IT blogger recently wrote about strange manifestations of English as a foreign language, and with the upcoming Beijing Olympics, she's not the only one who's detected "unorthodox” phrasing.
In anticipation of the 2008 games, representatives from the Beijing Speaks Foreign Languages Program have been scouring the city on a mission to “cleanse” the streets of quirky English signage. Beijing’s new language policy is more than a little reminiscent of the Singapore Government’s Speak Good English Movement, in which Singaporeans, most of whom speak a variation of English tinged with Malay, Tamil, and Mandarin called "Singlish," are vigorously encouraged to speak more like Brits and Americans.
My life as a PhD student (Linguistics) is usually pretty dry, but every once in a while a
storyline comes along that makes all the diphthongs and relative clauses worth
it. Often it has something to do with a small community rising up against
oppressors to declare their language just as valid and dynamic as any other. What can I say, I like drama.
The campaign in Singapore has led to grassroots uprising in favor of Singlish (a heated debate has sprung from the satirical website Talking Cock, for example). It remains to be seen whether Beijingers will mourn the disappearance of the more than 6,500 'Chinglish' signs to date. Singlish and Chinglish are fundamentally different in many ways—Singlish is a first, and sometimes only, language of many young Singaporeans, whereas Chinglish is largely limited to road signs. While Singlish speakers are rising up in defense of their language, Beijing has no shortage of volunteers eager to remove offending signs. (According to a Wall Street Journal story, the head of Beijing's campaign received over 7,000 responses from volunteers offering translation services.)
Beijing's program seems admirably focused on and global outreach and knowledge, yet it's a small step from education about the standard to oppression of valid yet nonstandard forms. And what's the fun of traveling if everywhere you go people speak the Queen's English? Beijing has never been without profound treats for intrepid travelers (and missing signs won't change that), but I’m holding out hope that Beijing residents will feel a hole where their funny English used to be, and will take pride in a English that was all their own.
Check out Michael Erard's recent story in Wired for another linguist's take on Chinglish, Singlish, and evolving English.
Photo: A sign in the garden of Prince Gong Mansion in Beijing, courtesy of Major Clanger via Flickr.