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Do Chinese feel obliged to speak English with Westerners, even if the Westerner [Copy link] 中文

Rank: 4

Post time 2003-12-2 13:53:03 |Display all floors
I am an American English teacher. I have lived in China for a year and can speak some Chinese but I often find that educated people are reluctant to speak Chinese with me. I wonder if they feel obligated in some way to speak to me in English. Could anyone help me to understand why they are so reluctant?

Whenever I go to visit one of my student's homes I don't expect his parents, relatives or friends to be able to hold an English conversation with me unless they have recently studied English or use English on an almost daily basis, so I always engage them in conversation in Chinese, but I often find that they either reply to me in whatever English they know, which usually is very little, or reply to my student and then have him or her translate their words into English for me. As my student translates for them or as they speak English themselves they often say something like, "My dad/I studied English in school but has/have mostly forgotten it now, sorry." Why should he apologize? It's true that he can speak very little or no English, but does he truly feel embarrassed? I wouldn't expect someone who studied calculus in school to remember the difference between differentiation and integration, and I certainly don't remember the German I studied in school, so why should they remember English? Furthermore, if I talk to them in Chinese doesn't that indicate to them that I can speak and understand enough Chinese to have a conversation with them? Why don't they talk back to me in Chinese? Even if I persist in talking to them in Chinese they don't talk back to me, except for very short answers. In short, it makes it impossible for me to have a conversation with them. Do they feel obliged to speak English? This is very frustrating to me.

Here's another example of what seems to be an obligation to speak English. My Chinese friend (who I always speak with in Chinese) asked me to see Matrix Revolutions with her, so we set the date and time to meet and I also asked her to bring a friend along. She told me that she would, but that her friend couldn't speak much English, to which I said, in Chinese, "No problem, you know I can speak Chinese." But when the time came to meet at the theater she came alone. When I asked where her friend was she said that her friend felt ashamed that even though she had studied English in school she couldn't speak English with me but that I could speak Chinese with her, so she didn't come. I don't understand this. I live in China and should learn Chinese. Morever, it's easy for me to learn Chinese in China because I have a chance to speak it every day. Why does she feel so ashamed? English is most likely useless for her, there's no reason for her to remember it. Is it that her friend was just shy or didn't really want to come or is it that she feels obliged to speak to me in English? This sort of reaction on the part of her friend makes it seem like all Chinese living in China should speak English to Westerners, but that no Westerners living in China should speak Chinese to Chinese. If I didn't know better I would even think that this sort of thing is rude because it tends to impy that all Chinese are clever enough to learn English but that no Westerner is clever enough to learn Chinese.

In fact, these sorts of actions seem quite abundant, and I have especially noticed them among male Chinese English teachers. One teacher at my school sometimes goes out with me and when I say something like, "I am going to the bathroom", he always motions to help me, which is just being polite, but when I insist that I can make it on my own he says, "But there won't be any English sign for the toilet, how will you know where it is?", which of course implies that I haven't yet, in the course of a year, learned how to ask the way to the toilet in Chinese or how to read even two or three Chinese characters. What frustrates me most is that he should know that I can speak some Chinese, as I have spoken Chinese to others around him many times. Why does he still insist on translating everything for me into English? Does he feel some sort of obligation, like I expect him to create an English environment for me?

Basically, my questions boil down to these: 1) Do Chinese feel an obligation to speak in English with Westerners, even when the Westerner can speak Chinese? 2) If so, why? If not, why is it so difficult for them to speak in Chinese with me?

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Rank: 4

Post time 2003-12-2 16:26:53 |Display all floors

Things to think about and examine

It is my feeling that the problem is more with you than it is with others.

What is your need to insist on speaking Chinese to those who speak English with you? Are you and they not communicating, somehow?

Are you feeling rejected and subordinated? I would think not. With what you have described, I feel that you need to look inside and examine your motives. It appears that your imagination is running in the wrong direction. You need to trust that they have no agenda against you.

It appears to me that you have a difficulty with expressing yourself directly to others, not just with these people in this situation. Communication is much more than just language, grammar, vocabulary, etc.

No one person or group of people here can speak for all Chinese people; plus--as I said--I do not see it as a cultural problem.

If you really need to know what they think and feel--simply discuss it with them.

You cannot see my facial expressions and hear my voice, but trust me that I am only trying to help you alleviate the anxiety you appear to feel in this situation. And, I wish you well and that everything works out for you.

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Rank: 4

Post time 2003-12-2 16:29:57 |Display all floors

Let me try to answer your question.

Most of Chinese don't speak English at all.Only a few of them can express freely in English.
I don't know if you can read in Chinese.If you can read in Chinese ,I'd like to write in Chinese.I believe this is one of the reasons that Chinese feel obliged to speak English with Westerners.
We have meet  many Chinese who speak English but  few foreigners who speak Chinese.When we meet a foreigner,we usually think that he can't speak Chinese.As you know,today,in China,at least in cities,many kids in kindgarden start to learn Engish.It's not strange and understandable that she is shy for she can't speak Engish.Maybe she feels so ashamed just for she has studied English many years but can't speak it at all.

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Post time 2003-12-2 17:08:57 |Display all floors

From my own experience...

I lived in Germany for some time a few years ago. My German was poor to fair depending on the topic. I noticed, however, that people rapidly changed to English  when they spoke with me (especially educated people) and I became very frustrated:

"Why won't anyone speak to me in German?" I fumed, "How am I expected to learn?" and "Do people think they are being 'polite' speaking English to me? I want to speak German!"

Finally, after a while, I had a very close friend, who I shared these questions with. My friend was silent for a while, then said "Can I speak plainly to you? Honestly?"

"Sure" I answered, "I really want to know why."

"Well, truthfully," my friend said "speaking to you in German is like speaking to a 14 year old child who has a speech impediment."

At first I was shocked and hurt, but as I thought about it more and more I really came to value my friend, who had just told me a very real truth.

So when I came to China I resolved to learn from this lesson, and not try to force anyone to endure my crappy Chinese. I found people who really WANTED for one reason or another, to listen to me, people who couldn't switch to English, people I really wanted to listen to in return.

The result is that I have a lot of close Chinese friends, more than I ever had German friends in Germany, and my Chinese is better now than my German ever was.

Perhaps this story doesn't apply to you - but I thought sharing it might be useful.

Take care out there!

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Rank: 4

Post time 2003-12-2 17:53:30 |Display all floors

A clarifying point: my experiences in my first post refer to educated people who

I appreciate the responses, and I admit that I do have my own motive for wanting people to speak to me in Chinese, ie. I want to learn Chinese.

But these responses really don't give a clear, well-supported answer one way or another to my question of whether Chinese feel obligated to speak English with Westerners.

If a Chinese person can hold a conversation with me in English, of course I speak English with them, since their English will generally be better than my Chinese, but I am talking about educated people who can't speak English or at least not enough to hold a conversation with me. Perhaps I wasn't clear on this crucial point in my original post.

I think that these people feel obligated to speak with me in English since they have some education but since they can't, they think that I will look down on them and therefore don't talk to me altogether. Maybe my hypothesis is wrong, I don't know, that's why I asked the question.

The only Chinese who has replied so far to my post seems to support this hypothesis since he started his reply with the words: "Most of Chinese don't speak English at all.Only a few of them can express freely in English." To me this implies that some Chinese think Westerners expect many Chinese to be able to speak English. If a Chinese didn't think I already knew that few Chinese could freely express themselves in English, why would he write those words in the first place? I think it's because he thinks I expect most Chinese to be able to communicate in English, and if you think someone expects something of you, then you will often feel obliged to fulfill their expectations.

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Post time 2003-12-2 18:57:36 |Display all floors

My opinion

I think  most of the people who speaks in Engish with you just want to be polite , and they believe you can understand English better.

AS to the English teacher in your school, I think  that he take TOO much care of you. :)  Another reason maybe is that he also want to practice his spoken ENglish. I think most of the people want to practice English with native speakers , whether his or her English level is good or not.

So you'd better make it clear that you know some Chinese when starting a conversation. Undoubtedly, people here in China speaks much more fluent Chinese than English.   :0) if you want to practice Chinese, you can directly ask your Chinese friends . I am sure they will be willing to do so.

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Rank: 4

Post time 2003-12-2 21:47:46 |Display all floors

Yes, I have shared the same problem... is sometimes difficult to practice Chinese, because my friends prefer to use English.  Perhaps it's because they also want to practice their English, and, as has been mentioned -- they're better at English than I am at Chinese, so it's just easier using English.

And yes, there are those out there who are highly educated but can't speak English -- what to do with them???  Well, aside from exchanging a few pleasantries -- it is probably boring to them to try to speak with me in my bad Chinese.  So I don't force the issue.  

And yes, I've experienced the same frustration with Chinese friends who automatically assume I can't go to the market on my own, or find my way to the bathroom.  But I think I'd rather live in a country where people are over-hospitable and helpful, than completely indifferent to my needs.  

So, I just laugh and let it pass.

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