Jan 17, 2010

3 English words misused by Chinese people

There is plenty of commentary on the Internet detailing some of the common mistakes made by native Chinese speakers communicating in English (for example, see: [1], [2], [3]).

There are three particular English words that I've found to be frequently misused, which I haven't seen detailed by anyone so far. The words are:
  • poker (as in the card game)
  • hamburger (the food)
  • play (as an intransitive verb)
I'll run through a few examples of these words being used in an awkward way, and explain perhaps why I suspect Chinese people make mistakes when using these terms.

Misused word 1: poker

Chinese folks love to play cards. Take a train anywhere in China, and once you get moving you'll see half the passengers gathered around some kind of card game. Go to a park in Beijing on a summer weekend and you'll see plenty of old men playing chess and cards.

In Chinese, the term for a deck of 52 playing cards is "扑克", pronounced "pūkè", a transliteration of the English word poker. Many many Chinese people I've met have asked me in English, "Do you like playing poker?"

What they want to say in Chinese is "你喜欢 玩扑克吗?" (Do you like to play cards?) However, they translate "cards" as "poker", because that's how it gets translated in Chinese.

It used to be, I'd reply, "Well, sure, poker is fun. I like Five-card stud, and I've played Texas hold 'em a few times."

Subsequently my Chinese friends might want to start a card game. I'll start figuring out how much gambling cash I have in my money clip, and my Chinese friend will go off to round up other friends to play cards. Eventually, I'll realize that my friend didn't want to play poker at all, but some other Chinese card game that he groups under the term poker, because the game is played with a poker deck. This situation has happened enough that when I hear a Chinese friend use the word "poker", I mentally substitute the word "cards".

I would love to find a good poker game though, given the chance. It's just seems to not be popular in China.

Misused word 2: hamburger

The English word "hamburger" gets translated into Chinese as "汉堡", pronounced "hànbǎo". In Chinese, any type of sandwich made with a hamburger bun, as opposed to sliced bread, gets called "hànbǎo". This is another transliteration of English, the same as poker and pūkè.

Chinese people will often translate "hànbǎo" back into "hamburger" when talking to English speakers. More than once, a Chinese friend of mine has offered me a hamburger that later turns out to actually be a Fish-wich or a Chicken Sandwich.

The complex naming system of American fast food has a rich, five thousand year history, which would be difficult to explain to an outsider.

Misused word 3: play

My Chinese friends' most frequently used English words generally include delicious, hometown, and of course, the verb play. Overusing the verb "play" is funny because it makes the speaker sounds like a ten year-old.

If you live in China long enough, sooner or later one of your local friends will be practicing English on you, and ask you something like, "What did you play during your trip to Thailand?" Keep in mind that both you and your friend in this conversation are full-fledged adults.

To this question, you might be tempted to respond, "Well, on my trip, I played with my usual toys, you know, toy cars, dolls, blocks, things like that."

Chinese tend to misuse "play" because they've directly translated the word "" (wán), which can be used with no problem between adults talking in Mandarin about their leisure activities. When you directly translate it to English, however, it doesn't fit.


Blogger taebin said...


As usual, another interesting blog!

11:21 PM  
Blogger taebin said...

it should have said, "as usual, another interesting blog post!"


11:22 PM  

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