English as She Is Spoke was the unfortunate title of a 19th-century Portuguese-English conversational phrase book, for English learners, written by Pedro Carolino. In the translation community, this book has attained almost legendary status, as a cautionary tale of how not to write a language book and how not to translate.

Growing up, whenever I had a difficult school exam coming up, my Italian grandmother would say to me, “nella bocca del lupo” or “in the mouth of the wolf.” It wasn’t the most comforting thing to hear before an exam. But I guess, “break a leg” isn’t much better. One thing that “nella bocca del lupo” and English as She Is Spoke have in common is that they both made a lot more sense in the original language than they did when translated directly into English.

It is nearly impossible for students with a European native tongue to do a word-for-word translation and have it make sense in English. For example, this German sentence would be completely incomprehensible if directly translated: Hemingway betätigte sich nicht nur als Schriftsteller, sondern war auch Reporter und Kriegsberichterstatter, zugleich Abenteurer, Hochseefischer und Großwildjäger, was sich in seinem Werk niederschlägt.

Direct word for word translation: Hemingway busied himself not only as an author, but was also reporter and warcorrespondent, atthesametime adventurer,deepseafisherman and bigwildhunter which self in his work reflected

German is one of the primary origins of the English language, and yet the composition of the language is completely different. Can you imagine now, taking Chinese sentences, Chinese brains and Chinese thinking, and simply plugging in English words? The results would be even further from sensible communication.

False Translations

Here are some examples of Chinese words whose common dictionary definition in no way reflects the complex connotations assigned to them by native speakers.

Wanr Play

“Wanr” is normally translated as “play”. And in some instances, it does mean “to play”, as a child plays. But it also means to relax, to engage in recreational activities. So if you go on holiday, a Chinese friend might ask you, “How did you play on your holiday?” To which you would answer, “I played well.” Of if you didn’t enjoy the holiday, you would say, “Oh, it was bad play.”

Foreign teachers find it strange when they ask adults what they plan to do on the weekend and they answer, “Play with my friends.”

Shi Yes/is

“Shi” is commonly translated as “yes” or “is”. And there are certainly examples where this translation holds true, such as “My mother is a doctor,” or “He is my teacher.” But with adjectives, the word “shi” is not used. So a Chinese speaker would effectively say, “My book red colored.” Not, “My book is red,” or “My brother very tall.” Not, “My brother is very tall.”

In other cases where English would use “is” Chinese uses alternative words, rather than “shi”. My house is behind the school. In Chinese would be “My house zai school beside.” Here, “zai” rather than “shi” is used to show location.

Using “shi” as “yes” is even more problematic, as it depends on the question. If someone asks, “Did you eat yet?” You would answer “Not yet” or “Ate”. You wouldn’t answer “shi”. “Do you want to come with me?” You would answer “Want” or “Don’t want.”

Most English speakers would believe “yes” and “no” to be very basic linguistic concepts, or at least expect them to be cut and dry. The Chinese concept of yes and no must be very different from the western concept. By extrapolation, we would have to imagine this carries over into language learning.

Guanxi 关系 “connections” or “relationships”

“Guanxi” is loosely translated as “connections” or “relationships,” but there are countless articles and even books written on the complexity of “guanxi” and what it means in Chinese society, and particularly what it means for Chinese business. Doing business anywhere, it is better to have connections.

Moving from individual words to sentences, we can see that the Chinese language brain is coming from a different perspective than the English language. Here is an example of a Chinese paragraph from my level-two Chinese book. One friend is telling another how to go to the post office. Obviously, newspaper Chinese would be even more complex. But even with such a low level text, we can see that translation is not just a matter of plugging words from one language into a brain accustomed to the syntax, grammar, and culture of another.

bai yun gaosu ta cong xuexiao nan men wag dong zhou you – ge shizi-lukou, guole shizi-luokou wang bei guai you – suo xue-xiao xuexiao pangbian jiu shi youju.

