When I speak English, I always translate it from Chinese. How do I change it?

This is a common problem with all language learners. You compose sentences and thoughts in your first language, then translate them into the second language to speak or write. Likewise, you probably read in the second language but must translate it to understand.

This creates a huge amount of work for your brain. Your first language and your second language occupy different parts of the brain. There isn’t just one language centre there are two distinct parts. The first language section is much faster than the second language section and because you use that most, is better linked to all the other parts of the brain.

When you think, those ideas naturally find themselves in the first language section of your brain. You probably have an inner voice narrating what you think and that inner voice is speaking Chinese.

Now thinking in one language and then translating is slow. You have to use more of your brain than normal. It will also make you prone to errors, especially basic grammar errors, and cause you to speak Chinglish. It also makes it hard for you to listen to English speakers because your translation doesn’t keep in time with their speech.

The simple solution is something that you should have been taught to do a long time ago. Now that you have become habituated to a certain process, and have been doing it for many many years, it will be hard to change, but change you must. Changing your behaviour might take a lot of effort but it will be worth it. Your English speed will improve significantly, you will speak more fluently, you’ll make fewer grammar errors, you will understand more of what people say, and you will find it easier to use English making it more enjoyable.

What you have to do is start thinking in English. You have to tell the Chinese bit of your brain to shut up and stop talking Chinese. You have to force it. Make that internal voice of your’s start to speak English and you can cut out the translation.

I do this myself so I know it works. I am a native English speaker who has learned Chinese through immersion. I have never had any lessons. I just lived in China, did my shopping in China and made friends in China. To do this I had to self-study the language.

One of the first things I had to learn, living in China, was counting. For most things, you can do shopping by just pointing and grunting. but when you pay money you need to understand the numbers.

When someone says a number, I translated it into English, counted the money and handed it over. However, I often gave over the wrong amount. When translating the numbers, the maths went all wrong and I got the wrong numbers.

The solution to this was to start doing the maths in my head. First just counting out the coins with, “Yi er san si”, then later doing the addition and subtraction in my head entirely in Chinese, no English. So I’d think, “Ba kuai er? Gi ta jui kuai. Lai ba mao. OK.” At no point in the transaction did my brain touch and of my native English. If it had, I’d probably have got the money all wrong and handed over 90 instead of 9.

In all my language learning, I try to make the second language the brains native language. I think in Chinese internally and so can speak Chinese with fluency, speed and accuracy even though my vocabulary isn’t large.

You need to start doing the same. You need to think to yourself in English. This will require many hours of active effort every day to achieve. You have to make yourself think in English even when you are not doing an English activity. When you cook food, when you walk along the road, when you eat your dinner, you have to make your brain have its internal conversation in English.

Over time, you will find it easier. The English part of your brain will become better connected to the other sections due to more frequent use. You will naturally think of things in English without having to force yourself. Your English use will because easier and so you will use English more often and thus you get into a self-fulfilling loop of improvement.


Why is Chinglish so prevalent?

When I buy Chinese made products or travel to places in China, I see Chinglish written everywhere. Simple things are miss translated. There are basic grammar errors. Typos and spelling errors are common. Why don’t the companies hire native English speakers to proofread their manuals? Western companies never release foreign language document without clearing with at least one native speaker – and preferably a professional. Why do so many Chinese manufacturers – even many quite large & reputable ones – ship manuals with poorly written, and even downright confusing, English text?

For the best quality, a translator should be working from the foreign language into his native language. Even someone with exceeding good language skills will make errors when writing in the foreign language. I suspect this isn’t widely understood so people are hired for the wrong side of the translation.

In China, they are plenty of Chinese people who have studied English to a high level, so they can easily get some English document translated into good quality Chinese.

However, the reverse is not true. While there are lots of foreign-born teachers in China, few of them have studied Chinese to a high level. Myself for example. Even after ten-plus years in China, I could just about translate a restaurant menu but would have no chance of translating a technical manual. While I have excellent English skills and fluent in spoken Chinese, I lack in Chinese reading skills.

There are simply more people available to competently translate English into Chinese than out of Chinese into English.

Add to this the fact that Chinese companies export more than import. There is more demand for translation into English than the supply of translators.

Another factor is in the Chinese concept of face. They will not admit that they can’t do something. It seems strange to a western mind but people in China will save face by knowingly giving the wrong answer rather than admitting they don’t know or can’t. It is the reverse of the western concept of face where getting it wrong makes you look stupid but saying you don’t know is honest.

So, when an English language student is asked to do a job, they will make a half-arsed mess of it rather than recommend a more qualified person.

Another point may be found in the Chinese idea of cheating. Like the concept of face, they understand the concept of cheating differently from how a western person sees it. Thus they will take shortcuts that seem implausible.

Every year I get students hand in work that was clearly just copied off of Wikipedia or written in Chinese and machine translated on Google or Baidu Fanyi. These same students, on graduating university, go out and write your instruction manual the same way.