by Vincent Tse

“Long time no see” (好耐冇見; Cantonese pinyin: hou2 noi6 mou5 gin3) and “add oil” (加油; Cantonese pinyin: gaa1 jau2) have become well-known Chinglish terms, which are probably used comfortably and frequently among certain English-speaking communities around the world. To some people, terms like Chinglish, Hong Kong English and Kongish have their own definitions. To some others, they are just several terms referring to more or less the same phenomenon, which is the mixing of Cantonese and English. Here, I do not aim to discuss the similarities or differences among these terms but to talk about my encounters with Chinglish in English language teaching (I opt for “Chinglish” as it is a more popular term used by English teachers).

I believe most of us who have finished local secondary school education are quite familiar with the term Chinglish. English teachers in Hong Kong often use the term to refer to the ungrammatical constructions or unnatural expressions influenced by, at least partially, Cantonese. They equate the emergence of these Chinglish expressions to the deterioration of language standards. A typical example is the existential sentence “there is/ are/ has been/ have been…” written as “there has/ have…”, which is presumably a morpheme-for-morpheme translation of the Cantonese phrase “嗰度有” (Cantonese pinyin: go2 dou6 jau5). Another case, which has been noted by the Hong Kong Examinations and Assessment Authority in public exams, includes some funny mistranslations of Chinese idioms. For instance, “人山人海” (literally a huge crowd of people; Cantonese pinyin: jan4 saan1 jan4 hoi2) is written as “people mountain people sea”, which is also a morpheme-for-morpheme translation (I have also read that this has entered the vocabulary of many English speakers who know no Chinese – is this true?).

While Chinglish is used almost universally as a pejorative term by English teachers, what is perhaps neglected is that some students are trying to mobilise their language resources to make meaning. (This phenomenon is researched in the flourishing field of “translanguaging”.) Very recently, I have taken up a TA position for a first-year writing course at a tertiary education institution and have come across another interesting example: “living droplets” (please guess the meaning). A student wrote this in a quiz about summary and paraphrase writing. The quiz contained two passages about motherhood, career women and regrets. At first blush I could not comprehend what he was saying, but after reading the whole sentence, the meaning of this expression became quite clear. Although I was impressed by the creativity of this student (as I am a research student studying sociolinguistics), I could not help but mark down “Chinglish” on the quiz paper (as I am the marker).

So, have you come up with the meaning of “living droplets” yet? It actually stands for the “生活點滴” (literally bits of life; Cantonese pinyin: saang1 wut6 dim2 dik6).


For further reading:
Fang, F. (2008). People mountain, people sea: a study of four Chinese English idioms on the Web. English Today, 24(4), pp. 46-50.
Lee, C.K.M. (2002). Literacy practices in computer-mediated communication in Hong Kong. The Reading Matrix, 2(2). Retrieved from


Published on: February 15, 2018 < Back >