Linguistics: Contrast of English and Chinese

Table of Contents

Language variations between speakers of two different languages have existed for quite a long time. The variations between Chinese and English are seen in their expressions of politeness, formality, solidarity, and discourse, and genre type often cause misunderstanding between the communicating parties.

For example, when a native English speaker says “Hello!”, “How are you?” practically it is a polite way of greeting among English speakers, but a Chinese speaker may interpret it to mean a lack of concern due to its generality. Similarly, a Chinese will approach greetings with such statements as “Have you completed the work?”, “where did you go to?” “What are you doing now?” etc. to express politeness and concern to the other person.

In reality, the two speakers place a lot of value on politeness in any statement or speech. However, an English speaker may easily be persuaded to believe that the Chinese way of greeting is offensive and even unacceptable.

In the study of sociolinguistics in 1971, Labov as cited in Bonvillain (1997) described basic sociolinguistic question as one posed by the need to understand “why anyone says anything” rather than a critical analysis of the specific form of grammar used for the ease of social connections between the two different speakers (p.29).

It is thus more important to seek a functional explanation in the study of sociolinguistics, where the explanation is meant to help foster the social relationship between the two speakers.


As a Chinese, Working with a native English speaker can be quite complex in many aspects. The variations between Chinese and English are seen in their expressions of politeness, formality, solidarity, and discourse. It may be tricky if the social purpose of communication between two speakers of different languages is not achieved.

In the study of sociolinguistics in 1971, Labov, as cited in Bonvillain (1997), described basic sociolinguistic questions as one posed by the need to understand “why anyone says anything” rather than a critical analysis of the specific form of grammar used (p.29).

So in the study of sociolinguistics, one could interpret this to mean that the actual goal of the theory of uttering a word or making a statement is to expose why the statement was made or for what purpose was it made in order to achieve the social goal interaction and sharing. In short, it is more important to seek a functional explanation in the study of sociolinguistics.

This paper seeks to establish a comparison between English and Chinese languages in use in the context of choices and conventions that exist in relation to such dimensions as politeness, solidarity, and discourse. It also investigates the available explanations in the literary world together with specific instructions on how to manage such choices in each of the two languages.

Further, it also explores how adequately such texts reflect how the choices are typically employed in our speech communities, and finally relating the findings to the larger role of sociolinguistics in building linguistic competence and social cohesion.

In every society, there are rules governing communication. One such rule is the expression of politeness in the spoken word or statement made. In different languages, it is important to note how a greeting, for example, is expressed in the speech as a sign of politeness.

According to Brown and Levinson, cited in Zang (1993), greetings occur in all languages and that they provide the basis on which to start a new conversation in an appropriate manner and at the same time, for the establishment and maintain social relationships.

In an interview with one of the Chinese negotiators, Lai Lam, in Chinese- American contract to build roads in China, he expressed disappointment with the way Americans show lack of commitment in the negotiation process right from the moment of introduction, highlighting some introductory greetings like “Hello!” to be too brief and show little concern (Singleton 2000, p.9).

Similarly, a Chinese will approach greetings with such statements as “Have you completed the work?”, “where did you go to?” “What are you doing now?” etc. to express politeness and concern to the other person. In reality, the two speakers place a lot of value on politeness in any statement or speech.

However, when I interviewed one of my schoolmates, who is an English speaker, he is easily persuaded to believe that the Chinese way of greeting, as highlighted above are offensive and even unacceptable.

Under normal circumstances, a native Chinese will find it normal to greet a long-time friend who he or she had not seen for say a decade as, “there is no change in you, you still look young just like you were ten years ago, why?” realistically, a native English speaker will be offended by that and will definitely interpret the statement to mean that there is no progress in his or her life as expressed by my interviewee.

Xu Langguang, cited in Lihua (2001, p.90), calls this variance “individual-centered versus Situation- centered.” That native speaker of English is from a culture which advocates for individual-centered approach, where only needs, feelings, and privacy of individual take center stage in all levels of communications.

On the other hand, the culture of the Chinese influences them to be situation-centered and in essence, emphasizes the group’s needs as well as concerns rather than privacy.

In expressing formality, the degree of variations exists between native and non-native speakers. For instance, when I asked approached one of my friends, Jose, with the question, “When will you finish this job?”, “It’s taking you too long to finish the work, yet I want to see you this afternoon?”, as an English speaker, he considered this to be more of an abrupt command than a sincerely polite request.

Luzhu (2000), however, explains that a native Chinese speaker, due to their limited linguistic resources, would find it easier to shorten and simplify pre-sequence structures and just make a more direct request, which sounds abrupt to the native speaker.

He further elaborates that most Chinese do overuse pre-sequences in rather informal situations when talking about trivial issues, and when the social distance is short, a situation that is likely to create misunderstanding with a native speaker of English (Luzhu, 2000). As a native Chinese speaker, I will, in a formal situation, ask questions like “What?” when asking a colleague to repeat something he or she said or uttered.

To an English speaker, this sounds rather rude, and in actual sense, the English will feel offended. In normal informal situations, a native English speaker will not be asking a person he or she has just met his or her age, marital status, income, level of education, type of job, as shown by my interviewee.

He considered these information formal issues and a taboo in the informal situation. A Chinese instead does not differentiate the formality or informality and hence can apply it anywhere. Xuezeng (1999) explains that there are many differences in the area of taboos that exist between the Chinese and the western culture and that one problem of communication in this area is usually found in the way the two groups treat privacy issues.

Singh (1996, p.212) says that there are specific communication rules, which they refer to as “a principle or regulation that govern conduct and procedure. In communication, the rule acts as a system of expected behavior patterns that organize interactions between individuals”.

