Why We Use English Signs?

When I am pushing on correction of the misspellings in Shanghai Metro, I hear about debate whether we should put on English signs in Shanghai. For me, there is no doubt that we have to do it. It is interesting to see why people want to pull English signs out of the direction boards.

The Arguments

The following comments are quoted from the thread under Is English Skill That Important, in courtesy of the commenter.

Mark said:

Reading this post made me feel a little sad. I’m from the southwestern part of the US, and I’m really interested in foreign languages. I grew up with Spanish around (since more than 15% of the people in my state speak Spanish, not English at home). Later, I studied Japanese in college.

Anyway, my experience with Chinese has been terrible. As I grew up I really loved Chinese culture, Chinese movies, Chinese food, etc… My school didn’t offer Chinese language classes, but after I graduated from college I moved to Taiwan, hoping to learn Chinese. After moving here, I’ve been taking Chinese classes at Shifandaxue for nearly a year. The classes are ok, and my reading is improving, but I’m learning almost NOTHING from daily life!

Why? It’s because Taiwanese are so f#$@ing obsessed with English, that as soon as they see a foreign-looking (i.e. WHITE) guy, they use English. Even though I gave up my job, and traveled 10,000 miles from home, I still can’t have a Chinese language environment, and it’s all because of how crazy they are about English. I guess there’s a racial element too. I have an ABC friend who speaks much worse Chinese than me, but nobody pushes her to switch to English when they talk with her. People don’t even know where I’m from, they just see the color of my skin and then assume I MUST speak English. I’d give anything just to be able to find a place where people would just speak to me in Chinese (even if my Chinese is only so-so).

One last thing I’ve thought of… English is actually only the world’s 3rd most spoken langague, according to ethnologue.com

#3 English 470,000,000 speakers

#2 Spanish 490,000,000 speakers

#1 Mandarin 1,200,000,000 speakers

Look at that. 60 years ago, French was considered the world langauge of diplomacy. Now, it’s become English. If China ever becomes a rich country, I think I know what langauge will be dominant 60 years from now…

Posted by: Mark on January 16, 2004 11:19 AM

Nick added:

I work for Pearson Education the largest English Language Publisher in the world. I have been to Shanghai to bring english teaching software to Mainland China. My opinions maybe biased however I feel strongly:

You can learn other languages without losing your culture. China has been around a long time and the culture has remained in tact. I think people confuse american cultural invasion with the fact that people everywhere want prosperity they want cars, nice homes, good life. Having more prosperity is not an inport of america. We have a developed country and we have all these things. One hundred years or more Europe was the envy and Britain was the ideal before that it was France.

English is not the world language because of america. Britain established english in many places of the world during the colonial period. Post WWII American economy and business dealings made English the language of business and commerce. Now English is taught pretty much as a second language. Why?

English is simply an easy language to learn. I know many people in Shanghai who are self taught. Something that would be almost impossible with Mandarin. Because of the tonal qualities of Chinese, Japanese and other asian languages it makes it very hard for europeans and americans to speak these languages properly. The romance languages like english, spanish, french etc are very similiar so they can pick up english quickly and we share a common alphabet. The written languages of asia especially china are not aligned with the spoken language making it even more difficult.

In asia in particular there are so many numerous dialects which are so different they are like a foreign language to each other. Take cantonese versus mandarin. As stated above english is a simple common format for everyone to be able to communicate with.

Does knowing english give you a better life in China. The answer depends on the person. It definitely gives you better work opportunities but its up to the person to seek those opportunities out. This would be especially true in areas where people interface with people in other countries like the big costal cities etc.

History has shown people borrow from each other’s cultures. I dont thing there is a need to worry the Chinese will all become Americans like some of the phobic comments made above. I do believe that there are many misperceptions about China in the states and in China about America. The bottom line is the more people can communicate with each other the better off we will all be and the safer the world will be.

Posted by: Nick on July 25, 2003 07:46 AM

Anna’s oppion:

Great website! I was looking for info about PUDONG and stumbled upon it. Wonderful information and thanks for being so kind and friendly! As for learning English, it does help open up doors of communication of others. I do think it is important to have your own dialect/language as well. I can’t speak my mom’s dialect but I understand it and Mandarin/Cantonese. I studied Japanese, Vietnamese and Spanish (but I am able to do small talk at best with the others). I believe communication with others is vital for international understanding but “when in rome, do what romans do” I do agree. Or at least have people aware of this. Just my small two cents worth.

Posted by: Anna on September 3, 2004 03:27 AM

Geno’s long arguement that English should NOT be the world language

Dear Nick,

No offense here, but I have to disagree with just about everything in your post. I’m a Korean-American who’s traveled thru much of the world, both as my parents moved around and on my own for business and vacation. If there’s one thing I’ve learned with certainty, it’s that this claim that people utter all the time– that “English is the international language of business, pop culture, diplomacy, and just about everything else”– is totally false. TOTALLY BOGUS. In fact, the more I hear this myth about English taking over the world, the more I become convinced that it’s a thinly veiled attempt at commercial imperialism by the USA and UK, a way to pry loose and ruin longstanding business relationships that many non-English speaking countries have with each other so as to draw them into the commercial sphere of the US, UK, and other English-speaking countries. Oh, and also to force the poorer countries of the world to bear the cost of language-learning and translation, so that the US in particular gets to boost its profit margin even higher. English is popular as an international language but not nearly to the extent that people play it up, yet USAers in particular repeat this lie so often that many people become duped into believing that it’s a truth, to the advantage of USA companies and at the expense of home-grown firms.

