Bridging Cultures, Building Business


Perils of Faulty Language

Quinn Place, CPA, CMA

Founder, Overseas Bridges


In the article "The Biggest Challenge for Chinese Students in the US Is the Cultural Shock," the Chinese ambassador to the US, Li Daoyu, shared his wisdom with us: "It does not matter whether you study or learn culture in the US; the first thing would be to have good English.  Of course, you all have good English.  No matter how good you are, when you enter the US you soon realize that the English skills learned in school, has little practical value. In real life settings, people converse differently from the standardized language instruction you have acquired."  I agree with his insights. To communicate effectively in social, educational and business situations requires efforts outside the classroom.

In the ambassador's article, he states: "No matter how good one's English is in China, one need to continue improving one's language skills."  His personal experiences reinforce this statement and can serve as an example. He said: "I graduated from an American religious college and after I started to live here, I realized the formal language instruction I had received failed to prepare me to converse in the US. To truly understand and be understood I had to 'relearn' the language and how it is used in a practical setting. I encourage everyone, no matter the amount of formal English instruction to learn from my experiences and continuously work towards improving your conversational English skills. Your efforts will be rewarded with the ability to build better relationships and will open many more opportunities for you down the road."

Personally, I know of a few friends who taught English in China, but struggle to communicate with Americans.  A friend of mine came here as a visiting scholar and thought his English was very good.  Shortly after his arrival, he found out that he could not easily buy food items from the grocery store.  Lack of conversational skills is a very common problem for most Chinese students. Nuances, phrases, technology and pop culture are ever changing the way Americans communicate. Just ask the parent of an American teenager.
Indeed, learning is never ending. In order to have some real expectations of oneself, one needs to recognize that the English you had learned in China is far different from the American version and some polishing is required. The best way to practice is through real conversation with real people.

The ambassador's comment prompted me to think of the many situations where insufficient language skills can have a profound negative effect.  1.) In some translations, Chinese people tend to translate from word to word.  This methodology could lead to some problems, such as words are arranged in wrong orders; extra words; the translations do not have a good flow. 2.) The translation is too literal.  During the process, common Chinese language may have converted to different meanings, such as "strange flavor" in Chinese.  It should be "sweet and sour flavor" in English. 
Zhai Hua, a talented Chinese writer, has a very interesting international background and an amazing ability to grasp information. One day, I was sitting in a waiting room and reading his essays on the topic: "Eastern culture, Western language," he made some very good points about language translations. I've included a link to his blog below.

I could not keep from laughing when I read his articles.  If one has good understanding of English, one would be shocked at how translations can convey different meanings, sometimes even offensive meanings. For example, "do" in Chinese but translated to "F***" in English.

One of my English professors once said that "Language is a box. The Meaning is contained in the box."  Another phrase is "Language is a transmission, transferring the message from one end to the other."  I've come to realize the importance of language skills. In the business world, language represents the image of one's product. Yesterday, I went to lunch with one of my American friends.  He stated how often the quality of a product is associated with the quality of the translation. A poor translation sends out a signal to one's potential customer: "If the firm doesn't take care in preparing the package, how can the customer be assured that care was taken in preparing the product inside?" The result is most consumers would walk away from such products. Effective language helps communicate to the consumer the value of the product. The best international companies have recognized this to be critical to their success and have long utilized talent to the markets they are serving to ensure they are communicating "practically".

So keep on practicing those English skills. Look for ways to communicate in real world settings. The work you put in will reap huge rewards both personally and professionally.

Please contact me through the "Contact Us" page if you would like more information on how we can help arrange opportunities for you to practice your real world English.

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