China has long had a curious relationship with the English language. When Chiang Kai-shek’s KMT ran the country, the ‘Generalissimo’ became the first Chinese head of state to greet foreign visitors with English phrases. But this phase of linguistic openness didn’t last. The problem was that his language skills didn’t extend much beyond a parroting of his American-educated wife, May-ling. According to the writer Emily Hahn, Chiang stopped trying to emulate his bride’s fluent English after he unwittingly welcomed the British ambassador with the words ‘Kiss me, Lampson’.
Mao Zedong also dabbled with English, but quickly gave up – as would the rest of the country when he came to power in 1949. But during the era of ‘reform and opening’, the language made a comeback. Paramount leader Deng Xiaoping hoped wider usage would aid modernisation and promote the sciences.
By 2006, government officials estimated that more than 300 million Chinese had studied English. And this week it was announced that Li Yi, a finance student from Xiamen, had won the 15th annual National English Speaking Competition. He beat one million other students from 850 universities, triumphing in the final with a speech on ‘The power of sports in personal development’.
Some local internet users will find his subject ironic. That’s because a few days earlier the media regulator, SARFT, issued a circular to national sports TV channel, CCTV-5 banning the use of English language acronyms, such as ‘NBA’ and ‘F1’, in subtitles and captions. Presenters were told to use Chinese terms instead.
Sports broadcasting was not the only area effected. New Express Daily reports that CCTV’s other channels were likewise told that ‘foreign’ acronyms like GDP and WTO should also be replaced with native terms. It quotes a CCTV staff member as justifying the move on the basis that the majority of the population doesn’t speak English and therefore such acronyms discriminate against them. But the newspaper thinks it’s a belated effort to protect the ‘linguistic purity’ of Chinese – and halt its increasing adoption of English abbreviations.
Netizens have given the measure short-shrift, arguing that acronyms like NBA have entered common usage and that longer-winded Chinese versions of English abbreviations will just cause inconvenience. And if you’re looking for a case of the absurd, they add, try this: CCTV’s own logo still appears on screen in the Roman alphabet.
To be fair, China is not alone in its attempts to fend off English. The French government bans hundreds of English words so as to protect the native tongue.
France’s Culture Ministry has insisted, for example, that French people use the term ‘courriel’ instead of ‘email’.
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