Jump to content
Chinese-forums.com
Learn Chinese in China

Machjo

'Language switching' among native English speakers in China.

Is it rude for native English speakers to refuse to speak English?  

  1. 1. Is it rude for native English speakers to refuse to speak English?

    • Yes. (English is practically China's second language, and Chinese worked hard to learn English, so foreigners must respect this and not be so exclusivist in choosing Chinese friends)
      5
    • No. (Mandarin, not English, is China's official language, so foreigners certainly have a right to insist on speaking Mandarin when they can; and when they can't, to speak in whatever language they want in their free time)
      38
    • Yes. (other reasons)
      8


Recommended Posts

Machjo

I've noticed that many native English speakers in Hefei (including myself, in fact) and a few other cities I'd been to seem to use English only for business, work, teaching, or otherwise when absolutely necessary. Otherwise we switch to other languages for any other purpose.

Some reasons I do it are to give me more opportunities to practice my Mandarin, as well as to balance out the foreigner-to Chinese ratio in my group of friends. After all, it's not possible for one person to try to sustain hundreds of friendships all at the same time! I also find it useful to filter out true friends who truly have an interest in other people and cultures from those who merely want free English lessons for tests. It's also a good way to be left alone when regularly interrupted, while strolling through the city, by usually college aged students looking for a tutor. If they can't understand the responce, they'll just walk away confused and think twice about approaching a random foreigner again. Other foreigners have often sited similar reasons for 'language switching' on their part also.

As a result, you'll find that foreigners will generally speak Mandarin as best they can, and when it reaches beyond their level of comprehension, they either end the conversation or switch to an alternative second language of theirs if they can. You'll also generally find at least a handful of foreingers in the local French, Esperanto and other foreign language communities making friends with local Chinese. You'll find native English speakers looking for Russian or Spanish speaking friends as well. I've even noticed that some native English speakers will be willing to give some of their time to help Chinese friends with their foreign languages other than English, yet are generally much less willing to do so with English itself unless money is invovled. It does happen, however, that exceptions are made for some English speaking Chinese who speak English very well, or who seem to genuinely want to make friends and not just want to practice their English, et.

I'd like to know your ideas on this phenomenon. Is it common in your town also? Most of my Chinese friends (mind you, most of my Chinese friends outside of work are also speakers of foreign languages other than English) consider this behaviour perfectly normal and well within our rights, considering the circumstances, whereas others consider it rude, offensive or 'standoffish', considering that English is practically the de facto second language in China, and Chinese have put much effort into learning English so as to have a chance to make foreign friends, and so they think foreigners ought to accept this fact and speak English when addressed by a Chinese in English in China, no matter what the context. What are your ideas on this?

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
Site Sponsors:
Pleco for iPhone / Android iPhone & Android Chinese dictionary: camera & hand- writing input, flashcards, audio.
Study Chinese in Kunming 1-1 classes, qualified teachers and unique teaching methods in the Spring City.
Learn Chinese Characters Learn 2289 Chinese Characters in 90 Days with a Unique Flash Card System.
Hacking Chinese Tips and strategies for how to learn Chinese more efficiently
Popup Chinese Translator Understand Chinese inside any Windows application, website or PDF.
Chinese Grammar Wiki All Chinese grammar, organised by level, all in one place.

benotnobody

At the outset, I have never visited China throughout my life; and as such, my view here may not be taking into account some auxilary factors.

I believe native speakers of English have a right to speak Mandarin (if they can do so) when communicating with speakers of Chinese. This gives us an opportunity to perfect our spoken Mandarin; and I imagine it would give you a sense of achievement afterwards.

Of course, if someone specifically wanted to converse with me in English, I would be more than happy to; because if I may say so myself, my English is quite good even by native standards. On the other hand, I would feel uncomfortable teaching and conversing with a Chinese person Malay, due to the fact that my Malay is definitely substandard.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
TSkillet

heh - this has led to some weird situations when I'm in Hong Kong and some cab driver can hear the accent in my Cantonese and wants to speak English with me, and he'll be speaking in his Cantonese-accented english and I'll answer in my English-accented cantonese.