Remember that this is a preposterously direct, word-for-word translation of the Chinese text, but to illustrate a point: hundred cloud told her from school south gate turn East walk there is a ten street mouth cross the ten street mouth turn North there is a unit study school next to just is post office.

Again, no one would make the error of translating this directly into English, but I have had students say to me, “Teacher, ten month I go to Beijing,” for example, rather than saying “October”, because months in Chinese have numbers, instead of names. Keep in mind that Chinese does not have punctuation. Sentences are extremely long strings of Chinese characters. It takes years of practice to figure out where one idea ends and another begins. This is something you will see reflected in the writing of Chinese students. Their sentences will generally be too long and may include several distinct ideas.

Linguistic Concepts and Features

Chinese words don’t alter for plurals, you simply say “one volume book” (一本书 yi ben shu) or “3 volume book.” (三本书 san ben shu). The word “book” doesn’t change for plural. Verbs are also not congregated. So, in “I go” and “she goes” the word “go” remains the same. This is why students frequently forget terminal “s”.

The concept of verb tense in Chinese is very different from English. In Chinese, “I go to school” (我去上学 wo qu shang xue) and I went to school (我去上学 wo qu shang xue) are identical. In Chinese we can even signal the past by simply adding a past cue, such as “yesterday” or “ten years ago” without changing the verb or giving any other clue that we are talking about the past.

ESL programs are typically focused on production, but if we look at passive skills, listening and reading, we will see that these issues are actually worse in passive than in productive skills. This is because students have had their production corrected time and again by teachers, but no one is looking after the errors they make in passive skills. Students simply don’t hear terminal “s” or “ed” or other features of the language which differ. In an English textbook, I remember a story about an old woman, telling the story of her life. There were grammar cues which told you when the story shifted from the present to the past, but many students missed the cues.

Since the concept of spelling is moot in a pictographic language, the concept of spell checking also doesn’t exist. In the past, when students wrote essays in Chinese by hand, the teachers meticulously inspected every word, to see if even a single stroke were left out. One of my friends once said to me, “I missed one stroke, of a ten stroke character, on the third page of a five page paper, and my teacher caught it.” But today, with computers, it is impossible to miss a stroke (although students could possibly choose a wrong word). As a result, the concept of Microsoft Word spell check is limited to the student’s English papers.

As a university level teacher, I find that, unless the students have attended an international school, they have never written even a single essay in English before arriving at the university. As a result, my class is their first experience with spell check. In my first term of teaching, I was shocked to receive papers with spelling errors. Wrong words, I assumed, would be a given, but how can you misspell things nowadays? After a few weeks, I realized, the students needed someone to teach them what the spell check was and how to use it. Many of the students had turned off the spell checker, because it got in their way. Other students were using pirated versions of Microsoft Word, which didn’t have a spell checker.

There is no capitalization in Chinese so, as a learner of Chinese, it is often hard to pick out the proper nouns. For example, the first two words in the Chinese paragraph above, “bai yun,” represent the name of one of the characters in the story.

Similarly, when Chinese students learn English, it may be difficult for them to remember to write capital letters. What is even more common, however, is that they stumble on words they don’t know, thinking these are vocabulary words, when in fact, they are actually proper names. I once had a friend who got hung up on a term for several days, till he finally asked me in frustration, “What is the meaning of this vocabulary?” The words he showed me were “Youngstown, Ohio.” Obviously, it wasn’t in a dictionary.

This next example is something that happened to me in Korea, but it could just as easily have happened in China.

A Korean teacher of English was preparing her lesson, when she came upon a word she didn’t know. She stuck the book in front of me, and asked, “What does this mean? I looked it up in the dictionary, but I can’t find it.” The word was “Chunnel.” I had never heard the word before, and I hadn’t read the text. But, I saw a picture of the coast of England at the top of the page and instantly guessed what it must be.

“The Chunnel is the name of the tunnel that runs under the English Channel,” I said. I was about to walk away, when I saw from the look in her eyes, that she hadn’t understood. So, I explained, “The English Channel is the body of water that separates England from France.” Once again, her response was a blank, almost angry look. “Yes, but what is Chunnel?” She repeated. “It is the name of the tunnel that runs under the English Channel, connecting England and France.” I explained again.

It hit me at that point that we had gone beyond the linguistic. She knew the words “tunnel, connect, England, France…” The issue was cultural. She didn’t necessarily know that the image in the photo was the coast of England. Further, she had never heard of the English Channel. If she had never heard of the English Channel, she probably was unaware that there was a tunnel under it.

Am I convinced that her lack of understanding should be considered cultural, not linguistic? In this explanation I don’t believe there are any words I wouldn’t expect a college graduate, with a degree in English, who teaches English for a living, to know: “It is the name of the tunnel that runs under the English Channel, connecting England and France.”

With an inflected question in her voice, she drew a tentative conclusion. “It means tunnel?”

“No” I said. “It is the name of a particular tunnel. The tunnel which runs from England to France.” Then I pointed at the capital letter “C” in “Chunnel.” “Don’t you see? It’s a name.”

Once again, she had missed the grammatical clues. She didn’t instantly see that the unknown word began with a capital letter and was thus a name.

Culture and Context

When I was a teenager, I saw Peking Opera for the first time in my life. I absolutely loved the martial arts and discipline of the actors, but I couldn’t always follow the stories. A Chinese friend was explaining the action as it happened. “That’s the general.” He said, as a man walked onto the stage. I had guessed that already. And from the sound effects and scenery, I also guessed there was a battle in progress. “The general is retreating,” my Chinese friend explained. “How did you know that?” I asked, amazed. “Because he walked onto the stage backward,” he answered.

Similar cultural contexts exist in all languages, cues and clues which native speakers pick up on instinctively, which communicate more than words. Learners often miss these cues because their brains work differently. They are looking for other cues, other ways of conveying meaning, which English may lack.

Most of the students who walk into my university classroom in Shanghai have had twelve years of English, and posses a vocabulary of thousands of words. And yet, they can’t speak English, because speaking or using a language is a lot more than knowing the words. Culture is one of the most important determinates of how we communicate, understand, and learn.

Failed Listening

Most of the ESL books I have used in my fourteen years of teaching have contained less than five minutes of listening per chapter. A frequent feature in my classrooms in China and elsewhere is that the reading and grammar exercises are at an appropriate level for the students, where I could give an explanation, do an example or two, and assign the rest for homework. I have never had the experience that I pressed play on the CD and the whole class was able to complete the listening task on the first listening. Neither have I had this experience on the second listening. In fact, my experience has been that if I weren’t in the room, coaching and cajoling them, and if they weren’t copying off the smart kids, the class would never get through a single listening task.

Sometimes, the students’ inability to complete the listening task is because of poor listening skills. But sometimes, the problem is the cultural basis of the selection. In this case, no matter how many times or how slowly they listen, they will never get the answers.

To test if the student’s failure to complete a listening exercise is skill related—in other words, he simply can’t listen well—or is cultural, you can give them a transcript of the audio. If, after reading the transcript they can complete the task, then it probably is skill related. If after reading, they still can’t complete the task, there is a good chance that, assuming the level is appropriate, there is some cultural reason why the selection simply has no meaning for the student.

These are transcripts similar to conversations on ESL listening exercises.

  • Middle Aged Woman: She’s a lovely girl. David has really done well for himself this time. I am sure they will be happy together.

When a native speaker hears this or reads it, he guesses that David is getting married. The speaker is probably David’s mom. And she very much approves of David’s choice of partner. A Chinese speaker, on the other hand, may not read so much into this selection. Later, he would have trouble completing the exercise, for cultural reasons.

As a native speaker, can you guess the scenario in each of these selections? Do you think the average Chinese speaking student would guess similarly?

