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Gareth is an Australian who has lived in JiangSu, SuZhou (Heaven on Earth) for a few years - he is a keen observer of the Chinese people, Chinese culture and the changes that are occurring in China at break-neck speed. He can often be found on his a nightly 'perch' in front of his bar in the famous Bar Street in Suzhou, talking to the locals in his bad Mandarin, teaching the 'flower-selling girls' English, eating street food and smiling at the local chengguan (neighbourhood police). Gareth also has several other businesses in China around Business and English training. His experiences have been varied and interesting and his years in China have taught him to be wary of promises but excited about prospects, not a bad situation to be in!
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Mind your language    

By Garreth Humphris
3101 Views | 6 Comments | 10/16/2012 1:21:34 PM

I read with interest a forum post about how Chinese women do not understand the 'English’ usage of the word “love” - how they couldn't understand the difference between ’loving football’, ’loving being your mates’ and ’loving your partner’. I have often noticed this difficulty when teaching Chinese people English - that there doesn't appear to be the same ’interest-like-love’ continuum!

Now, I am not a linguist, and my Chinese ability is very poor, but I was prompted to try a bit of practical understanding on the topic - so I unleashed it on my ’classes’ this weekend to see how it would work. I asked my students to repeat the “meaning” of ’I love football’ back to me in Chinese - Interesting, the only people who could translate so that it made perfect sense  in Chinese were the teachers (who knew the English conventions quite well) ... every student said literally ’I love football’ and they would scratch their heads when I asked them what I meant, but the teachers said ’l like football very much’, to which the student could easily explain running around chasing a bag of air for fun!

So why is this the case? My thinking is that it comes down to Chinese characters and Chinese sentence structure. Again, I am no linguist so there will be people who can give you a long-winded academic explanation to this but my idea is observational. It is based on the ’common’ translations found in dictionaries and the machine translation tools on the Internet or handheld devices!

The Chinese tend to treat words as separate entities, that are not really connected to others that we would group in English. I'll give you an example with love (ai4, 愛) and romantic love (between a man and woman) is  ai4qing2, 愛情. This is a reasonable association and you will notice the same character ai4 in each word. Other words such as courtship (戀愛 lian4ai4) and sweetheart (愛人, ai4ren) have the ’love’ character!

But the common explanation of “like” (xihuan, 喜歡) is a totally different root word, not immediately link-able logically to “love” in a Chinese character sense.

What tends to happen in translation is that the most commonly used machine interpretation will “popUp” and be used so the exact nuance of the sentence may be misrepresented.

Another interesting ’Chinese language’ fact based on the same premise is that Sexual love (性欲), is not related to the character love! Nor is cute/lovely (討人喜歡的人), and also a fool in love (花痴 huāchī)! It appears that the Chinese consider a fool to be a fool, regardless if it is over love or not!

How do we get around it! There are a few things to note when using 'translators' to speak!

1) Use simple sentences.
If you are like me, and are not really sure what you want to say, you will often use, and in fact, abuse, the relative clauses convention, that legitimately can be, and often are, placed in a grammatically correct English sentences, to make the relative understanding, of each part, clearer and better defined. But it is really difficult to read, understand and translate!

2) Choose concise meaning for words.
If you say “love”, but mean ’respect’, ’admire', ’enjoy’ or ’like’ then you will get confusion! Make sure your choice of words is not a generic term but exactly what you intend to say! The ’emotion’ superlatives we use in English tend to get translated to the same lower word.

3) Avoid the use of idioms
While terms like “it's raining cats and dogs” is probably translatable, some others that have more obscure references might not be so clear! “out of bounds”, “in the red”,”on the same page”,”out of the blue”...need I say more!

4) Be sure of your references
Take this nice Don McLean song...unless you are a local down in Mississippi, the meaning might not be immediately obvious...

“Bye, bye, Miss American Pie
Drove my Chevy to the levee, but the levee was dry
And Good ’Ole Boys were drinking whiskey and rye
Singing “This will be the day that I die!”

If your language is a colloquial as this, you will get problems! (but you do need a Don McLean song ever now and then!)

5) Context of meaning - Chinese tend to use vague words when the outcome of the action may be embarrassing or not clearly a win - a Chinese ’maybe’ tends to be a Western ’no’. Chinese language is a ’face-saving’ tool, so it is often read as this by Chinese people. Try to be as direct as possible with details.

6) Be lenient on the translation.
What I mean here is that even if the lady has replied in English, she may have used a machine translation tool to do it! So if their is a point that piques your interest, or fires your passion, or deflates your ego, or ruins your day - don't immediately take it to heart, re-clarify the original intent of the message!

Hopefully the language barrier can be reduced a little with these handy tips! Communication is more than a common set of words, it contains culture, expectation, clash of conventions and a whole bunch more “technical nuances” that make it fun to do, but interestingly impossible to master! Have fun!

