16 July 2010

Chinese vs. English

What happens when two major international languages clash?  Are they elephants trampling us, poor grass?  Here is a recent article by Malcolm Moore in Telegraph about a protest against English words in Chinese publications:

Huang Youyi, chairman of the International Federation of Translators, claims that words such as okay, bye-bye, nice, modern and guitar are slipping in to every day Chinese, and causing problems.

Mr Youyi said: "If we do not pay attention and we do not take measures to stop Chinese mingling with English, Chinese will no longer be a pure language in a couple of years.  "The terms DVD, MP3 and CEO are so abundant in Chinese and they are very popular. But these imported terms can cause confusion."

Mr Huang, who went to university in the United States and is also the head of the China International Publishing group, one of the country's largest publishers, fears that the increasing flow of English words and phrases into Chinese conversation could endanger the future of the language itself.

"In the long run, Chinese will lose its role as an independent language for communicating information and expressing human feelings," said Mr Huang.

As China has opened up and modernised, it has struggled to contain the inward flow of Western culture and language. Presently, only 20 foreign films are allowed to be screened in Chinese cinemas each year, while a wide swath of websites, including Youtube, Facebook and Twitter, have been banned.

Nevertheless, Western brands have proliferated, English-language television shows are widely available and there are huge numbers of students wanting to study English. "Some of our people think that using foreign words is a sign of being open-minded and international.  
I do not think so," said Mr Huang. "Instead, we should have confidence in our own language. You cannot expect others to respect you unless you respect yourself," he said.

Mr Huang presented proposals to the recent Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference meetings in Beijing that would ban publications from using English names, places, people and companies.

Instead, the publications would have to translate the terms into Chinese. A national committee would be formed to make a series of official translations. "You rarely see Chinese characters in any English newspaper," he said.

However, Mr Huang has had little support for his proposals. Gu Yuego, a researcher at the Institute of Linguistics at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said: "If we cleaned out all the borrowed words, less than half of modern Chinese will be left."

He added: "Borrowing words from other languages is a global phenomenon. It is a positive sign of cultural exchange and assimilation. There is no way that China can close the door on this.

France has tried many times to cleanse English words from French and they just make fools of themselves. Our Coke-drinking, Nike-wearing youth is undoubtedly still Chinese, but it has a broader mind and greater knowledge about other countries and cultures."

The prejudice against mixing languages is not a thing of the past, nor is it a thing only of countries less powerful than China or the United States.  Literary critics participate in this prejudice by marginalizing texts that blatantly use more than one language.  Something we learn from the debate in China:  the mother tongue (Chinese) will not disappear even if the second language (English) is very strong.  Critics insisting on a less widely-spoken and less widely-written "pure" mother tongue need not worry.  If a language has a strong literary tradition like Chinese, it will emerge stronger, not weaker, after the encounter with another language or literary tradition.  The problem, of course, is if the mother tongue does not have a strong literary tradition.  Then, it is really in trouble.

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