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Found this interesting and thought it'd be worth posting. It's from chapter 2 of Bob Hodge & Kam Louie's The Politics of Chinese Language and Culture: The Art of Reading Dragons (Routledge, 1998). The same points could be made about most language teaching though!



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The changes over time, and influence of 'politeness campaigns', I can't comment on. But it's always seemed to me 你好 has been unfairly maligned. Is it used much less than your elementary textbook might suggest? Yes, but your elementary textbook isn't there to give you a wide range of options. It's there to give you one or two always-safe, never-too-inappropriate options. Variations across time, place, relationships, age... that's a PhD thesis. It's up to the learner to be alert to what is actually used in the circumstances in which they find themselves. I recall, although it's all so long ago now I could have made it up, noticing teachers at my first school would nod and say 你好 as they passed in corridors - albeit slimmed down to a virtual grunt. 


I will note 你好 ranks around 2,000 in the SUBTLEX-CH corpus. Not too shabby. 

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I was in China a few years before the (then unbeknownst to me) publication of that book, and I don't recall hordes of excitable Chinese running at me screaming Ni hao (and the few who tried English 'Hello' soon ended up in the mass grave marked 'Language Bandits' (only kidding)). I do however recall my nationality being a staple opening question, and usually in Chinese (people assumed I was American...and that I could [luckily] speak [some] Chinese), maybe the textbooks should teach that exchange instead?


Seriously though, I can't say I've never inadvertently used Ni hao or had it "used upon me", and call me an antisocial Brit, but isn't a neutral greeting like that almost fighting talk where you come from?


Coming at it from an ELT angle, I'd try for a start to teach things like streetwise-informal lexical tag openers (..., eh!) about the weather or beer or whatever, to help compensate for the formal Hello, my name's X Business English Almost Robolessons and take the focus somewhat off of the possible HELLO!! >?< YOU.




It's up to the learner to be alert to what is actually used in the circumstances in which they find themselves.


Great, my copy of the new Literally Teach Yourself Chinese has arrived! Eh? The pages are blank and there's no CD! What a swizz!

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I'm guessing the politeness campaign was successful because my Chinese friends & colleagues use 你好 all-the-time with each other.  Usually it is a simple 你好 - sometimes in a very short & fast way, but other times it might be 你好你好 (also said fast but with much energy to show extra pleasure).  Chinese I haven't met usually don't say 你好 to me because most assume I can't speak Chinese - and when I say 你好 to them, it elicits surprise.  


I can't comment on what it was like in 1998.  However, the use of 你好 by Chinese friends in the US seems just as common with those who came over 25 years ago as those who've been here just 5 years, i.e., those who came over 25 years ago wouldn't have experienced the politeness campaign.  However,  it's possible that being in the US influenced how they interact with other Chinese.   


As Roddy notes, cultures change.  The Wall St. J. just had an article about classes in Finland to teach people to small talk.  Chatting with strangers hasn't been a Finnish tradition and now they are trying to change this.  Belgium had a campaign to get people to smile more.





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Well, even if Ni hao has been a bit maligned, it's not exactly setting the conversation alight is it? A virtual grunt between busy colleagues on the one hand, or as a presumable prelude to stuff of actual substance, interest or consequence between friends on the other.


I know the beginner can't be rushed too fast into whatever "unpleasantries" may lie beyond the mere pleasantries, but Hodge & Louie surely have it right when they say that 'very few textbooks' (such as at the time ECR, (N)PCR, and even DeFrancis, though the point is probably still true today) 'explain precisely what is going on in these interactions' (for example, why does Palanka "greet" Gubo in Chinese in NPR Lesson 1? That alone never made enough sense, or did I miss something? In ECR L1 it's apparently a 'young Western male shaking hands with a young Chinese male', again both intoning Ni hao to each other, but 'they too have no strong basis for a relationship').


The conclusion the authors come to (after discussing another exchange from the featured novel) is that





But why confine it just to literature? We all may have experience of more interesting encounters, that may have laid the basis for actual (convincing) friendship, but strangely little explicitly informs or finds its way into our teaching or learning.


To allude to one of my own experiences, I'd like a textbook that set the scene more thoroughly (in English text: After 10pm, on a backstreet in a Saitama bedtown. A foreigner, most likely an English teacher, puffs into view, walking faster than most Japanese, and laden down with some last-minute shopping), and has somebody taking a "risk", doing the "unexpected" (A middle-aged Japanese local man out for a bit of night air spots the foreigner and jokes in Japanese words to the effect of 'Where's the fire?!'). >>> You are the foreigner. What do you do (and/or say)?


But no, 'fire' is too difficult for Lesson 1 (or 2 or whatever quite "early" stage, no time is really a good time according to this way of thinking), and 'Where's...?' is less appropriate at this stage than "e.g." 'My name's Barbie. What's your name?' (even though both involve Wh- words, determiners, the copula, inversion, a noun, and so on). Far, far too risky, any possible firelighters.


Mind you, Hodge & Louie do admit that as far as verbal formula and words go, Ni hao is indeed at least 'safe' (though they're obviously much more interested in the stuff that's an alternative or additional to it, as am I).

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