And this will go on for 20 minutes.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
Tsunku

I get really annoyed when the assumption is made that I can't speak Mandarin. In fact, my Chinese is much better than the average Chinese English speaker. Usually, when someone comes up to me and tries to strike up a conversation in English, I respond in Chinese. I find it extremely tedious to try and drudge through a conversation in stilted English when I can communicate quite well in Mandarin. On top of that, teaching English is my job. I don't want to be an English teacher in my free time. People pay me money to do this, and I don't really consider it fun, although maybe some people do.

I deliberately try and cultivate friendships with Chinese people who have absolutely no interest in studying English and are perfectly content to let me speak Chinese as much as I want. I will also gladly speak English with those whose English is better than my Chinese. But otherwise ... I'm living in China, ya know? I think I should make every effort to take advantage of that fact. I understand that English students sometimes have very little chance to practice their spoken English with native speakers, and I feel for those students, but I paid money for my plane ticket, cut ties back home, and moved to a new country in part so that I could have this opportunity to be immersed in the language. It is easy enough to live here and never ever develop your language ability. I know guys who have been here for 10 years and can't speak a word of Chinese simply because there are always so many people willing to speak English with you. It is too easy to get lazy.

Anyhow, I don't think it is rude at all to use Mandarin exclusively to communicate if you're Mandarin is good enough to do so. Speaking English with people who can't actually carry on an intelligent conversation is just too much like work to me. Maybe my attitude is a little bit elitist, but I can't help it, I can hardly stand teaching English when I'm getting paid to do it, I'll be damned if I'm gonna do it for free. :wall

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
wushijiao

Yeah, I usually speak to the person in English because, as an English teacher, I always preach that my students need to have the courage to speak to native speakers. So it would be a bit hypocritical of me to dis a Chinese person that finally gets up the guts to speak Englsih to living, breathing 老外。

Yet, with that said, after I'm done with class, sometimes I don't want to carry on boring converstations about, "can you use chopsticks", "do you like the Michael Jordan", "do you love China"...etc.?" I've even lied and said that I can't speak English.

However, once I was on a train from Zhengzhou to Beijing. A young 18-year-old guy came up to me and started asking these B.S. questions. For a second I debated if I should fake being Russian or something in order to avoid speaking English, and thus improve my Chinese. But, my better nature prevailed, and we talked for a few minutes, going through these stupid questions. Eventually, he started talking politics, which I love. He then talked about his love for American rap (50, Ludacris, Nelly, Snopp...etc), body builders (Dorian Yates, Flex Wheeler, Ronnie Coleman, Lee Haney, Arnold), and skateboarding. I ended up having a great time talking to this guy. All of these topics, to me at least, are much, much more interesting than whether I can use chopsticks. I don't know why Chinese people feel like they need to test the waters with the most boring questions on earth.

I've even noticed that some native English speakers will be willing to give some of their time to help Chinese friends with their foreign languages other than English, yet are generally much less willing to do so with English itself unless money is invovled.

I've helped tutor people in Spanish for free.

I get really annoyed when the assumption is made that I can't speak Mandarin. In fact, my Chinese is much better than the average Chinese English speaker.

I agree 100%. This reminds me of a funny story, though. One of my college students expressed dismay over the fact that many adopted Chinese babies could no longer speak Chinese once in the US. So i said:

Me: "Well, yeah, it's a shame. But you know, if everyone around the kid speaks English in the US, there's no way the adopted kid could learn Chinese."]

Him: "But he should learn Chinese. He's Chinese."

Me: "I agree. But it's impossible. I mean, what Chinese would he learn: Beijinghua, Henanhua, Guangdonghua...etc"

Him: "what do you mean?"

Me: "Well, people usually speak in the same manner as all the other people around them."