I heard a story on the radio recently about an American businessman– Jeffrey Jones– who’s actually pushing hard to make English the official language of South Korea, claiming that he’s acting benevolently in Korea’s self-interest and increasing their national wealth. It made my blood boil to hear this carpetbagging jerk from the USA try to push something that would essentially ruin my country’s ancient culture and split us from our own history, and even more angry that there are apparently enough gullible idiots in the Korean government and school system to help this guy along. Look, I’m all for Koreans doing the English-immersion programs and improving their command of English (and other languages too), but I’m disgusted by this misguided infatuation with the language.

I for one think that Koreans would benefit more by learning Japanese and Mandarin, since these are the two countries that Koreans will predominantly be doing business with. China particularly will be very powerful and in 20 years Mandarin may be even more important than English both on the Asian Pacific coast and worldwide, so it would be foolish to get obsessed with English as a foreign language at the expense of Mandarin. Nick, you yourself point out that French used to be the ideal language, which goes to show that “world languages” change over all the time, and we shouldn’t get caught up in the fad of the moment. I spent a good deal of time in various countries of Europe, and while there are a lot of people who can speak good English there, English isn’t nearly as much of a common standard as a lot of people pretend. In most of southern and southeastern Europe, places like Italy, Romania, and Greece, they tend to use French as the lingua franca, not English. In most of northern and eastern Europe, in Scandinavia, the Netherlands, Poland, Slovakia, Lithuania, Finland, Estonia, and many of the other former Soviet Republics, German is the lingua franca much more than English. Some of the best German literature and movies these days come from Eastern Europe! German is also the main second language in Serbia, Croatia, Turkey, and some other places farther away from Germany because of all the immigrant and business contacts between Germany and those countries. In much of Central Asia and some other former Soviet republics, Russian is still a lingua franca. (And a lot of Russians speak perfect German and French and actively use them, again with a lot of Russian immigrants going to France and Germany recently.) In North Africa and sub-Saharan Africa, French is more of a lingua franca than English, and in East Africa it’s Swahili. In India English is not widely spoken– I’ve been to India and while some elites do speak it, Tamil is a sort-of lingua franca for the south while Hindi is the lingua franca for the north and center. (I’ve actually seen statistics showing that Hindi is spoken by millions more people than English, and in a lot of different countries.) Spanish is the lingua franca for Latin America. The point being that in the EU French and German are both shaping up as important lingua francas, with Russian, Swahili, Hindi, and Spanish having that role elsewhere, and probably Mandarin soon in East Asia.

Nick, you claimed that “English is not the world language because of america. Britain established english in many places of the world during the colonial period.” That’s totally wrong. In the vast majority of places that Britain ruled, they are not using English as their principal or official language. In Singapore English is co-official, it’s also co-official in African countries like South Africa and Zimbabwe (though not very widely spoken), and of course English is used in the white settler colonies like Australia, but in most former Brit colonies they’ve switched back to their indigenous languages. In Burma, Malaysia and Pakistan for example they may use English at times as a second-language but English is definitely not the main language used. As I pointed out in India, Hindi is official and Hindi and Tamil share lingua franca status in different regions of the country. Up to the fall of the British Empire after World War 2, English wasn’t very widely used, and so the popularity of English today is entirely a result of the US, American business, military and pop culture particularly. If US gets weak for whatever reason, English won’t be nearly as widespread.

Nick, you also claim that “English is simply an easy language to learn.” This is simply outrageous and totally wrong. I’ve talked to a lot of Japanese and Koreans who say that English is extremely difficult to learn– in fact, most Japanese and Koreans say that German is a lot easier since they have similar grammar structure. English has a totally nonsensical spelling and difficult pronunciation, plus it has some very complicated grammar in many places, and vocabulary that’s all over the place. Asian languages by contrast (particularly Chinese) have very simple grammar, no tenses or weird changes of verbs, nouns, or pronouns, plus a rich but easy-to-learn vocabulary.

You go on to say that “I know many people in Shanghai who are self taught (in English). Something that would be almost impossible with Mandarin. Because of the tonal qualities of Chinese, Japanese and other asian languages it makes it very hard for europeans and americans to speak these languages properly.” Again, totally false. I know a large number of Americans who can speak fluent Chinese, Japanese and Korean and who in some cases are self-taught (usually spent some time in East Asia too of course to get fluent). Some Americans and Europeans have studied many foreign languages, and they’ve told me that Chinese is actually the easiest of all to learn because of the very simple grammar and easy-to-learn vocabulary. They’re not bothered by the tones nearly as much as you think. It’s unfamiliar at first but you get used to it. Remember that tones aren’t in Korean either, but lots of Koreans and Korean-Americans learn Chinese dialects, and it’s not too hard to do it.