-----------------
While on the subject of dictionaries and translations, there are a few resources I find useful in my daily China existence!

1) CEDICT - a free, community-based Chinese English database of words - you need a program to read it (many free and paid options on all devices). It has good examples and current language trends.

2) Plecoptera (pleco) - a purchased program for mobile devices - that has about 5 top quality general dictionaries and some technical/medical/scientific ones as well. A great function on a mobile phone with a camera is photograph a street sign an the program translates it for you!

3) TransWhiz - (iOS products) is a pretty tidy translator tool that is ’standalone’ (no need for network connection like google translator etc) that also displays pinyin!

I will do a blog on other options later!

Copyright owned jointly by Author and CyberCupid Co., Ltd. Breach of copyright will be prosecuted.
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(Showing 1 to 6 of 6) 1
#2012-10-17 07:20:49 by Tyler72 @Tyler72

Hi Garreth, Glad you took the time to write this one up. I think you are referring to my post.

I kept going back to see if anyone would comment on it but I guess nobody knew what I was talking about or they were just ignoring me, LOL.

Thank you though, your explanation based on the characters makes a lot of sense and illustrates very well why and how the language disconnect may happen, educational AND interesting.

Love your posts!

#2012-10-17 15:54:13 by aussieghump @aussieghump

Yes Tyler, you did inspire the piece! It is one of those 'tricky' areas because we often don't explore how 'confusing' parts of our 'natural' language is.

As to the explanations- there is nothing scientific about those! Only observational! Someone more educated than me may comment!

The key point is to 'observe' the misunderstandings we have (and what our cultural, personal and community bias) and try to 'correct' them without angst!

#2012-10-18 17:50:46 by sunrise68 @sunrise68

Different countries may have different behaviour modes. Chinese are more conservative and hiding. For my generation or older generations, Chinese don't speak " I love you" easily, even though really "love", still shy to speak. In my opinon, more hiding, more valuable.
But for language misunderstanding, I think this has much to do with our English-textbook at school. It taught us "love" mainly expressed deep affection and was not the same as "like"; so we think " I like football" is right and "I love football" is not appropriate. Moreover, we learn standard international phonetic symbol and we speak English according to this, but actually, English native speakers have many different accents, American, British, New Zealand, Australian......they sound differently and it's difficult for us to understand.

#2012-10-18 18:02:25 by Grace172 @Grace172

Thank you so much for giving your advice to the foreigners to mind their language. I really admire the Chinese women who can speak English fluently. But I am a slow woman, even though I have been teaching the kids English for ten years, my English level is still very low. Especially in reading comprehension, so often make misunderstanding while talking with foreigners. That's why I want to find a man who is very patient and understand my Chenglish.
Once I chatted with an American man on skype. I said: "Sorry, I have to go back to my work. Bye" He said: "OK..,. I am happy that you stoped to say hello to me." I was confused: "What? You don't want me to say hello to you any more." He explained at once. Then I understood the difference between "stop to do sth." and "stop doing sth." haha... Silly me.
But for me, I would like a foreigner to use the slang or idioms in our conversation.(if he doesn't mind to take time to explain patiently, lol) So that I can lear more and more English skill.

#2012-10-19 18:48:46 by woaizhongguo @woaizhongguo


I think ancient Greek does it best by having a term to specifically refer to the erotic relationship: "eros." There are other words in Greek that get translated as "love," for example 'philia' an 'agape'. But this is because that is the only word available in English. I am not sure there is any term in Chinese that specifically refers to the erotic relationship.

#2012-10-20 03:59:01 by Tyler72 @Tyler72

We in the West actually do have many different kinds of love that use the same word.. Im not sure what the history of the terminology is but many of the diferentiating terms are greek.

Eros, is the passionate love, between lovers. It is the only definition most Chinese people learn and this is the source of a lot of the confusion, I believe.

Fillial (sp?) love is love that is based on emotional connection and closeness and can refer to family members or good friends.

Agape love is the kind of love that is completely selfless, such as someone who sacrifices themself to save their companions.. An example comes from religion, supposedly it is the kind of love Jesus had for all mankind when he sacrificed himself for us...

There are a couple of others and then there is the kind that is just a more strong version of "like". As in I love spicy Sichuan food!

These are different kinds of love, and if you look it up you will no doubt find a better description than what I can offer from mere memory, but the word love is much more broad in its definition and common usage than only EROS based love would suggest. Many Westerners may not be able to articulate the specifics of this... But they do knowbthat they may use it for different meanings and they know that loving Pizza is not the same as loving their parents, and not the same as loving their wife... But the word is the same.

I know its confusing...but nobody ever said we were a logical people.. Lol i had Japanese friends tell me that English is the hardest language in the world because we have no rules, only recommendations.. Pretty funny, but I couldnt deny its truth.

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