People around the world often translate directly from their first languages into other languages they know, and Chinese speakers in Hong Kong using English are no different. The grammar and vocabulary of the English that second-language speakers use might be correct or understood by your audience, but it still might sound unnatural to people who speak English but aren’t also fluent speakers of your first language. An English speaker might respond in an unexpected way in that situation, so it’s not just about which words or grammar to use, but considering what to say so people don’t think you’re saying something completely different to what you really want to say.
Hong Kong English #1: Direct translation
A: What do you usually do on the weekend?
B: I like to go swimming – it helps me release my pressure. (解放我的壓力)
‘Release my pressure’ is an expression translated directly from Chinese to English. In English, pressure is not usually ‘owned’ by someone in a phrase like this, and is often used with release when we’re discussing something technical:
The scientist turned the handle and released the pressure inside the machine.
A: What do you usually do on the weekend?
B: I like to go swimming – it helps me relieve my stress.
B: I like to go swimming. I find it really relaxing.
or more idiomatically:
B: I like to go swimming – it helps me blow off some steam.
Here are some mistakes common to Chinese speakers, with explanations and suggestions for alternative ways to express the same idea.
Mistake: Wait me a second. (等我一下！)
Explanation: If you use an object with the verb wait, then you need to use the preposition for between them: ‘Wait for him/her/me’.
Give me a second.
Please wait a second/minute/ moment.
Can you wait for me?
Mistake: Are you sick? Drink more water. (你生病了嗎？多喝一點水。)
Explanation: The grammar and vocabulary for ‘drink more water’ are correct, but this is not a natural or common expression in English – it sounds like an instruction or an order, rather than some helpful advice.
Are you sick? Make sure you drink plenty of water.
Try to drink more water.
You might want to drink more water.
Mistake: Do you want to eat some cookie? (你想吃曲奇餅嗎？)
- Vocabulary: The verb ‘eat’ is possible here, but when we offer someone some food or drink in this kind of situation, we don’t usually say ‘do you want to eat…?’ or ‘do you want to drink…?’. Instead we might use have or try, because it sounds more like an invitation and gives people a chance to say no.
Would you like to have one of these cookies?
Here, try some of these cookies.
Have a cookie! I just made them and they’re really good.
Mistake: I ride bike. (我騎單車。)
- Grammar problem 1: If we are talking about habits, what we normally do, or about plans that might be happening in the future at certain times, we can use the verb ‘ride’ in this sentence in present simple tense; but if we want to talk about what is happening right at this moment, we would use present continuous tense.
- Grammar problem 2: We need to use an article or pronoun before the noun ‘bike’ – the listener doesn’t know which or whose bike is being ridden.
I ride my bike to school every day except Fridays, when I take the bus instead.
Most weekends I ride my bike through the hills behind my house.
I am riding my bike in the park.
Mistake: There have many people. (那裏有很多人。)
Explanation: English usually uses ‘be’ to show that something exists, or explain how something is or looks, not ‘have’, and in this sentence, we need a form of ‘be’.
Correction: There are a lot of people.
Mistake: I need to eat medicine. (我需要吃藥。)
Explanation: English speakers don’t use the verb eat with medicine, but say take instead. It also sounds more natural if you use a determiner like my or some.
Correction: I need to take my/some medicine.
Mistake: My English is so poor. (我的英文很差。)
Explanation: English speakers wouldn’t use the word ‘so’ in a sentence like this without adding another clause explaining the problem in more detail, because here ‘so’ means ‘to an extreme degree,’ especially when you are comparing something to what someone else has said. English speakers might also talk about their ability to do something by putting themselves, not the thing they are describing, first.
My English is so poor that I can’t even introduce myself.
I can’t really speak English.
I don’t speak English very well.
Mistake: (when you answer the phone and want to say your name) Hi, I am Tom. (你好，我是湯姆。)
Explanation: When we answer the phone, we say ‘this is…’ but not ‘I am…’.
Correction: ‘Hi, this is Tom.’
Mistake: They’re going to live in a hotel downtown. (他們將住在市中心的飯店。)
Explanation: In English, we use ‘live’ to show we reside somewhere permanently and ‘stay’ to show we will reside there temporarily.
They’re going to stay in a hotel downtown.
They’re staying in a hotel downtown.