You also say that “The romance languages like english, spanish, french etc are very similiar so they can pick up english quickly and we share a common alphabet. The written languages of asia especially china are not aligned with the spoken language making it even more difficult.” First of all Nick, English is not a Romance language, it’s a Germanic language. Second, Chinese written language is aligned with the spoken language (each character consists of a phonetic as well as a meaning radical), and if anything the Chinese written system actually makes it a lot easier for Asian countries to communicate with each other, since they can use the writing even if they don’t speak each other’s language. It does take some years to master the writing but again, it’s not as hard as you make it out to be. Most of the characters are pretty unique and it’s not too tough to learn them and tell them apart. In addition for many purposes both native and non-native Chinese speakers just use pinyin Romanization of Chinese which is also popular, so Chinese has the advantage that it can be written both with the characters and with the pinyin phonetic romanization, and people understand it.

You say that “In asia in particular there are so many numerous dialects which are so different they are like a foreign language to each other. Take cantonese versus mandarin. As stated above english is a simple common format for everyone to be able to communicate with.” First of all, as someone who’s been to UK and Australia I can tell you that there are many places in those English-speaking countries where an American won’t know what in the world anyone is saying, since the dialect is so strong. Second, why do you assume that English would be a better common format than any of the Asian languages? As far as a common language goes, East Asian countries have a strong historical connection to Chinese culture and language and in fact over 40% of the words in Korean, Japanese, and some other languages come from Chinese originally. Plus the cultural features of Chinese language are a lot closer for us. So it’s much easier for us to use Mandarin as a common language than English there. On the other side of the coin, in many parts of USA we don’t even use English as the main language. In a lot of states, including in California where I grew up and other states that used to be part of Mexico, Spanish is used more than English, and you’d better know it. (In my middle school our teachers all told us that Spanish was the language that everybody had to learn and speak fluently to get ahead.)

The one place where I agree with you is here-“The bottom line is the more people can communicate with each other the better off we will all be and the safer the world will be.” Yes, I agree. But this has to work going both ways. I’m sick of so many of my fellow Americans being so lazy that they expect everybody in foreign countries to speak English to them-they should at least make some effort to learn the main languages of the places they visit. I think it’s fine that people in Asia and Europe learn English-I think it’s also fine and helpful that many of them get fluent in French, German and Hindi too. But in return, we Americans have to stop being so lazy and spoiled about languages ourselves. If more Americans actually made the effort to learn French, German, Spanish, Hindi, Chinese, Swahili, and many other important languages, this would help communication just as much as other countries learning American English. (I’m obviously not saying that every American should learn 10 languages-I’m saying that learning foreign languages should be more valued in general for Americans, and each American should work hard to get fluent in at least one or two foreign languages, the way most Europeans and Asians do.) My parents taught me Korean but I also worked hard to learn Spanish and German at school, and I take a lot of pride in speaking them. In return, people from other countries appreciate it a lot when I speak their languages rather than demanding that they speak mine all the time. Communication goes in two directions, and we Americans need to do more on our side of the bargain. In addition to other advantages, it would also help Americans to stop being so narrow-minded. A lot of our stupid foreign policy mistakes and arrogant actions recently are probably the result of a self-centeredness, the fact that many Americans think the world revolves around them. We’ll help ourselves as well as the rest of the world by breaking out of this.

Posted by: Geno on September 29, 2004 04:23 PM

Kwong blamed why an American came to Shanghai for 5 years but didn’t show effort to learn the language.


you are so freaking right about “communication goes in two directions”. I have been working in US for over 10 years, and recently relocate back to Shanghai on a new assignment, it really pissed me off to see whole bunch of Chinese folk need to speak English in a meeting just because there is one dude from US who never makes real effort to learn the language, he has been in Shanghai for over 5 years and he knew he has to deal with Chinese people 24-7, like most of of American, they take it for granted.

Posted by: kwong on September 29, 2004 10:37 PM

Bigbro’s post is interesting to claim that the buyer’s language provails:

The language for international communications evolves around commercial activities. In trade dealings, usually there is a buyer (customer) and a seller (supplier) and over time the buyer’s language provails. This stems from the natural law of “customer is king.” In today’s world, the US is still the largest buyer in terms of dollar value of its market, so English is the leading-brand tool of communication. That could change over time after (if) other markets surpass the US in buying power.

This CNN article talked about the English vs. Mandarin issue: http://www.cnn.com/2004/TECH/science/02/27/future.language.ap/index.html. The following paragraphs were taken the article.

Nonetheless, English is strong as a second language, and teaching it has become a growth industry, said Montgomery, a Seattle-based geologist and energy consultant.

Graddol noted, though that employers in parts of Asia are already looking beyond English. “In the next decade the new ‘must learn’ language is likely to be Mandarin.”


“The expectation that someone should always aspire to native speaker competence when learning a foreign language is under challenge,” he comments.

Posted by: bigbro on September 30, 2004 01:23 PM

Why English? Buyer’s Language?

I agree with Bigbro that the root of the popularity of English is economic reasons. People won’t choose a language because it is simple, or more people speak it. The buyer’s language rules – I agree on that.

