 @ 4:52 am

    Chinese-Americans sometimes call themselves ABCs. Others aren't required to call them that. "American-born x" isn't the usual pattern in American English. We want to emphasize that we're American. "American-born Chinese" does however call to mind Mandarin terms like 美籍华人 měi jí huárén and 美籍日本人 měi jí rìběn rén, 'Chinese American' and 'Japanese American' respectively, but literally 'American-citizen Chinese person' and 'American-citizen Japanese person'.

  22. John Swindle said,

    June 16, 2020 @ 5:25 am

    Shannon's comment and mine crossed in the ether. Yes, I think "American-born Chinese" and "ABC" are terms for insiders to use, rather than outsiders. They don't seem to be used here in Hawaii, though, except under US Mainland Chinese-American influence.

  23. Andrew Usher said,

    June 16, 2020 @ 6:56 pm

    The point was that its markedness creates an implication of exceptionality. That may not be intended; but using 'American-born Chinese' where 'Chinese-American' would normally go seems to specifically deny Americanness, especially as the distinction agrees with ordinary grammar. Now I suppose that if the term is _only_ used within the community, it might never be perceived that way, though I couldn't be sure – but if it were it shouldn't have been in the title of this post, I'd think.

    For comparison, see that it's fairly normal for someone to call himself 'Irish-American', but if he instead said 'American-born Irishman', that would generally be taken as a strong political statement!

  24. Josh R said,

    June 16, 2020 @ 7:35 pm

    Andrew Usher said,
    "The point was that its markedness creates an implication of exceptionality. That may not be intended; but using 'American-born Chinese' where 'Chinese-American' would normally go seems to specifically deny Americanness, especially as the distinction agrees with ordinary grammar."

    I don't know that I would necessarily go as far as denying American-ness, though emphasizing Chinese-ness does seem to be the goal. Upon first seeing the term, it seemed to me to be distinct from "Chinese-American", as that can be used to describe any American of Chinese ancestry, while American-born Chinese would apply specifically to second-generation Chinese-Americans, with family and ties to their parents' place of origin, and depending on the situation, possibly even holding nationality from that country. I would assume essentially the same meaning if it was "American-born German."

    Of course, that's me probably overthinking it from the outside. Looking at the numbers Shannon posted, it's likely an acronymic shibboleth that just caught on.

  25. Adrian Bailey said,

    June 17, 2020 @ 2:24 pm

    I read discussions like this with interest because we chose not to teach our half-Hungarian daughter Hungarian. The arguments for and against are finely balanced; we don't feel guilty, and nor should anyone else.

  26. Victor Mair said,

    June 17, 2020 @ 8:21 pm

    For as long as I can remember (thirty or more years), all of my Chinese-American friends and acquaintances have referred to themselves as ABCs, just like that, and everybody knew what they meant and intended: Chinese, but Chinese born in America, i.e., a special kind of Chinese person.

  27. Andrew Usher said,

    June 17, 2020 @ 9:28 pm

    I haven't been sure if they actually say 'ABC', or if that's just a written abbreviation. Regardless, that confirms what I've said: 'American-born Chinese' is taken to refer to a kind of 'Chinese', while as no one would question 'Chinese-American' would be taken to refer to a kind of 'American', and this is what grammar would predict.

  28. monscampus said,

    June 17, 2020 @ 10:04 pm

    ©Andrew Usher
    '… the pun being of course that their surface meanings are opposite. I can see that other languages are unlikely to have an equivalent pair.'
    Unlikely? What makes you see this? English isn't really exceptional in this regard.

  29. Victor Mair said,

    June 17, 2020 @ 10:13 pm

    They say "ABC", not "American-born Chinese", except for special, formal circumstances. The latter is too long, time-consuming, and effortful.

  30. Mark S. said,

    June 23, 2020 @ 9:05 am

    "But if (and I don't know the data on comparative heritage language retention) the relative proportions of American-born folks of Chinese descent knowing a Chinese language are not substantially more or less than any other kids of non-English-speaking immigrant groups, there doesn't need to be that much to be explained besides what already holds for assimilation of all those other groups broadly."

    It turns out that descendants of Chinese immigrants are substantially different from other groups — and not in a way good for language retention. See "Bilingualism among Immigrant Families in Southern California."

  31. Victor Mair said,

    June 23, 2020 @ 10:05 am

    I strongly encourage those who are interested in this subject to read the article linked by Mark S. at the end of his comment. The cited study points to the role of the script in the low Chinese language retention rates among ABCs.

  32. Andrew Usher said,

    June 24, 2020 @ 7:24 am

    It is of course possible to retain a heritage language – especially for one generation – orally only, without reading or writing it. I suppose it is modern technology that presents a great obstacle to such.

    Alternatively it could be that the Chinese really do put less stress on the language as an element of their ethnic identity than other peoples do; again, I am no expert.

  33. TOP HindiLyrics said,

    June 26, 2020 @ 2:47 pm

    About a century ago, my American relatives actively avoided their kids learning Swedish, just because they wanted them to be "Proper Americans".

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