It turns out, he thought that learning Chinese had something to do with the person's race, rather than the environment. Thus, a Chinese person would speak Chinese, even if he were raised by Bolivians in a 100% Spanish-speaking environment. So, when people see me (the white guy) and assume I can't speak Chinese, I wonder if they assume that just because of my race?

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
amperel
It turns out, he thought that learning Chinese had something to do with the person's race, rather than the environment.

i guess it's the same as a jewish person learning hebrew - it has as much to do with environment as with one's cultural background, which jews and chinese both share a reverence for continuance of tradition. also, historically speaking when chinese first went overseas they did so for the purpose of supporting the family they left back home and with the intention of returning to their "homeland." there was a real separation in terms of "race" and language then. still, even with the advance of cultural integration it's not strange for the ethnic/cultural minorities to want to retain their cultural roots (especially ones that has a long history as that of the chinese :wink: ). basically what we are talking about is the conflicting existence of idealistic expectation of the minorities vs. the realistic manifestation of the majorities.

a Chinese person would speak Chinese, even if he were raised by Bolivians in a 100% Spanish-speaking environment.

many people in america adopt babies from china nowadays and most of them would enroll them in chinese school or after-school classes to learn chinese. they don't have to do it yet they do it anyway. there are studies that demonstrates the earlier generation of adopted children (korean, vietnamese, etc.) who grows up in a white households/neighborhoods feel out of place in his/her own societies. again, it's very easy to just let the "environment" to dictate one's upbringing but one also has to consider that most "environments" have its own baggage and complications.

when people see me (the white guy) and assume I can't speak Chinese, I wonder if they assume that just because of my race?

china is not america. gives them time. maybe if you goto a big city like shanghai people wouldn't assume as much.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
Lu

On the mainland, I was never really bothered by Chinese wanting to speak English to me. Sometimes one would ask me too, and if I had some time to spare I would talk with them. And if they were boring I would say I ave no time and leave.

But in my experience, many Chinese are all too happy when they find out I speak Chinese. It may be a nice opportunity to speak English, in the end it's much easier for them to speak Chinese, so often we end up speaking Chinese.

So yes, I do think it's a bit rude to refuse to speak English just because it's English. You wouldn't want people to do that to you either.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
wushijiao
china is not america. gives them time. maybe if you goto a big city like shanghai people wouldn't assume as much.

Yeah, I live in Shanghai which is just as multicultrural as many places in the US, and it has a diverse mix of Chinese. So, I think they asume that you can speak a little putonghua. My comments were more directed at the interior. Although, in some ways, because they have such low expectations about a foreigner's Chinese, they will compliment your Chinese because they are so suprised. :D

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
hWnd

What???

A native English speaker??

A native English speaker's mother tongue is English, so they cannot refuse to use their mothertongue to communicate...

However, according to the reply the "native English speaker" refers to the Chinese live in China and can speak English. Therefore, can I infer from the replies that the real meaning of "native English speaker" is "Chinese domestic English speakers"???

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
pazu

I'm now in Vietnam and I can say I'm still learning Vietnamese too, many Vietnamese are willing to talk to me in their language, but many, esp those in the tourism industry aren't. I don't mind, and never get annoyed if they could pass their meaning to me effectively, I just insist to talk to them in Vietnamese, and some other friends (foreigners) found it funny to see me talking in Vietnamese, while the Vietnamese guy was talking in English.

Just take it easy.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
rmontelatici

Hi pazu

When I was in Vietnam, most of Vietnamese where happy to speak with me in their mother tongue, even though most of them came to talk to me to practice their english in the first place (I'm a european, so people suppose I just speak english).

Since I answer in vietnamese, they immediately wonder about it and the conversation goes on in vietnamese (I must say that I'm not particularly willing to speak english, also because this is not my native language).

Another point, have you observed a difference of english proficiency between Vietnamese and (mainland) Chinese people ?