I saw some interesting examples. In the Xiang Yang Market, the venders can speak good English, because most buyers can speak English. In Tailand, venders can speak Mandarin, because there are so many visitors from China visiting the place. In Paris, it is the same. With increasing number of visitors from China so the shopping malls are broadcasting using Chinese.

It is the power – the buying power, and the economic powers, that made the choice.

I talked with my brother yesterday and he described what happened in Toronto. Two years ago, Cantonese are the most used “Chinese” there. The new comers from mainland have to learn some Cantonese to survive. The local Canadian salespersons in shops have to learn some Cantonese to gain business. Very soon, with more and more people (or “customers”) migrate to that city; mandarin has become the official Chinese language. The English/French speaking sales persons just found the language they learnt so many years is not called Chinese any more and they have to learn completely a new language to keep the customers. It is interesting story that proofs the buyers’ language becomes THE language.

Another example is Japanese. When Wicresoft starts to provide software development services for Japanese companies, the signature of the Engineers becomes Japanese. Well. No body made the choice – it is the choice everyone would make – to provide easy access to the customers.

English is not the Preferred Language for Local People

Recently, I saw an article in the newspaper criticizing the greetings in hotels and big companies. They use English first and repeat it in Chinese. He argued “It turned out most customers in the hotel or companies are Chinese and how many time was wasted to listen to English?”

I agree that every business should follow “Customers first” rule, but do follow which language the customer prefers. English is not always the preferred language, especially both party can speak the local language. It is ridiculous for two persons who can speak Mandarin to talk in English – for whatever reason.

English Signs

After so many years, English became the most popular language for international communication because of the strong buying power of English speaking countries. I believe it is proper to add English signs to airports, to Metro and to other public transportation to make the city more accessible. The visitors are the buyers and buy making the city more accessible and friendly to them, the city can grow and so does the country. When the country becomes stronger, the language can be more popular… That is how the world works in the last century.

I do agree that putting more languages in Airport and Metro is better. However, it is not possible to put every language onto the same board. It is not acceptable to use only one language so making other people who cannot read it totally lost. English seems a good choice, even for visitors whose language is not English.

This is the reason why I spent effort to talk to the Metro to make sure they put on the CORRECT English signs on the boards.

29 thoughts on “Why We Use English Signs?

  1. Do anyone here have experience with the chinese language school in Laoshan Xi Lu near Babaiban (Pudong) ? I want to join, if it’s good.

  2. Reading Nick’s comment I got a little angry too, I guess, but I think Geno answered well.

    As a New Zealander, we are constantly amazed when we travel how difficult it is for people to understand us. We can understand British English, US English, Australian, Singaporean — even Chinese English!! Because we are used to having all our multimedia imported from abroad. What really astounds me however, is that Americans cannot understand us at all!! We actually have to make an effort to change the way we pronounce certain words in order to communicate with them. Sometimes this is quite funny.

    Anyway, what I really wanted to say was that I have to put my two cents worth in the argument that English is NOT an easy language to learn. Comparing with many Asian languages, possibly with the exception of Tibetan, English grammar is ridiculously complicated, and it takes a very long time before you can actually use your English. Chinese, however, has the added benefit that you can string a few words together in the right order, but don’t have to worry about tense, plurals or even subjects half the time! It is so contextual that it is really easy to start using it since you don’t need to have a large vocabulary. As for tones, that’s just training your ear. You can pick them up with time, and most Chinese are gracious enough to forgive your tonal mistakes since the dialects all use different tones as well.

    I’ve never been to Taiwan, so I can’t comment on the ease of learning Chinese there, but I found during my time in China the best way to practice Chinese is to go where people cannot speak English. Small children are a favourite for me, as are people with boring jobs and lower education such as doormen, guards, rubbish collectors, people selling stuff on the street and so on. The hairdresser is an excellent place to practice Chinese, since all over the world it is their business to talk to you while you’re in the chair, and they are often unlikely to speak more than a few words of English. Get out of the university and on to the streets!!

    Regarding writing however, I must admit I find this difficult, and I am eternally grateful to the Chinese government for having roadsigns in Pinyin/English for me. Learning writing is basically applying yourself to study, a personality characteristic that is not often present in me. Us Westerners have less patience with this sort of rote-learning, and hence have a real fear of Chinese characters. But even people like me can learn over time.

  3. Airport signs, and street and metro signs, should be multilanguaged for the simple reason that the customers (travellers) are from all over the world. This has nothing to do with patriotism or unpatriotism. All major airports in the world provide this convenience service—some US airports have signs and broadcast their trem/train schedules in as many as seven languages, both Mandarin and Cantonese Chinese included. This is part of being competitive and doing good business. English signs are not only necessary, they are an integral part being a modern international airport and international city which Shanghai is. These small signs bring more friends to Shanghai. They bring retail money and international investment into Shanghai and China.

    Speaking of buyer’s language. Do you know who learned and spoke simple English long before the Chinese college students found “English Corners” in the early 1980’s? The peasant gift vendors (many of whom were probably illiterate) at tourist hotpoints such as Huangshan, Ba Da Ling and Qinshihuang’s Bing Ma Yong!