  • I left my last job because my boss was a jerk. But I bet I’ll be happy here.
  • “These masks make it hard to breath.” “Yeah, but at least no one will be able to identify us afterwards.”
  • Coach told me if I can cut my time by two seconds, I have a got chance of going to state.

Things We Know at a Glance

What are these? The Belmont Herald, The Southbend Journal, The Daily Post, Sand Mountain Reporter, Alexander Reporter, Andalusian Star? When a native speaker encounters these words in a text, he instantly knows that these are the names of newspapers or magazines.

Words that key native speakers that the capitalized words are the names of newspapers: Tribune, Courier, Messenger, Weekly, Daily, Times, Standard, Ledger, Sun, Today, Record, Advocate, Democrat, Enquirer, News, Eagle, Planet, Sentinel, Advertiser, Reporter, Advisor…

Where is the Southbend Journal published? I have never been to Southbend, but I am guessing it is the name of a very small town somewhere. And, the Southbend Journal is most likely the local newspaper. I can go on to guess that it is a publication with a very small circulation, with a lot of local weddings, funerals, maybe birthdays and awards, wedding anniversaries, the happenings around the small town, and a classified section for selling second-hand farm equipment.

Plugging English Words into Chinese Language

As English teachers, we are constantly telling our students to read newspapers and online articles as a way of practicing their language. But without the cultural background, much of this reading is completely incomprehensible. This headline from the online MSN News Headlines from September 4, 2012, for example would need more explanation than it is worth: “Fall Flicks: A Harvest of Promising Movies”.

Students may or may not know that “Fall” is “Autumn”, and that “flicks” refers to movies. They probably don’t know that new movies and TV shows are released in the fall. If they looked up the word “harvest” in a Chinese, bilingual dictionary, they will come up with “收成” (shou1cheng2) which is the literal harvest of agricultural produce. The students might think the article related to farming. If they look up “harvest” in a bilingual dictionary, they could find an entry similar to this one from Merriam Webster’s Learner’s Dictionary:

1har·vest  /ˈhɑɚvəst/ noun

plural har·vests

[count] 1 : the season when crops are gathered from the fields or the activity of gathering crops

▪ The beginning of the harvest varies from year to year. ▪ It is time for the harvest. ▪ harvest time

2 : the amount of crops that are gathered

▪ They prayed for a bountiful harvest. ▪ We had enormous harvests of corn this year. ; also : the amount of a natural product gathered in a single season

▪ the salmon/timber harvest — sometimes used figuratively ▪ The government will reap a bitter harvest of discontent [=many people will be extremely unhappy and angry] if it fails to meet the people’s needs.

The final definition does tell students that “harvest” can be used figuratively and gives the useless example of “bitter harvest”, which would mean just as little to the students as the original title.

These were other headlines from MSN News Headlines, September 4, 2012. Take a few minutes and think about what each of these titles would mean to an English learner, with a bilingual dictionary, finding literal definitions:

  • Contestant takes a tumble
  • Toys R Us waives fee for layaway program
  • Weekend Rewind: What you Missed
  • Convention host N.C. finds itself as pivotal battleground
  • Bride-napping in Romania is bigger and brasher than ever
  • One-ton bacon cheeseburger leaves no one asking ‘where’s the beef?’
  • Lead guitarist for Starship, dies in Nebraska
  • Dad: Honey Badger to enroll at LSU
  • Virginia Tech claims OT thriller
  • Firms step up 401K funding
  • Hunter bags two ‘pigzillas’

Knowing all of the words isn’t enough. Student need to understand the culture of the English language, in order to achieve fluency. To teach successfully, foreign teachers need to be aware of cultural/linguistic differences between Chinese and English. If teachers could better anticipate where cultural barriers lie, they could prep their students and concentrate on language and tasks. Teachers could also look for materials that help students learn about cultural/linguistic features of English.