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Singlish, Spanglish, Chinglish?

posted: 9.20.12 by Andrea Lunsford

After I visited Singapore last spring, I posted a blog about what I and my students had learned about Singlish, a mixed dialect that is widely used in Singapore, and especially by the young, but is discouraged (strongly!)  by the government.

I thought of that posting when I saw that David Henry Hwang’s play “Chinglish” is coming to the Berkeley Repertory Company theatre.  I knew from reviews that this play centers on an Anglo businessman from Cleveland who has quite a time negotiating the language and culture of China—often with very funny results.  These negotiations intensify when Daniel, the businessman, falls in love with Xi, whose attitudes on such things as marriage and business relationships are decidedly different from Daniel’s.  In talking with the New York Times, said that on a visit to China he saw “an eagerness among Chinese and Americans to impress one another, yet wildly basic misunderstandings because of language and cultural differences.” And he wasn’t surprised when theatregoers had mixed reactions to the play, in which 25 percent of the dialogue is in Mandarin.

Last week the Chronicle of Higher Education published a piece called “Chinglish: Caught in the Crossfire.” By Professor Ilan Stavans of Amherst College, this blog posting describes an experience Stavans had when he gave a lecture at a university in China this summer.  He was roundly attacked by audience members who were relying on a translator, who may not have caught the nuances of Stavans’s argument—and by some who took offense at his use of a particular word, “traitor,” because it means something very different in China than in the West. 

This experience led Stavans to consider his work on multilingual literature and especially on Spanglish, which he says “is applauded among Latinos in the U.S. for its democratic and innovative qualities.”  When I read this I thought back to my experiences with Singlish and with its appeal to young and to liberal thinkers. I also thought, of course, of African American Vernacular English, which is an extremely powerful form of English—in fact, to many, it is a language in its own right. For Stavans’s part, he says that around midway through his lecture and Q and A, he realized that

. . . there were two distinct sides in the auditorium: the students, who perceived me as a champion of Chinglish since I welcome its mistakes as a sign of improvisational joie de vivre, and some members of the older guard who saw my opinions as anathema.

From my experience, Chinese students tend to be quite formal on occasions such as a public lecture. That day, however, it was different, exhilarating.  The lesson I learned?  It is time to stop ridiculing Chinglish and to study its patterns and the freedom it announces.  For better or worse, it is the future of China.

What are the lessons that teachers should learn?  First, that what counts as “proper English” is not set in stone:  it differs from one English speaking culture to another.  Second, we should learn that dialects like Spanglish, Singlish, African American Vernacular, and Chinglish are indeed here to stay, that they are vibrant and innovative forms of language and that they often represent resistance to the linguistic straitjacket purists of English support.  Finally, I think we must learn that while we know a great deal about language in general and English in particular, we know very little about how English operates in other cultures and countries, much less about the history, structures, and patterns of mixed languages like those of Chinglish.

These are going to be some difficult lessons, but we urgently need to engage them.  In fact, it seems to me that every time I turn around, I find some new area of knowledge that I don’t know but need to know.  In this case, as in many others, I will turn to my students for help.  I wonder how many other “ishes” I will discover with them as my guide.


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