    Since Jian Shuo mentioned Canada, here is a somewhat semi-related story I once heard. In the ninteen fifties or so, the Canaidian government got information that US was finally going to discard the old English measurement system (miles, pounds/ounces, feet/inches) and use the metric system. So the Canadians decided, instead of falling behind the Americaqns in everything again, to make the changeover quicklly. They invested and changed all highway speed signs and distance markers to km/h and km, which meant huge amount of money since all Canadian signs are English/French bilanguaged. After that though, the Americans abandoned the plan and stayed with the English system and all the US roads, to this day, are still marked with the Miles and MPH system.

    Another semi-related item. John of sinosplice.com wrote in their new group blog a Chinese essay about the ways Chinese people say “Hello” to foreigners: http://chinese.dreamsofwhitetiles.com/index.php?p=4#comments. If you don’t read Chinese, someone has actually translated it into English: http://www.sinosplice.com/weblog/archives/001415.html#5842

  4. Twenty years ago if someone speaks Mandarin in the streets of Hong Kong, I am sure he or she will be met with cold shoulder due Hong Kong was much richer as compared to China. People in Hong Kong looks to English speaking westerner to seek their fortune. Today, things are totally reversing itself as Hong Kong needs the tourist dollars from China to sustain her economic growth.

    In the years to come, I think English will still be the dominate language of the world, just look at Japan in the 70′ who was almost the second richest country in the world, but her culture and language are not adopted by the rest of the world.

    The acceptance of English also means the adoption of the culture of the English speaking countries. In China, I can see American culture invasion has profound impact on most Chinese, like the way they live – cars, supermarket and big house, the way they eat – fast food and junk food, the way they enjoy – Hollywood movies, not to mention the political structure. I don’t know whether it is good or bad for China and I shall leave it to the wisdom of the people of China.


  5. To pursue the prefect English also means its readiness to receive its culture behind it, inevitable it will contrast with the traditional culture of China, as a result, I saw parents line-up to buy Harry Potter as the reading material of their children, I dont’ know whether it is plain stylish or an attempt to discard Chinese culture.

    To erect English signs can show China is progressing into International stage but I hope she can still preserve her own identity and not to be subculture into the melting-pot. Just look at how South Korea fight off the Japanese culture invasion in the last thirty years and distinctly become Korean, othwise Korea will still remain as Japanese colony.


  6. Mr.Wang

    When you mentioned Xiang Yang Market, I remember saw a sign posted in English suggesting visitor not to trade with vendors outside of the premise, it was written in clumsy English but no typos. Perhaps you can suggest to the caretaker with a better version of signage to improve the image of the market.

    Stephen – many thanks

  7. Dear All,

    Don’t worry about this culture invasion thing. Its a farce. Whatever you think are being morphed into due to culture invasion is not true. Because the things you are now using were not there before. If you think by learning english you are loosing your culture than you have defined your culture to be stagnant. Look at your history and you will see that it has been ever evolving. Thus whatever english you are speaking its your language and part of your culture it is not spoken in the way ever britishers did or american. You are a part of it. So if your little child is learning harry potter than remember harry potter was not a british history. Its a global culture. However if you continue to stick to your prehistoric thinking then i think you should change the word westernize to chinized after all the whole world is now using everything made in China. Well i am learning chinese and i love it !


  8. Just compare people in Hong Kong and those in Shanghai and you will see the result of the melting pot. People in Hong Kong may be knowledgeable and stylish but lack of compassion and unity, although Shanghai is trailing behing Hong Kong, but the enthusiasm of the city is overwhelming and it will prevail, the Chinese content should not be contaminated through her evolution into modern age.


  9. I have been to Hongkong and its one of my favorite city in the world. The people are really nice. I was lost a couple of time and each time some gentlemen took away his precious time to help me reach my hotel. The city is vibrant. I still haven’t bee to Shanghai but i am eagerly look forward to visit. Its wrong to blame that modern age is creating anything bad. I am Indian and back home I was told that how Indian’s respect their guest. Nobody equals the kind of respect we show. Which on travelling around the world I haven’t found to be exactly true. There have been so many places where i have found the people to be more hospitable. Infact the more modern people are the less likely to be sufferring from their traditional prejudices.

  10. Stephen,

    When you say “In the years to come, I think English will still be the dominate language of the world, just look at Japan in the 70′ who was almost the second richest country in the world, but her culture and language are not adopted by the rest of the world.”

    You have to remember that Japan, although the world’s second-richest country, has still been a distant second to the USA in GNP since WWII, with a substantially smaller population. Thus using bigbro’s “buying power model” (which is applicable, at least to a rough approximation), Japan’s cultural reach is still much less than that of US for a long time period, and things like broadcasting and movies out of Japan are a lot less. Still, it’s not accurate to say that “her culture and language are not adopted by the rest of the world.” I don’t know exactly what you mean here, because the culture/language of USA hasn’t really been adopted that much either, as I pointed out in my post before– people tend to stick to their native cultures or adopt elements of a “regional beacon.”

