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Expat's Eye
Print Edition> Expat's Eye
UPDATED: November 4, 2013 NO. 45 NOVEMBER 7, 2013
The Game of Meanings
By Aaron A. Vessup


"The cabin crew will be circulating in a few minutes to serve drinks and snakes. We only ask that you keep your seatbelts fastened and observe the 'No Smoking' sign." With a few nervous titters heard among passengers, I wondered if the person behind the voice actually knew what some of us found so amusing. A common error had occurred when the word "snakes" had been used instead of s-n-a-c-k-s. Recently a Chinese friend, who graduated as an English major, laughed when recounting how she invariably orders "Spirit" instead of S-p-r-i-t-e. Oral English faux pas like these are so common in China that many call it a reflection of Chinglish.

Communication problems are common because both sender (person A) and receiver (person B) are on separate pages, and do not share the same meanings or symbols. Sometimes problems can be overcome when taught English word definitions, or by developing an extensive vocabulary. Unfortunately, frequent breakdowns happen simply because we fail to reflect on context. Or, as they say, we do not "put two and two together." On the other hand, many Chinese believe one cannot always take what someone says at face-value. Watching two Chinese men playfully fighting over paying a bill might help convey that verbal messages are often simply not accepted. Or, invitations that are offered only once, may not be taken seriously unless emphatically repeated three or more times. Context is everything.

Pedestrians crossing streets know that despite a flashing green light, one is not automatically safe stepping off the curb. Some would say that prior experience, common sense, or early childhood training has conditioned us about the rules of survival.

One language school director explains, "Chinese students tend to think in a preconditioned way, which I believe stems from many years of receiving criticism and being scorned for expressing their opinions. Perhaps many students are very limited when it comes to thinking creatively. Creative expression is not encouraged by most English teachers."

A former student notes, "Students are taught by reading and writing English, and are expected to automatically speak well in terms of using it, so they feel frustrated and learning becomes boring."

Adding to this, Chinese students using English tend to put much weight on fluency, and embrace as a goal speaking fast as a sign of having mastered the language. For people to value speed as an indicator of effectiveness, is like putting the speed of a fast car above safety. "Speed kills." Speaking fast does not ensure comprehension. A common stock of humor will show a person spewing out a barrage of rapid fire verbiage, which is funny because the speaker cannot attach meaning in such a machine gun fashion. Oral fluency alone is not an accurate sign of skill.

One Chinese teacher attributes common communication problems to the fact that "Many Chinese students are trained at an early age to speak in 'Chinglish' and not in 'real life' exchange situations. The lack of Westerners to practice and interact with frequently, hampers realistic communication. Add to this the fact that most Chinese students are so afraid of making oral mistakes, that they dare not respond in many situations."

When teaching English conversational skills, one must help students enjoy the process of learning practical language usage and cultural understanding. Alertness to certain basic problems can prevent well-meaning Chinese students from being blind-sided by certain cultural problems that are guaranteed to affect communication outcomes. Such cultural dilemmas may include:

(1) Limitations of vocabulary (word levels, semantics, and colloquialisms) affecting comprehension; (2) Concentrating on verbal fluency at the expense of accuracy; (3) Perceptual "filtering" through value differences and conflicting fields of experience; (4) "Face-saving" and perceived "correctness;" (5) Intention detecting at the expense of expected reciprocity and concrete action; and (6) Time-conditions and contextual understanding.

We all face challenges, whether speaking English or Chinese, in making sure that our intended messages are accurately received and interpreted. Though, even when we share the same culture, senders and receivers still have DIFFERENT FILTERS of experience that affect HOW each assigns meaning. This is a universal issue, and includes being on the "same page," a game that is part of being human and unique.

"Meet me by the lions at the gate. I'll be waiting," said the professor at a well-known Beijing university on my first day in Beijing. The concierge at the Friendship Hotel provided me with an excellent English speaking driver, and we confidently headed to the campus. Deposited by two large stone lions, I waited and waited. However, unknown to me, my host was waiting at another pair of stone equivalents, which cover the grounds. Later, we laughed about not being on the same page. A good sense of humor, coupled with psychological inventiveness, will go a long way toward helping achieve this goal. However, having an arsenal of words, or loaded vocabulary, will not guarantee reception, comprehension, or accuracy. At some point, every communicator must realize the value of common sense.

The author is an American living in Beijing

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