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January 7, 2006 | Episode 1

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Chinese is making its mark on the English language
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The Next International Language

How Chinese is making inroads into English


Sure, you know a few Spanish words. They’ve infiltrated English so thoroughly that no one bats an eyelash when you order a taco or say “adios” to a friend. But get ready to add some Chinese to your vocabulary — and more than just chow mein and dim sum.

“Chinese is going to be the next language to seep in,” says Rachel Meyer, cofounder of the ABC Language Exchange, in New York City and San Francisco, who lived in Taiwan for three years and is fluent in Chinese. “It will have a lot to do with our relationship with [China], with trade, and with the movement of people back and forth.” Throughout history, Meyer explains, language has followed trade routes and the flow of information. Now that China is a rising force in the global economy, Meyer and her cofounder, Elizabeth Lunney, expect to hear Chinese making its way into the mouths of Americans. “Before, Spanish was the top language taught in our classes, followed by French and Italian,” Meyers says. “Chinese is right under Spanish now.”

Not that the language is easy to learn. Chinese, she explains, is a tonal language, which means the word definitions are dependent on intonation. For example, the word ma can be pronounced four different ways, each with a different meaning. What’s more, Chinese is character-based, which means it doesn’t have an alphabet, as English does. Both these factors make it difficult for English speakers to understand and imitate what they hear. Nevertheless, many Chinese words have found their way into English over the years, mostly food terms, such as chopsticks and catsup.

So what other words are likely to make the jump? The best candidates are usually concepts or ideas for which there is no English equivalent. “French, in the earlier part of the last century, was the international diplomatic language,” says Lunney. “And so concepts were borrowed from French because there was no great translation and they captured a certain idea, like savoir faire. Or even in Italian — think of al dente. What happens with foreign languages is that they have a concept and they already have a phrase for it, and we discover it, and it’s like, ‘That’s perfect! I’ve been trying to say that in 20 words for my whole life. That’s it — that encapsulates it.’”

Some unique Chinese concepts have already made the trip over — including feng shui, kowtow and gung ho. Meyers expects that the next batch of words will be related to businesses and products, since China is a rising player in the global market. “My guess is that Chinese is going to be a little bit influenced by English,” says Meyer. “I think they’re going to give us back words that are more digestible than typical Mandarin phrases now. They will begin to choose product names and phrases for trends that will be a little bit more digestible.” Just give it about 10 years, she says, and we’ll see whether these new words go down as well as chow mein.

 
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