This section outlines some of the issues and problems that stem from language differences. Problems that may result from the cultural differences discussed in the previous section are compounded by the fact that no matter what, in the context of dealings addressed in this book, you will be working with people who don’t speak your language and those who have learned something of it may never have been exposed to how it is actually used.
Few Americans have been directly exposed to Chinese languages and even fewer have learned how to speak any of them. Fewer still can read and write Chinese, in either the simplified form or the traditional form. Sure, some folks may be able to recognize the characters for peace, fortune, blessings, or love which are popular decorations on many items. But chances are they won’t be able to manage an extended conversation or take part in discussions. Part of this problem is due to the difficulties presented by the Chinese language and part due to the opportunity and need to learn it.
Chinese people, on the other hand, now learn English beginning in primary school. True, it is studied as a foreign language, but for some students, standard Chinese is a foreign language too. While their exposure to English is certainly much greater than the exposure of Americans to Chinese, the ability to use the language is hampered by direct exposure and genuine usage. This is because the English taught in China is Chinese English, a variation with usage that only exists in China. It is neither American nor British English. This creates many difficulties for interpreters and others who wish to use English in their communications. Another serious problem is the prevailing misconception that a large number of vocabulary words and correct pronunciation constitute the ability to use the language. An English sentence can be grammatically perfect and the speaker may pronounce the words clearly, but still the meaning may be unintelligible to a native speaker. Whatever is being attempted just wouldn’t be said that way. In the worst case, what is said may even be insulting to the listener, because the English meaning of what is actually being said is quite different than what the speaker intended. It’s unfortunate that most Chinese who learn some English never get past the basic level. Those who develop good language skills have had the benefit of higher level instruction (beyond basic vocabulary and word pronunciation) by a native speaker or have spent time in the US, Great Britain, or another English-speaking country.
We mention the varieties of English here to point out the fact that English has its variations from country to country. The way an Australian speaks English is not the same as the way an American would speak. Neither pronunciation nor usage are the same. This difference is an important point to bear in mind when dealing with language issues. Not only does English vary from country to country, but just within the US, there are many regional variations in what has been called Standard American English. These are not just pronunciation differences, they are differences in the way people use the language. A mid-western farmer is unlikely to use the same expressions as an LA businessman, even though both speak American English. Then there are the variations for slang, particular neighborhoods or groups. As anyone with teenagers can attest, they speak their own language. Adults (especially parents) are not supposed to understand it. It’s part of teen culture.
Chinese language has it’s own set of problems, including some of those mentioned for English. While the written form is more or less consistent, pronunciation is not. The same written word may be pronounced quite differently by people from different parts of the country. This is not the same a just a simple regional accent; it’s a completely different sound. In practice, this means that a Chinese person in Harbin may not be able to clearly understand a person from Suzhou and vice versa.