From the Readers

'When in China, speak Chinese'

Updated: 2010-10-14 15:48
Large Medium Small

Comment on "Improving tourist sites for English-speakers" (China Daily, Oct 13)

Just like freedom of expression, mutual respect such as respecting different cultures while in another country, including their language, are all universal values.

As the saying goes, ”When in Rome, do what Romans do.”

In other words, if you're a foreigner holidaying in China, it is a good idea to pick up some commonly used Chinese (Mandarin) language tips, as this would not only help you to get along easier, but also show your respect for the locals for speaking their language.

However, for someone such as the author who is not just visiting China for a one-off trip, but may be actually living and working there for a long period of time, then it makes perfect sense to learn the language as an essential first step of integrating into Chinese society. This is not rocket science, just good old common sense, i.e., ”When in China, speak Chinese, when in England UK, speak English.”

In the UK, if you wish to work or live there, you would first have to pass the English Language Test before being considered. Once you're living in the country, you're very much encouraged to integrate with the locals and expected to speak English throughout. Furthermore, the UK government has been emphasizing “Britishness” for immigrants.

There are many signs to suggest that China is now an emerging world power with increasing global influence. One of these signs is that many educational establishments and companies in the West are now gearing to learn Mandarin. For example, in the UK, many high schools, which previously have only German and French courses, have now incorporated Chinese into their curriculum as well, further emphasizing China as an important global business hub.

Now, let's assume that the author is from the UK, the very fact that he speaks only English and his “maid” only speaks Chinese is a perfect testament of his basic misjudgment and mistake of not following the simple principle logic of ”when in Rome...” Expecting your ”maid” or a street hawker in China to speak English is unfair and hypocritical, after all, you're in 21st century China now, for goodness sake. Furthermore, the UK has lost her colonial power and influence long ago (e.g. Hong Kong returned to motherland in 1997), so this kind of arrogant double standard should not even exist, especially coming from a person of his professional standing.

While the author may have a point in calling for correctly translated English signs at tourist sites, I don't agree with his call for the translation to be done by native English speakers only. First, anyone (Chinese or non-Chinese) proficient in the English language should be able to do it, and interestingly, many educated Chinese have a better command of English than the English natives! Second, an English native speaker may be good at English but he may have problems in fully understanding the Chinese meaning to make a correct translation, whereas a Chinese who's proficient in both will have no problem at all.

China has come a long way since three decades ago, we have seen huge leaps in people's living standards, and freedom continues to improve. We're not there yet, but we're heading in the right direction. The “English sign” thing will certainly be on one of China's to-do-lists, but it'll be near the bottom rather than the top of the list, as there'll definitely be other much more pressing issues on China's plate.

Last, the author's story highlighted a prevailing fundamental problem with Western attitudes toward China, which is the continuing imposition of Western values and political practices, and lack of respect and recognition for cultural and political histories of China.

So, perhaps it is a good idea that China should take a page from the UK playbook and introduce the Chinese Language Test for immigrants and start the emphasis on Chineseness for our Western friends.


Freeviewer, on China Daily Website

Readers' comments are welcome. Please send your e-mail to or or to the individual columnists. China Daily reserves the right to edit all letters. Thank you.