    If you mean that English is widely spoken as a foreign language and US books/films/TV have popularity outside of the US, that’s true, but frankly that goes for Japan too. Here in the US Japanese culture– especially in things like manga and anime– is a trendsetter for some elements of USA culture. Lots of US students like to study Japanese as do many in Europe– Japanese culture is truly enormous in California, and since I moved east I’ve found it to be pretty popular around here too. And in East Asia, Japanese culture is very widespread, all the Japanese TV and music pop-stars, despite the fact that so many people, especially us from Korea, were brutalized during the Japanese occupation.

    My point above was subtle so I’ll restate it: I have nothing against people in East and South Asia becoming more conversant with English and using English on signs and in public places where a lot of tourists gather. At out present historical moment English is the language of the world’s most powerful country, and the language in which a lot of interesting culture and useful technology is expressed. What I am arguing vehemently against is this lemming-like stupidity– yes, stupidity– that makes people act as if they’re “left out,” “primitive,” or “behind the curve” if they don’t speak English like a native. In Korea, many parents used to send their kids to America during their formative years– separated from their Mom and Dad– or do this awful procedure to cut the muscle tissue beneath the tongue, b/c they wanted them to speak English without an accent. This is an outrage, and it just shows that too many people are caught up in the fad of the moment. Tomorrow is always another day, folks, and what’s hip and important and popular today may be much less so tomorrow. That’s why it’s important that cultures in developing countries, especially those in East Asia, take pride in and reinforce their own ancient cultures and make sure that they maintain a close connection with them. In the long run, I’m not sure what historians will say about the world in the early 21st century– probably the USA as the world’s sole superpower will be an anomaly, a temporary blip. And if countries jettison their own cultures in favor of the USA-fad-of-the-moment, they’ll be left adrift and ruined if that powerful countries is no longer so powerful.

    Even today, fluent English is useful for a small subset of people in East Asian countries in a subset of jobs that involve a subset of business, tourism, hotel industry, whatever. That’s many millions of people, obviously, but this should categorically not lead to drastic changes like the adoption of English as an official language in a country which has been producing great literature, philosophy, and music in Korean for many millennia before the USA came into existence, or even before English materialized as a language. That’s just lemming-like stupidity, and forgetting our ancient history while becoming too wrapped up in what may be a passing fad.

    Wangjianshuo, IMHO China should also restructure its own educational system somewhat– the Chinese government overemphasizes English way too much in the curriculum. Again, it’s fine for people to have a basic familiarity with English, but only a small fraction of students are really going to have the aptitude for language as a main subject, and an even smaller number will actually use English practically for a job when they finish high school and university in China. I frankly believe that China is wasting an enormous amount of time and money on English in the educational system, when the Chinese would be a lot better off using some of those resources in the curriculum for mathematics, science, technology, engineering, and native Chinese culture, which is one of the richest and most ancient in the world. This is categorically not “turning inward” or anything like that– it’s just plain common sense. Just offer upper-level English courses as an elective subject the way they do in Europe, and for those who really like English and want to master it (which will still be many millions of people), fine, but it shouldn’t be forced upon people the way China is currently doing it, since the vast majority of people won’t have much use for it, and in the time they spent struggling with English they will have therefore not learned another subject that might suit them better and be more useful. What’s now going on is just a waste, and again smacks of lemming-like faddishness– different people have different skills, and if some students prefer focusing on math, science, business, political science, music, art, or engineering rather than English, they should be encouraged to do so. This will also help China to become much better off economically, since it won’t waste so many resources teaching a language that the vast majority of students won’t take to and won’t use beyond a basic familiarity, and it will instead be investing in teaching things like science, engineering, and business that will be more useful and efficient, and also cater to students’ natural interests.

    As a final thought, I should supplement what bigbro has stated by pointing out that a language’s importance is also a product of how important its people decide to make it in addition to buying power alone. Simple willpower. Although French isn’t all that widely spoken as a first language in comparison to, say, Russian or German, French is still important as a world language in part because the French and Quebecers are so protective of it. And since France has such a rich and vibrant culture, both historically and currently, it has a lot to offer, which makes French a still very popular language. People in China especially have over a billion people who speak Chinese and one of the world’s most ancient and richest cultures, and if some Chinese people would simply be more admiring of their own language and cultural achievements– and stop being so meekly deferential to the fad of the moment– then Chinese will instantly become even more popular as a world language, I promise. Again, it’s fine to put up the road signs and public places also in English, but I feel that too many Chinese people have an inferiority complex about their own language and culture, which they should not have. Remember that the world in many ways is what it is today because of Chinese accomplishments in science, philosophy, and technology from ancient times and Middle Ages that spread to Europe. Also, considering the way Chinese people were brutally treated and massacred by the British during the Opium Wars during the 1800s– even worse than both they and we Koreans were treated by the Japanese later on– the Chinese would be foolish to become too infatuated with a culture that still carries that historical baggage. Many English-speaking people will look down on Chinese culture if Chinese people cater too easily to them. As Kwong said, anyone who’s been in China for 5 years should not be allowed to force a business meeting full of Chinese people to be conducted in English only. Also as Kaili was pointing out, English-speaking people will naturally tend to learn Chinese more efficiently and better if Chinese people themselves regard Chinese as being more important for them to learn– simple psychology at work here. For my part, I love to speak and write in English and I’ve even won literary prizes in it, but I never, ever consider English language or culture to be superior to my Korean homeland. They’re different and complement each other, not superior and inferior. If we Asians just show our own culture and languages that respect, more Americans will start learning our language and culture, too. I’d certainly feel much more comfortable if more Americans start learning the languages of places they visit, rather than expecting everyone to roll out a red carpet for them.