My experience in China (north part) is that almost nobody can (or want to ?) speak English. In Vietnam, people seem to be more willing to communicate in English.

Raphael

PS : how lucky you are to be able to stay in Vietnam for such a long time. What a marvelous country !

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
ChouDoufu

I agree with Tsunku. It's don't mind speaking in englsh, but if the conversation is going to be jilted and boring, then I'd rather not have it. If an american was asking me the same questions that Chinese people do, I'd ignore them too!

It's the same reason I don't speak as much Japanese with the Japanese people I know. The conversations go much smoother in Chinese; I can express myself in Chinese better than in Japanese. So why submit my friends to the same thing that I get submitted to?

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
Lu

ChouDoufu, I understand that as not a refusal to speak English, but a refusal to engage in boring conversations. Which is, I think, quite natural.

The result of this and other treads is that I got the idea that those poor English students never got the chance to practice their English with a foreigner. So I was extra nice the other day when one came up to me and asked where I was from. Soon he found out I can speak Mandarin, and we continued the conversation half in English, half in Chinese. 同蒙其利, as my textbook says.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
wiz_oz

If you go to KL (Malaysia), you can find people conversing in a jumble of language and dialects with each other. It is very interesting. Quite often it is a mixture of the various languages. Main language are Malay, English, Chinese(various dialects) and Tamil. And nobody seem to care or are offended.

Singapore call their version Singlish but I prefer the Malaysian version because of a better mixture.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
fenlan

I no longer live in China, although I spent one year there and am planning to go back. When I was in China, yes, I did find it a drag speaking English. But you do have to admire the courage of these students in striking up a conversation with a foreigner. But I am afraid that I agree that in China the official language is Chinese, and so speaking English is optional even for foreigners. There is only one thing I am a bit sad about that I think I read on one of Roddy's sites about teaching English (and dovetailed with what I already knew). That is, that some Chinese people learn English for the purpose of helping China become a strong and prosperous country, rather than for the love of cultural interaction per se. I cannot imagine any English person learning a language if he were not fascinated by languages and foreign cultures. To me, learning Chinese is not just utilitarian, and I would be reluctant to help an English learner who viewed English in purely utilitarian terms.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
wai ming

Hmm... I'd just like to give my perspective on this topic, although perhaps it's not what the original poster was looking for. As an Australian-born-and-bred native English speaker of Chinese ethnicity, most Chinese people I met when I was in China expected me to be able to speak fluent Chinese, while the majority of Chinese people I meet in Australia don't expect me to be able to speak fluent Chinese.

That said, I actually found it a bit tiring when I was in China, constantly trying to carry on conversations in Chinese, since everyone assumed I could understand them perfectly (and therefore reply in perfect Chinese, too). So being able to speak English provided some much needed relief for me... and generally, as long as the other person's English is not too bad (by that I mean if they have achieved the fluency of an average Chinese high school student), I don't mind speaking to them in English, as long as it's not a situation where it would be far more convenient for me to speak Chinese to them.

I do agree though that having people constantly trying to get some English practice or tuition for free can be annoying though, especially when it's in blatant disregard for the circumstances of the moment, ie when people just come up to you for no reason and start speaking English to you.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
mpallard

OK, maybe I'm an idiot but Dennis' post made no sense to me.

I don't see how you possibly "covered it all".

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
lau

Dear Dennis, the thing is that "waiguo hua" might just as well be such, that noone else in Beijing can speak it. Then what?

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Join the conversation

You can post now and select your username and password later. If you have an account, sign in now to post with your account.
Note: Your post will require moderator approval before it will be visible.

Guest
Click here to reply. Select text to quote.

×   Pasted as rich text.   Paste as plain text instead

  Only 75 emoji are allowed.

×   Your link has been automatically embedded.   Display as a link instead

×   Your previous content has been restored.   Clear editor

×   You cannot paste images directly. Upload or insert images from URL.


×
×
  • Create New...