When Will AI Make Engrish a Thing of the Past?

We’ve talked before about the rapid advances being made in the area of speech recognition. It’s only a matter of time before companies like Doppler Labs augment our hearing such that we’re able to experience real-time  language translation. That French waiter who’s smiling at you while calling you a prick in a Paris cafe? You’ll soon be able to call him on that but only if you feel with 100% certainty that the translation is accurate. Why wouldn’t language translation be accurate you ask? The simple answer here is one word. Engrish.

There’s this hilarious TV show in Japan where the hosts take Alexa and have all the Asians on the show try and speak into “Arexa”. Pull this type of stunt in the U.S. and everyone gets offended, most of whom have never stepped one foot in Asia. In Japan however, they find this sort of stuff hilarious. Alexa or “Arexa” can’t understand these non-native English speakers because they are not speaking English. They are speaking “Engrish”.

The word English is purposely misspelled “Engrish” where the “l” is substituted for an “r”. Why is that? Those of you living in Asia understand exactly why this is. Most Asians, particularly those from the developed markets of Asia, pronounce the “l” using an “r” and the “th” with an “s”. This is why people say “herrow” to you in the morning and “sank you” after you buy something. While it’s probably one of the most endearing things about living in Asia, there’s also no formal explanation for this. Nobody has conducted a study on why the guy at the 7-11 in Hong Kong says “sank you bewwy much” after you pay. It’s just how things are.

Use of the letter “r” in place of the letter “l” is what gives the word Engrish meaning. It’s exactly how someone from Asia would say the word and also spell the word. A hotel “lobby” suddenly becomes a “hotel robby”. Unexpected puns start popping up left and right, like this one for example:

Crap Your Hands from Engrish.com

So now that you know about the origins of “Engrish”, the next thing you need to know is what the word describes. The word “Engrish” refers to the often times hilarious translations that you see around the world when non-English speakers try to translate something in their native language into English. The result is commonly referred to as “Engrish”, and perhaps the most famous Engrish phrase ever uttered was the following phrase from a popular Japanese video game:

All your base are belong to us

If you’re a native English speaker, you understand what this sentence is trying to say but you can tell that nobody with even a basic understanding of how to write could ever eff up a sentence that bad. The only possible answer for something that grammatically fcuked up is Engrish.

Nowhere in the world is Engrish more common than in the developed countries of Asia. In fact, there’s an entire website (www.engrish.com) dedicated only to recording observations of English around the world. Almost all the top-rated Engrish comes from developed Asia, like this one which is rated the best Engrish observed ever by the Engrish aficionados over at Engrish.com:

Number One Engrish from Engrish.com

If have spent any time in Asia, you’ll appreciate the anthropomorphism on display here (so common in Asia) along with the totally innocent reference to sucking the tapioca balls out of the milk tea. There’s a whole bunch of them over at www.engrish.com for you to check out but that’s not what we’re here to talk about. What we want to know is this. At what point in time will Google translate become so good that Engrish goes away? Yes, we’re making an assumption here that all these people who are creating Engrish use Google translate but these days that’s probably not the worst assumption to make. At what point in time is Google translate going to be so good that it can translate Chinese or Japanese into English with not even the slightest sign of any Engrish?

An overwhelming majority of our readers hail from the United States so they may not know just how pervasive Engrish is all over Asia. Even in more mature markets like Hong Kong, you can still go out for lunch at nearly any local restaurant and spot some never before seen Engrish. That’s what’s so unique about the Engrish phenomenon. It’s not just that certain Chinese words are confused with English words. It’s because these languages, Mandarin/Cantonese/Japanese/Korean and English, are so different that many words differ on context that cannot be inferred from just translating a single sentence. How else can you explain why we have so much Engrish all over Asia?

The smart brains over at Doppler Labs are working on the Spanish implementation of their smart earbuds. Spanish is probably one of the easiest languages to learn for an English speaker, and consequently it’s very easy to translate. What about an earbud that can translate Mandarin or Cantonese? There is absolutely no way that’s going to happen without using artificial intelligence.

We’re going to go out on a limb and say this. The only way we will be able to tell that artificial intelligence has reached the pinnacle of its capabilities is when it can translate sentences and real-time conversations between your average Chinese person and your average American without one hint of Engrish. That’s what we’re waiting for. If you think your company has nailed those capabilities, drop us a note in the comments section below. We’ll have our foreign correspondent in Hong Kong go down to the nearest seven ereven and give it a go.


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    1. That thought had certainly crossed our minds.

      The author of this article is actually a Hong Kong resident. As he mentions in the article, of the people that usually complain about this stuff, most have never set a foot in Asia. The Chinese actually find it quite amusing as well. They are not as uptight as Americans.

      The author mentioned to us in a separate conversation that he works with two girls in the office named “Coffee” and “Lettuce”. They just like the sound of those words so they chose those as names. Really an endearing culture!