Everyday Rail English

Everyday Rail English for China

While still navigable, frequent train travellers in China will note a few bits of Chinglish — here and there — that seem to be stumbling blocks in an otherwise “smooth as silk” (sorry, Thai Airways International) trip around the country. There’s no unified way to say “a place to leave the station” (seen already: variants such as “Outbound”, “Way Out”, “Exit” or even the Pinyin “Chukou”), the station directions are a mess (“Beijingnan”? That’s Beijing South!), and passengers often are confused when they board and have a question for rail crew — and the train crew, too, are baffled!

So here’s indeed the need for unified, standardised railway English for China. However, this is much easier said than done! There are potential issues with using 100% native people or 100% foreigners; being such a massive country, you need an idea of how the whole thing works. Enter Everyday Rail English for China (Chinese: 铁路英文一天一句). I started doing this back in January 2013; over a year into the whole thing, it still is an ongoing project and is here to standardise and improve China’s railway English.

The whole backbone of the whole plan is a 10,000+ phrase “rail dictionary”, with half the database built and the rest to be completed by early July 2014. For just about everything under the railway sun in China, if there’s something in Chinese, more often than not, there’s a standardised English translation. All rail organisations that work with me in the Everyday Rail English programme use just one standardised “rail dictionary”, and these include the daily Weibo posts, “in-real-life” lessons, and all good-to-print documentation. For rail organisations that adopt these standards, a monthly “call-back” opportunity is offered, where the rail organisation writes back with how the new standards are helping out, or if there are any new issues yet to be solved.

In this whole project, I work with rail organisations around China, but also directly with peoplerail.com, the online presence of China’s national rail daily, and its position in the rail network makes it an ideal partner to “spread the gift” of standardised English to the nation’s rail stations. There are a few principles I take into mind when standardising and improving railway English, namely:—

  • I’ll always start from the point of view of the average traveller. At the same time, I’ll take a complete, full, in-depth look at China’s rail system. Standards and usage of terminology from rail systems around the world will also be considered. In the end, a Chinese product — railway English for China — will be created.
  • All standards base themselves on the official national railway standards in China, but at the same time, they will be improved, with full consideration given to the use of English by its native users. They will also be improved based on their actual, real-life use in today’s China rail system. (In other words, it’s got to be current.)
  • Only problematic signs that require improvements will be improved. (In other words, we’re not totally reinventing the wheel here.)
  • As-simple-as-possible expressions will be used for rail English, but the degree of brevity used will not be to such extents that coarse, incomplete, “too-brief” translations result. We will write English the way English people write it (rather than writing in with a Chinese mindset).
  • Close attention will be paid to the bilingual systems in the railways systems in Hong Kong, Taiwan, the UK, and Switzerland.
  • High standards, crucial to this project, are non-negotiable. In the event of differing views, the advice of a board of experts will be sought prior to one particular word (or words) and their translation being finalised.

In essence, there are just three reasons why I’m correcting and optimising China’s railway English for the low price of zero:—

  1. I’m Chinese (I look Chinese and I’m Chinese by birth, which is what really counts);
  2. I love China’s railways because they’re top-notch; China’s got some of the best killer trains in the world (the CRH380 series are fantastic);
  3. I’d like for China’s railway “software” (especially the signs) to be done better (the hardware is very good already).

This is why I’m improving China’s railway English for free. As an academic you can’t forever bolt yourself in some secret lab in an ivory tower trying to reinvent the wheel; you have to come out from the cold and help society at large.

Indeed, there is nothing better than to improve the world’s best rail network. The feeling that you’ve done something for a rail system that serves billions is something you can’t express in words. I don’t expect my contributions to land me a prize or a free ticket. All I’m hoping is that I would have done something that makes expats swim around China’s rail system with much more efficiency — and that we’re presenting a world-ready Chinese Railways the right way.

So far I have been helping China Railways get their English back on track by:—

  • using Sina Weibo to post daily English (known as Everyday Rail English), which have been since reposted by hundreds of rail organisations / individuals throughout the entire railway system in China;
  • authoring Everyday Rail English as a regular column, both locally with Ji’nan Rail, and nationally, with peoplerail.com (the official Web presence of China’s rail daily);
  • improving English at Wuxi East, Ji’nan West, Zhangjiakou South, and Zibo stations; and by offering English language consultancy services at Ji’nan West and Ji’nan (central) stations;
  • teaching at a rail lecture staff from Ji’nan West, Tai’an, Qufu East, Tengzhou East and Zaozhuang Railway Stations, as well as Wuxi East and Nanjing stations;
  • briefing station staff at Taiyuan Railway Station;
  • teaching train crew from the Harbin, Chengdu and Chongqing passenger service departments;
  • providing translations to publicity to be handed out to passengers travelling on trains staffed by Beijing Railway Passenger Services.

The reaction hasn’t been muted. In fact, optimising China’s rail English garnered me significant attention from the Chinese media:—

  • May 2012: Digital Railways Net (China) reported on me creating a Tracking China page on the Wuxi East Railway Station — for free, as a public commitment.
  • June 2012: The Beijing Youth Daily mentioned me in their report on how to replace your lost ticket, and also mentioned my bilingual posts on Weibo and on the Web.
  • March 2013: The Legal Evening News (Beijing) was the first media outlet to report on me committing myself to improving railway English. Its report recognised me as a Foreign “Lei Feng” (foreign owing to my non-PRC nationality; the Lei Feng aspect is to compare me to a 1950s Chinese hero who was noted for his charitable deeds to helping society at large whilst remaining humble).
  • April 2013: A more in-depth interview was conducted by the Guangzhou Daily, which also listed my suggestions on how to “de-Chinglishify” railway English in China.
  • July 2013: Local Heilongjiang (northeastern China) media, including Northeast Web, interviewed me just as I was about to start a rail English lesson to Harbin Rail (Passenger Services). It had to mention my quips in Northeastern Mandarin — so to “localise” lessons!
  • July 2013: The collaboration between me and Ji’nan Rail was the topic of a news story for the Shandong arm of the official Xinhua News Agency. It mentioned my dedication to details and a lively approach to teaching people rail English via Sina Weibo.
  • August 2013: My lesson to rail crew at the Wuxi East Railway Station was the topic of a local report in the Jiangsu arm of the official Xinhua News Agency.

In other news reports, including those on People’s Railway Daily (the official railway newspaper in China), Beijing Public Service Radio, and the Beijing Daily, coverage regarding me in general (about the railways) also mentioned my rail English commitments.