I first became aware of the enormous language gap in China three weeks into my first year, when I taught English at a public high school in northern Jiangsu. One afternoon, feeling slightly homesick, I hopped into a taxi with a simple mission: to go to McDonalds. Being completely unable to speak Chinese at that point, I was fairly confident that the word “McDonalds” would be international enough for my driver to understand.
Alas, when I said the magic word, he gave me a blank stare and shook his head. I then proceeded to draw the golden arches on a piece of paper, hoping my driver would at least recognize an international symbol. No luck. We drove around in circles for awhile until at last I spotted the restaurant and frantically directed him toward it.
He misunderstood me, of course, because McDonalds isn’t called McDonalds in Chinese: it’s “MaiDangLao”. Had I known this at the time and could pronounce it properly, my driver would have taken me there without any delay.
In China, all foreign proper names are rendered into Chinese characters and spoken with Chinese syllables. This creates confusion not only for the beginning student but also for amateur translators, who will pore over dictionaries for ages only to realize that the three-character phrase they can’t find is actually the name of a 17th century Dutch painter. The Chinese language, composed of words put together in logical patterns, is clumsy in transliteration. Knowing that “KFC” is 肯德基 (willing virtue base) doesn’t produce much insight into the intricacies of Mandarin.
In addition to creating problems for foreigners in China, the total absence of foreign sounds in the Chinese language hinders beginning students of English. All teachers know that English pronunciation, particularly among beginning students, can be wretched in China. Wouldn’t it be easier for Chinese learners of English (and other languages) if certain international words were left alone?
China is far from the only country wishing to maintain the purity of its language. Continental Europeans chafe at the intrusion of English words into their language, such as “leader” and “record” in the case of Italian. Yet would Mandarin be threatened if the Chinese left terms such as “McDonalds” or “George W. Bush” intact? For those of us reasonably comfortable in both languages, I doubt this change would make much of a difference. But it would certainly make it easier for beginning students of English to master their pronunciation, and for the odd homesick Westerner to make his way to McDonalds.