By Michael Knapp
Saturday morning two friends chat. One is Chinese, the other American.
American: “Tomorrow isn’t Sunday?”
“No” to the Chinese person and “no” to the American don’t always mean the same thing.
I’ve traveled to several countries and rarely had difficulty finding English speakers. There were plenty of pronunciation and grammar errors, but most could communicate in English well enough to convey their meanings. China, too, is a country where lots of people can communicate with foreign visitors. Most Chinese can get their meanings across pretty well, but there’s one exception: “Yes” and “no.”
Occasionally I’ve asked questions like, “So, tomorrow we don’t have classes because of the holiday?” The next day is to be a normal work day, but my students answer, “No.” After 10 years here, I’m almost used to this, but when I first came to this great country, answers like this confused me. I was glad to hear about classes being canceled, but later, when I discovered there actually was no day off, I thought my students had purposely tried to deceive me into giving them a free day.
In English, “Yes” means yes. The correct answer to, “Tomorrow we don’t have classes?” is “Yes.” Yes, we have class. But, to those who speak Chinglish, “Yes” means, Yes, I agree with you. So, yes, to this question, for the Chinglish speaker, is “Yes, we don’t have class tomorrow.” Imagine how much trouble I would have been in with my school if I hadn’t gone to class the next day. I would tell my superiors, “My students said there is no class.”
But, after questioning the students, in Chinese of course, they would discover that the students actually told me – in Chinglish – there is indeed class.
Thankfully, before that afternoon, I was told by the office, in normal English, that class would not be canceled.
Compare the two possible outcomes:
I wonder how many visitors to China have lost their way because of this terrible mistake. Imagine a Canadian couple walking down the street looking for the train station. Seeing a Chinese student they inquire, “Excuse me, can you speak English.”
“Yes I can,” the student replies, “How can I help you?”
“We’re looking for the train station. Are we on the correct street?”
“Yes you are,” answers the girl, “it’s that way about 10 minutes.”
“So,” asks the foreigner, “I don’t need to turn left at the next street?”
“Yes.” The self-confident Chinese person believes her answer is correct. The Canadians walk ahead for three minutes and then turn left at the next crossing. They get lost and arrive at the train station late. What happened?
The kind Chinese girl makes one simple error and the couple misses their train. They think the girl lied to them, but in fact, they hadn’t been in China long enough to understand Chinglish. The student meant, “Yes, you don’t have to turn left,” but to the Canadians, “yes” meant, “Yes, you must turn left.”
A British man and a Chinese girl fall in love and hope to get married. During a small argument, the Englishman shouts, “So, you don’t want to marry me?”
She cries out, “No!” Assuming she doesn’t wish to marry to him, he says “goodbye,” and walks out of her life forever. She simply meant, “No, I don’t agree – in fact, I do want to marry you.” But, to the native English speaker, “no” means no. No, I don’t want to marry you. Both hearts are broken because of a simple, but very costly, grammar mistake. If you want foreigners to understand you, never, never make this mistake. Remember, “yes” means yes and “no” means no!
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