🇨🇳 Lost in Translation: Maybe there is no maybe...

January 10th, 2017

Chinese English is… well… unique. English is a terribly complicated language to learn, especially as a second language. But grammatical and etymological errors are easily forgiven or ignored and occasionally laughed about. While they do provide interesting insight into both the Chinese and English languages, I tend to gloss over them on the whole.

The two things that do stand out to me are the use of the word "so" and the use of the word "maybe."


"So" is perhaps the most commonly used adverb among the students, both in speaking and in writing. "He is so handsome." "She is so fat." (Anyone larger than a chopstick is considered fat–and they aren’t afraid to tell each other about it. Talk about body image problems. Yikes.) While helping a student with her film script I ran across scene directions like: "Jenny ran to her room. She was so sad."

Personally I think I tend to overuse "very" or "mostly" in these situations and reserve "so" for comparative sentences. "I’m so hungry I could eat an entire sandwich."

Perhaps I’m just not used to seeing "so" it written so much. (… whelp… I just walked into that one.)


"Maybe" doesn’t seem to mean quite the same thing here in China. The phrase "I think maybe…" is often the beginning of a factual statement. When one of my fellow TAs inquired why her paycheck was slightly lower than mine the first month we were told "I think maybe it is because you arrived in China a couple days late."

It seems odd to me for everything to be phrased this way, as if everything is turned into an opinion and no one is willing to double down if there is a chance they might be wrong.

My favorite "maybe" to date, has to be this conversation I recently had on WeChat with my boss and one of the Chinese TAs.

Emma: "Delia says the 1200w HMI light ballast she took yesterday got some problem, not working now, can she change another one for shooting first?

Geoff: What problem exactly? Has she described the problem?

Emma: She said maybe the ballast was crushed by a car… …

Me: Maybe?

Emma: Well… …maybe there is no "maybe"

When the light came back it looked in perfect condition and powered up fine, so maybe this time it actually was a maybe. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