  11. Thumbs up to Geno. Well said.

    The principle in Geno’s last paragraph can be used to answer criticisms raised under some other posts where someone objected to using “Lu” in the street signs. Shanghai and other Chinese cities should provide travellers with the convenience of English signs but should keep the names of everything as close to the orginal Chinese Pinyin as possible. Do not translate Lu, Dajie, Dadao, Hutong, Nong, Xiang, etc. This is a more integral way and facilitates communications better.

  12. Asia by Blog

    Asia by Blog is a twice weekly feature, posted on Monday and Thursday, providing links to Asian blogs and their views on the news in this fascinating region. Please send me an email if you would like to be notified of new editions. Previous editions ca…

  13. bigbro,

    Road in place of Lu is actually used by the Metro when I saw the picture posted by Mr. Wang, I don’t know whether there is a continuation by the city on this issue.


  14. Geno,

    I agree with you but next time please write me a concise paragraph rather than the above, thank you.


  15. Interesting discussion! Haven’t visited JS’s blog for a week and suddenly, people are having a heated argument/debate about using English signs. Geno had explained his opinions well, no doubt about that. I just want to say that it’s important that we keep an open mind, RESPECT and accept each other’s differences in race, culture, language, society, religion, etc. Let’s keep our cool, peeps :-)

  16. Geno,

    Some excellent comments you’ve provided here– you’ve helped to dispel some of the same misconceptions I also run into all the time. For some reason many Americans like to tout that “English is the easist language to learn,” forgetting that anybody’s native language will always seem especially easy to them– they’ve grown up with it and it feels second nature. If one steps back and thinks about it, there are many aspects of English that are extremely difficult for people who speak other languages, such as our often nonsensical spelling (and even more confusing pronunciation), along with grammatical oddities like the way we use “do” as an auxiliary verb in question sentences (“Do you have it?” instead of “Have you it?”) and in negative sentences (“I do not have it” rather than “I have not it”). Above all, English is confusing b/c of its history– a Germanic language with a large and often unorganized overlay of Norman French and Latin. German, Dutch, and Russian also borrowed from French and Latin but kept their underlying structure intact, whereas English is more of a garble.

    My suspicions have been confirmed by talking to many Europeans and Asians who don’t think English is as easy as many other languages. For whatever reason I’ve also noticed that “there’s something about German”– I’ve had people from Japan, Korea, Taiwan, and India all tell me that German is much easier to learn than English. Possibly b/c German has a subject-object-verb word order like many Asian languages, also German has those long “phrase adjectives” like Asian languages (“the large to-the-east with-many-people having-a-red-roof grocery store” rather than “the large grocery store to the east, with a red roof on top and a lot of people inside”), but mainly it’s because German has a very regular spelling, phonetics, and grammar, and at least in spoken speech memorizing all the articles really isn’t all that important. A lot of people seem to agree on Spanish too, as a (relatively) easy-to-learn language.

    FWIW I’m one of the Caucasian Americans learning Mandarin Chinese that you mentioned, and I agree, it’s not nearly as difficult as all the Chicken Littles seem to claim that it is. In fact, Chinese is in some ways an ideal, streamlined common language for people anywhere (no matter what their native language) to learn as a second tongue. Chinese grammar is blessedly simple, no noun or verb declensions, no irregular verbs and no inflection of verbs for tense or number, no articles, no painful conjugation tables to memorize– verb number and tenses, and adjectives are just represented with simple auxiliaries. IMHO Chinese does have its own grammatical idiosyncrasies like the long adjective phrases, heavy use of context, and all those measure words (three cats = san zhe mao, six people = liu ge ren), though in truth English also has measure words (two sheets of paper, five bottles of wine). But overall, Chinese probably has the most simplified and easy-to-learn grammar of any language. Plus, even very difficult technical words (usually from Greek and Latin in English) are, in Chinese, built from simple characters (molecule = “fenzi” = “little part”; battery = “dianchi” = electrical pool). I guess since ancient Chinese was a classical prestige language, modern Chinese is able to build new words straight from it– almost as though the ancient Roman Empire were a modern nation, using Latin, by analogy– whereas European languages tend to look to ancient Greek and Latin for that, rather than building from their own languages.

