I was sitting with some Dutch friends by the side of a river in Cambodia. We were waiting for a guides to arrive with the boats that would take us upstream on the start of a three day trek. The guides arrived and we climbed into the shallow wooden boats. As we floated away, kids on the shore smiled and waved, calling, “Bye good! Bye good!”
Bad English is something that happens a lot. And I empathize. Fortunately for me, my native language has become the default “international language”. This is extraordinarily convenient given how daft I am when it comes to learning a foreign tongue.
Native Speakers Can Have Bad English Too…
On another occasion, a friend and I returned to our hostel in Chendu and as we headed up to our dorm she grabbed a sweat-shirt off of rack of abandoned, and therefore free for the taking, clothes.
“This is great. I’ll get new clothes here, throw my old ratty ones out and pretty soon I’ll have a whole new vocabulary,” she chirped as she bounced into the elevator.
I frowned. This was disconcerting. Usually, she would catch herself when she made these kinds of mistakes, but this time she was completely oblivious. “Ally,” I said sternly. “A vocabulary is a collection of words. A collection of clothes is called a wardrobe.”
She had lived in China for three years, one year of it in a place that lacked other foreigners, and had nearly perfected her Mandarin (at least it seemed that way to me). But her English had paid a price. Once before going to a lunch that we knew would involve a lot of drinking, she suggested that we eat some cookies beforehand to help observe the alcohol. I think she meant to say absorb the alcohol, but a picture of an animated Oreo holding a clipboard and a breathalyzer formed in my mind’s eye. Then there was the time she told me that her favorite sports bra was made by Heinz. I politely explained that Heinz made ketchup and suggested that perhaps Hanes was the brand she was referring to.
I understood how this could happen. When I’ve spent large amounts of time around people who speak broken English, I’ve noticed that instead of correcting their errors, I begin to copy them. I have to make a conscious effort not to do this.
My Attempts to Speak Chinese
No one mangles English quite as well as the Chinese. I’m not judging. My attempts to speak Mandarin were absolutely pathetic. I’d always get the tone wrong which meant that I was saying a completely different word than the one I had intended. And yet, there was always a strange logic to the sentence that came out.
When someone offered me a cigarette I wanted to politely decline. The word for smoke is cho, but said with a different tone cho means to stink. So when offered a ciggy I would smile, shake my head and say, “No thank you. I don’t stink.”
Not quite what I’d set out to say, but it does sort of make sense. I mean the fact that I don’t smoke helps me not stink.
Then there was the time I tried to order a sticky-sweet dessert called sugar cake. I got the tone wrong on cake and accidentally asked for sugar disease – diabetes (which I’m likely to get if I don’t lay off the sugar cake).
Therefore, it is with complete empathy that I offer the following samples of Chinese English: