Li Chinese communication

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					   Chinese Language and
  An Intercultural Perspective
                    A course note
                    prepared for

the National University Network for East and Southeast
                     Asian Studies


                   Zhenyi Li, Ph D
            Centre for Intercultural Studies
            University of British Columbia
                 Vancouver, Canada

This chapter looks at Chinese language and communication from an intercultural communication
perspective. We are going to answer the following three questions:

   1. What is Chinese language?
   2. Where is Chinese language used?
   3. What is the impact of Chinese language on communication?

What is Chinese language and where is it used?

The language commonly referred to as Chinese is Mandarin – called Putonghua, or Standard Chinese --
in China. But Mandarin is one of many languages spoken in China, where there are 56 ethnic groups,
most with their own languages or dialects. Tibetan people, for example, have their own Tibetan
language, which is completely different from Mandarin. Hong Kong natives often use Cantonese
dialect in their daily life. That dialect sounds strange to a person from Beijing (Peking), however, it
belongs to the same family of Chinese.

Chinese has seven major language groups of which the Mandarin language group forms the largest
group. The Mandarin group consists of a wide range of dialects in the northern, central, and western
regions. The Cantonese dialect is spoken in Hong Kong, South China, and in many overseas
settlements. The Hakka (Kejia) is also popular in South China, Taiwan, Singapore, Malaysia,
Indonesia, and many overseas Chinese communities. Other major dialects include Xiang (dominant in
Hunan, similarly hereinafter), Min (Fujian), Gan (Jiangxi), Wu (Jiangsu, Zhejiang, Anhui and
Shanghai), and Jin (Shanxi).

Over one billion people speak the Chinese language. Approximately 95 percent of the Chinese
population speaks Chinese, as opposed to the non-Chinese languages such as Tibetan, Mongolian,
Lolo, Miao, and Tai spoken by minorities. The vast majority of the Chinese-speaking population is in
China (over 980 million), Hong Kong, and Taiwan (19 million), but substantial numbers are also found
throughout the whole of Southeast Asia, especially in Singapore, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Thailand. In
Singapore, Chinese is one of their four official languages. In Indonesia and Malaysia, Chinese is one of
the important business languages popular in urban areas. Important Chinese-speaking communities are
also found in many other parts of the world, especially in Europe, North and South America, and the
Hawaiian Islands.

Chinese, together with Tibetan and Myanmar (formerly known as Burmese) and the many tribal
languages of South and Southeast Asia, belongs to the family of Sino-Tibetan languages. Besides a
core vocabulary and sounds, Chinese and most related languages share features that distinguish them
from most Western languages: they are monosyllabic, have little inflection, and are tonal. In order to
indicate differences in meaning between words similar in sound, tone languages assign to words a
distinctive relative pitch-high or low-or a distinctive pitch contour-level, rising, or falling. For example,
Chinese use only one syllable "da" and yet can tell the difference between "to hang over something"
( da1-high), "to answer" ( da2-rising), "to hit" ( da3-falling-rising), and "big" (            da4-falling).
Yes, the secret lies in the tones.
(By CTRL-clicking the character you can hear the pronounciation of the word. This requires a player
which supports mp3-files.)

Chinese is a tonal language, and like other tonal languages, for a given sound, the variance in the pitch
creates a different representation of meaning to the listener. Since the tones are often used to
distinguish otherwise homophonous words, it need some kind of representation when the written in a
Romanized form. Using characters, there is no tone distinctions on the written page, and so depends on
the erudition of the readers themselves.

The Chinese language does not have an alphabet. Instead, characters are used to represent entire words
or syllables. These characters give the language a profundity that absorbs industrious students. It
normally takes more than six years for a native Chinese to grasp about six thousand characters.
Fortunately, although around 56,000 characters have been accumulated in Chinese, only a few
thousand are daily used in Modern Chinese.

It is often said that every Chinese character is a picture, but only a couple hundred are actual
pictographs. Some of these are still interpretable, such as “tree” ( ), but most are now written in a way
that is hard to immediately discern their meaning, such as “horse” ( ) or “bird” ( ). There are also a
very small number of simple ideographs which suggest an abstract idea directly, like “one” (            ),
“two” (        ), and “three” (    ). All the rest of Chinese characters are combinations of these
pictographs and simple ideographs.

What is the impact of Chinese language on communication?

A Chinese proverb says, “When you hear about one thing, you should understand three things.” [Ju Yi
Fan San] This indicates that while Chinese speech is often succinct, the receiver shall always look for
additional meanings between the lines and through body language and context.

When communicating in Chinese, the sender usually expects the receiver to “understand” the meaning.
It is a polite way to say something indirectly. For example, a Finnish manager in China asked his
Chinese subordinate the same question everyday but received several different answers. The question

      “How many people will work today?”

The answers included:

      “It’s windy today (meaning: probably less people will come)”
      “Mr. Wang’s wife was sick yesterday (meaning: Mr. Wang will not come today)”
      “We want one more tractor this afternoon (meaning: if not, we will not work even we will have
       enough people today)”
      “Do you know there was a conflict between team A and B? (meaning: we cannot work properly
       unless you help us to resolve the conflict)”.

To the Finnish manager, such a simple question asking numbers of people shall be answered directly
with a number, such as 8, 10, or 20. He or she will not be expected to “figure out” the meanings in
those indirect answers. Nor is he or she used to this sort of communication style. However, this is just
one of many examples of the impact of Chinese language on communication.

Indirectness, high context, or receiver-oriented communication style, no matter how it is called, is one
salient characteristics of communication in Chinese. This is partly because of the Chinese culture and
partly due to the language itself. We may have already learned about Chinese culture and
communication in other lectures in this course. Therefore, we will look at the language aspect here.

One impact of Chinese language on communication is the usage of homophonic words. Homonyms are
very common in Chinese language because more than 56,000 characters have to share about 400
syllables. Therefore, many characters, with different ways of writing and different meanings, are
pronounced in the same way. Zhong, for example, is the same pronunciation for the word of “clock”
( ) and “the end” ( ). Therefore, a clock is a gift taboo in Chinese culture because it “means” the end
of friendship due to this homophonic coincidence. “Umbrella” ( ) and “to dismiss” ( ) is
pronounced the same (san), so an umbrella is not a proper gift either.

(By CTRL-clicking the character you can hear the pronounciation of the word. This requires a player
which supports mp3-files.)

Last but not the least, because of the Chinese grammar, the way to answer retrospective questions is
just opposite to the way Westerners are used to. Chinese will say “yes” to “Isn’t it nice, is it?” when
they mean it is not nice. They will say “no” to the same question when they mean it is nice. This
frustrates many Westerners because they will do just the opposite. The impact of this grammar has less
to do with indirectness, shyness, or hypocrisy. There just happen to be two opposite ways to answer the
same question in different languages. It is wise to avoid such kind of questions in international

Pronounciation examples by Shizhen Gao Chinese 101 and Languages of China.

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