    I also think that Chinese would work just fine as a world language; any language, if it goes global and is used as a lingua franca by people for whom it’s not a native tongue, makes adjustments and accommodations for a broad swath of people to understand and use it. The simple grammar and vocabulary of Chinese make it well-suited for that, and IMHO conversational Chinese isn’t too tough at all (outside of the tones, which can take a bit of getting used to). My guess is that for Chinese to really go global, it’ll be really important to have it representable as both the hanzi character system and phonetic pinyin. They both have their advantages, since the characters are more “general” as a writing system and could be used (at least to some extent) even when people have different spoken languages– e.g. many Japanese and Koreans (even some Vietnamese) who know the characters can read some Chinese. Whereas, the phonetic system requires fewer characters to memorize, and easier to look up words (also just more familiar in different countries). I’ve been interested in reading some of the scientific experiments written in Chinese-language journals, and the characters aren’t as tough as I used to think they were– you get the hang of it. But it’s true, many Westerners are intimidated by them at first, and they’d have a much easier time easing into Chinese if they could use the pinyin system to write, at least for a while. In any case, I’d suspect that Chinese as a common “trade language” in e.g. the Pacific Rim probably would get written up quite frequently in pinyin form. Just one of the things that happens with a globally important language– it acquires some extra flexibility to meet the needs of an expanded population of (often non-native) speakers.

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  18. Briefly, an Englishman resident in Japan.

    Was in Japan from 1973-93, returned to UK for 10 years, now back in Japan. Glad I left the UK, but Japan is no longer the dynamic place I left. Need a challenge to get me on the PC at 06.00 every morning.

    From the English native speaker’s perspective, China looks somewhat like Japan some 30 years ago. Am making a first exploratory visit to China in June 2005. Anyone out there willing to take the time to point me in the right direction.

    Experience: EFL teaching (naturally), translation editing, ESP text book development, guardian for Japanese children at British boarding school, passenger car importation (buy at auction in Japan, ship to UK).

    Main interest is writing. How about editing an English language website for Internet diarists.

  19. Great website I appreciate all the information you provided.

    For me I want to learn Chinese, I would love to see Pin Ying around.

    But I know English is the language of business. And that won’t change

    since we now have the internet.

  20. Hi. this is the best site about Shanghai I’ve stumbled upon so far. I think Jian Shuo is right. English is the most spread language because it’s the customer’s language. I am from Costa Rica. The main income source for Costa Rica is tourism, mostly from the United States. This has forced many people to learn english, if they want to succeed in the tourism business. If you walk by San Jose’s central avenue you would be surprised by some beggars asking for money in english!!! Mostly to tall withe dudes, of course: “One dollar sir, please”.

    I am happy that signs in english are used in China, otherwise I would not stand a chance of getting around since my native language is Spanish and I don’t think many people speak Spanish as a second language in Shanghai. I don’t think english is the dominant language in the world but I do think that it’s the first choice when it comes to second language learning.

    English is my second language. It is for most people. That’s what makes it so important.

    I know a little french, and I do wish to learn some Mandarin, gosh it’s so damn hard.



  21. Some of you are wayyy to emotional, and are basing your arguments on your feelings rather than reality. I don’t want to get into the pissing contest, but I will say that English is actually a fairly easy language to learn. The problem is that it is not being taught correctly…esecially in Korea. Since 1920 the trend in teaching English was based on the memorization of grammar rules and test taking techniques. As a result, many Koreans had very limited speaking ability, despite having studied English for many years. It wasn’t until the olympics of 88 that Korea realized that they weren’t even learning standard English, but a koreanized version that was filtered through Japan beforehand. Let me break it down. The Korean ministry of Education revised the nation’s English teaching guidlines 6 times with no change in efficiency. One should also wonder why Korea, being self sufficient, would opt to furnish their own English materials. Teachers who can’t speak English, using a syllabus that emphasizes memorization, and teaching from books filled with something not quite English. It’s not that English is hard to learn…you just have to go to where people know how to teach it.

  22. English language is easy to learn even if your don’t start learning at young age.

    As for Chinese language it the other way round, you have to learn it when you are young.

    English is a Global language and it easy to link people from different race and culture.

    There are many foriegn investements in China, especially Shanghai and Beijing. They are like many other cosmopolitan cities in the world, we see more foriegners in China than before. So English is very important to the Chinese if they want to communicate and understand the people from other part of the world.

    I have extracted a news dated 17 Oct 06 from a Chinese paper: 乱翻译 闹笑话 ‘宫保鸡’变’政府虐待鸡’

      (综合电)”Government abuse chicken”(意思是政府虐待鸡),赫然出现在北京一家餐馆的菜牌上,试问有哪个外国游客敢吃?



    This is just a reminder for improvement and it is not meant to insult the Chinese.

  23. I was looking for info about PUDONG and stumbled upon it. Wonderful information and thanks for being so kind and friendly! As for learning English, it does help open up doors of communication of others. I do think it is important to have your own dialect/language as well. I can’t speak my mom’s dialect but I understand it and Mandarin/Cantonese. I studied Japanese, Vietnamese and Spanish (but I am able to do small talk at best with the others). I believe communication with others is vital for international understanding but “when in rome, do what romans do” I do agree. Or at least have people aware of this. Just my small two cents worth.

  24. I was looking for info about PUDONG and stumbled upon it. Wonderful information and thanks for being so kind and friendly! As for learning English, it does help open up doors of communication of others. I do think it is important to have your own dialect/language as well. I can’t speak my mom’s dialect but I understand it and Mandarin/Cantonese. I studied Japanese, Vietnamese and Spanish (but I am able to do small talk at best with the others). I believe communication with others is vital for international understanding but “when in rome, do what romans do” I do agree. Or at least have people aware of this. Just my small two cents worth.

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