These rules mainly rely on the context to which the language is spoken and thus are as diverse as language itself. Singleton (2000) further explains that intercultural communication can be very complex and difficult because the rules that govern communication is not only fixed within the cultural context but is also bound by the context.

Hatch (1992, p.233) says that what worsens the situation is that people tend to transfer the rules of guiding their own culture of communication to the intercultural communication, which eventually causes the conflict or misunderstanding. I will briefly look at some of the theories put forward by different scholars to explain these concepts the solution.

Leech’s Politeness Theory in English culture

According to Leech, cited in Hatch (1992, p.139), politeness involves some level of maxims. Some of the maxims, which I could consider to be relevant here, are Approbation maxim (minimizes dispraise of others, maximize praise of others), and Modesty maxim (minimizes praise of self, maximize dispraise of self).

The politeness core ingredient is seen in the way Chinese regards the act of valuing and respecting others at their expense. That is, they can afford to minimize self-praise to cultivate the virtue of modesty and politeness, a strategy that may not go down well with the English native speakers.

Lihua (2001, p.90) gives an example that as a native English speaker, you may be tempted to offer a sincere compliment such as “you look pretty today!” and the native Chinese responds negatively as, “no am not pretty” may sound abnormal and unreasonable to the native speaker but to the Chinese, it is purely a sincere and honest way of expressing modesty and politeness.

Brown and Levinson Face theory

Brown & Levinson, cited in Singleton (2000, p.66), front two theories to explain the face aspects. The first is a “negative face,” which represents freedom of action, and the second is the “positive face” that everybody would want to appreciate (p.67).

Simply put, the negative face is the message that you do not want to be disturbed and wants independence while positive one wants to be connected to the others.

Why is this important? It is expected that if someone makes a negative comment in a conversation and the other party expresses disapproval through “negative face,” the person responsible for this response should be ready to act to “save” the face. Likewise, if the face is positive, then it means approval, and it should be acknowledged.

Gu Yueguo’s Theory in Chinese Culture

Gu, cited in Singleton (2000) and Luzhu (2000), says that there are some notions that are the basis of Chinese politeness concept: respect for other which is interpreted as respectfulness, denigration of self which is interpreted as modest, warmth toward other which is described as attitudinal warmth and refinement in language use.

This is important as it explains some of the negative Chinese responses to a genuine compliment and further explains why the native English speaker’s response to some of the greetings from the native Chinese speaker, as highlighted earlier in the paper.

How can these problems be solved? It must be noted that many of the problems and failures that occur between the native and non-native speakers of the language are as a result of the non-native speaker’s failure to acquire the culture of speaking the language.

In other words, they are still under the strong influence of their native language and culture, and this result in the notion that what might be perfectly normal in one culture may actually be completely unacceptable in the other culture of the language.

According to Labov, cited in Singleton (2000), people should learn to accept the fact that people from different language cultural backgrounds express themselves differently when at different situations with different audience i.e., depending on the social setting.

He adds that the problem may be significantly simplified by just focusing on one major aspect of style (Singleton, 2000). For example, in the formality aspect, He observes that at any one moment, everybody communicating across culture will make at least an intuitive distinction between formal and informal manners of expressions.

Even though many scholars and researchers acknowledge that formality’s definition is sometimes ambiguous in itself, Hatch (1992) outlines the underlying assumption that most approaches that form formal languages have some traits of special “attention to form” does not hold much but the most fundamental thing is that one gets to communicate effectively.

Speech Communities

Ordinarily, many people would not see any form of confusion on what kind of language they speak. That is, they would not see any form of offense towards another non-speaker of the language. For instance, the Chinese, Japanese, or Korean speaks Chinese, Japanese, and Korean, respectively, as Coulmas, cited in Wardhaugh (1986, p.27), puts it “language and ethnicity are virtually synonymous.”

A Chinese may find it somewhat surprising that a person who appears Chinese does not speak Chinese, something that may also happen to speakers of Japanese.

According to Hudson & Ferguson, cited in Bonvillain (1997), there are some human speech patterns such as sound, words, and grammatical features that we can uniquely associate with some external factors such as geographical locations or social groups. These variations make the specific community of language known uniquely to a specific group of people known as the speech community.

So what the role of sociolinguistics in building this knowledge? In simple terms, the work of the sociolinguistics is to basically determine if the unique sets of patterns in language do actually exist. It is the work of the sociolinguistic to identify such areas as while some people may be claiming that they speak a particular language, they may not, on most occasions, be fully qualified to as the original speakers of the language.

This is because, as they may be speaking, they may realize that what they said was not actually what they passed as the message to the listener. Likewise, a native speaker of the language will accept the reality that the variations exist, not just merely in grammar but mostly in choices and conventions to accomplish the goal of communication, social cohesion, and understanding.

Reference List

Bonvillain, N. 1997. Language, Culture, and Communication: The Meaning of Message. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Hatch, E. (1992). Discourse and Language Education. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Lihua, W. (2001). Cultural Comparison of using language properly in English and Chinese. Journal of Anshan Teachers College 12, 3(4): 90.

Luzhu, L. (2000). Contrast of English and Chinese and pragmatic failures in the cross-cultural communication. Journal of Liming Vocational University, 28:39.

Singh, R. (1996). Towards a Critical Sociolinguistics. New York: John Benjamin Publishing Company.

Singleton, D. (2000). Language and the lexicon: An introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Wardhaugh, R. (1986). An Introduction to Sociolinguistics. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.

Xuezeng, D. (1999). Comparison of Chinese and English Culture and Customs. Beijing: Foreign Language Teaching and Research Press.

Zhang, A.W. 1993. What’s Wrong? Beijing: Huaxia Publishing House.

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