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What are some things about English that Chinese people think are strange?


philipbeckwith
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Some background: I am a Chinese teacher in America. Many times my students think Chinese language makes no sense. I point out that the Chinese feel the same way about English.

 

Can you think of some specific things about English that Chinese think are strange? I know spelling and conjugation inconsistencies in general, but can you think of something in particular? For example, why do people say "what's up?" as a greeting?

 

Thanks,

 

Phil

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I think "what's up" is short for "what are you up to at the moment"

 

  • what's up?

  • 1      informal What is going on?

     

    From an online dictionary  Oxford English dictionary.

     

    Possibly popularised by Bugs Bunny "What's up, Doc?"

     

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Hey thanks, Shelley! I think I wasn't clear. I know the meaning of 'What's up?' I am looking for instances of English words, phrases, conventions that just baffle Chinese people. 

 

Perhaps I should just make my own list, but I'm holding out a bit that some English speakers who live in China know some good examples.

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Sorry, I think I see what you mean now. Not being in china I can't contribute to your list.

 

Maybe a few examples from your list just to give people something to follow?

 

Actually I do remember one situation that baffled one of my chinese teachers:

Someone asks: do you mind if.......?

The reply: Yes, you can do it........

My teacher thought it should be:  No, you can do.......

I also think it should be that.

 

He thought you should reply no to the "do you mind" where as people reply yes as in yes you can.

It confused him no end.

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Being Chinese yourself (or are you?), perhaps you're in a better position than most of us (being non-natives) to know the answer to your question.

I can't think of an example of something in English that Chinese have exactly said they've found strange, but a consistent stumbling block in speech is he/him/his for she/her/hers and vice versa.  Maybe differentiating them doesn't so much seem strange as strangely unnecessary.

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7 hours ago, Shelley said:

He thought you should reply no to the "do you mind" where as people reply yes as in yes you can.

It confused him no end.

 

This is a big problem for Chinese learners.  I imagine it probably arises because in Chinese simple responses to yes/no questions involve either affirmation or negation of the verb.  So when an English speaker just replies yes or no it becomes confusing.  Compare:

 

English:

A: "You didn't do it?"

B: "No, I didn't."

(Chinese speaker expects C: "Yes, I didn't do it.")

 

Chinese:

A: 做了吗?

B: 做了。

 

See? No ambiguity.

 

For the OP, I remember taking French at school and we always used to argue with our teacher that French didn't make any sense and she would come up with loads of cases where the French way of saying something made a lot more sense than the English.  Basically, I don't think this is a Chinese-English specific problem, I don't think it's a new problem, and if I remember correctly, there is probably very little you can say to convince your students otherwise!

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Yes, the negative yes-no question is a big stumbling block.

A Chinese speaker when confronted with a question, would first turn it into a statement, then evaluate its truthfulness, and answer accordingly. So a yes answer means I agree with your statement as a whole and has nothing to do with the verb.

- You didn't do it?

- Yes, you're right. I didn't do it.

 

And the "Do you mind if I..." question still trips me up from time to time.

We simply process it as a request for permission. So "No, go ahead" feels strange.

 

And there are many other things. For example, the simple present tense is seldom used to describe a present action.

 

And the WH-fronting, especially when the question word being fronted is originally in a subordinate clause. A sentence like "Who do you think you are" takes a lot more extra mental effort to process and formulate. In Chinese we use in-place substitution like "You think you are who?" Why can't English do that?

 

And partial/complete negation is done in Chinese by changing word order, i.e. 不都是 vs 都不是 . Sentences like "All that glitters is not gold" and "All is not well" baffles Chinese students to no end.

 

And some of the English patterns just don't make sense. For example

"That's very nice of you." What is the function of "of"?

"She is 20 years my junior." What is the grammatical explanation of "my"?

"This place is crawling with rats." Surely a place can't crawl, can it?

 

Oh, and the tag questions. I read somewhere that in Indian English, "right?" is used as a universal tag. Kudos to Indians.

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"And the "Do you mind if I..." question still trips me up from time to time."

It'd be fun to see any research, but I suspect this is one of the most common sources of misunderstandings for native speakers. It's quite likely to be an ad-hoc interaction between strangers (Do you mind if I take this chair, do you mind if I sit here, etc) and I know on occasion I've manged answer the underlying question (Can I take this chair - yes) rather than the politer way it's phrased (do you mind - no), or misinterpret an answer. I tend to reply with a 'help yourself' instead of a 'no' now.

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Or the other way around:

Me: Since you get up after I leave the house, would you mind making the bed in the morning?

The other person, indignant: NO!

Me: Alright!

This was with a non-native speaker though.

 

The answer to a negative question is confusing for Dutch native speakers as well. If someone asks 'You don't want sugar in your tea, right?' there's just no way to answer that unambiguously with just yes or no.

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It used to baffle me how native writers can make mistakes like using its instead of it's, their instead of there etc. Now they are just annoying when I see them.  I guess non-native learners learn those in their first months (thus, elementary stuff to us) but these words are considered too easy for native speakers and don't get taught at schools?

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Prepositions are a nightmare and a curse to Chinese people, because a verb + preposition pair can take on a completely different meaning if a different preposition is used. And sometimes, the preposition of choice just makes no sense to them.

 

One example that I remember was a Chinese friend telling me in conversation: "Friend A blew me!"

 

And I said to him, utterly confused by the TMI, "I didn't know you were gay...?"

 

Realising he'd left out a preposition, he then said, "... blew me... up?"

 

Me: "... he had a bomb...? What are you trying to say? 'Blew me away'?"

 

My friend was trying to say "blew me off", and he just couldn't remember which preposition went after blow in that context, basically. He was also confused by the fact that blowing somebody meant "giving somebody oral sex", to which he said to me, "shouldn't it be called a suckjob, and not a blowjob?"

 

A lot of my Chinese friends tell me that 50% or more of the prepositions just make no sense to them at all.

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6 minutes ago, dwq said:

 native writers can make mistakes like using its instead of it's, their instead of there etc.

Native of English or Chinese? Sorry a bit confused.

There are a lot of English spears who don't know these differences and spelling is an alien thing. I put it down to the lack of proper English lessons. I was never taught grammar I suppose it was assumed that as English was my mother tongue there was no need to teach me the mechanics of grammar.

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Phrasal verbs! Collins Cobuild series has (or had) some useful books. But yet, they're a nightmare. Better to approach them as casual alternatives to other verbs, rather than trying to figure out meaning from the component parts:

 

To blow away - to amaze / shock

To fall off - to reduce

To sit out - to skip

 

'Course, then someone goes and uses them literally, saying 'my washing fell off the line and blew away' and the poor learner is left scratching their head.

 

 

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2 hours ago, Publius said:

"You think you are who?" Why can't English do that?

It can and does do it in the limited context of asking for confirmation of something in doubt or, possibly more often, that the speaker finds hard to accept/believe:

 

A. I split up with my billionaire boyfriend.

B. You did what?

 

A. I voted for Trump in the last election.

B. You voted for who?

 

A. I bought my clown outfit in Giggleswick.

B. You bought it where?

 

2 hours ago, Publius said:

"This place is crawling with rats." Surely a place can't crawl, can it?

 

This is an example of hypallage.

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36 minutes ago, Shelley said:

Native of English or Chinese? Sorry a bit confused.

Native of English.

 

37 minutes ago, Shelley said:

There are a lot of English spears who don't know these differences

I usually find them pretty sharp.  Hammers are the blunt ones.:wink:

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32 minutes ago, Zbigniew said:

It can and does do it in the limited context of asking for confirmation of something in doubt or, possibly more often, that the speaker finds hard to accept/believe:

Yes, I am aware of that. But like you said, it only happens in a response. Without A, B cannot stand on its own as a question.

 

1 hour ago, dwq said:

It used to baffle me how native writers can make mistakes like using its instead of it's, their instead of there etc. Now they are just annoying when I see them.

I may be wrong but it seems an American disease that affects mostly millennials. And they are a very vocal population of the internet.

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51 minutes ago, dwq said:

I usually find them pretty sharp.  Hammers are the blunt ones.:wink:

Haha, that's what you get for typing and rushing off to the shops. I won't correct it, your reply makes it funny and I guess people will understand.

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