In China, as in much of the world, English is emerging as the common language for business. Due to the sheer size of the market, Chinese English speakers are beginning to exert an influence on linguistic norms, pulling English into new directions not envisioned by native speakers. Wenpu Wang and Lin Wei, two researchers at Chengdu Technical University in China’s Sichuan province, recently produced a paper identifying how Chinese English usage differs from other global variations, both native and learned, based on analysis of business correspondence conducted in English by Chinese employees. Their findings indicate how English could evolve in a global context as non-native speakers constitute an increasing majority.
Wang and Wei analyzed over 400 “short, informal” email messages written in English and identified several characteristics that might raise eyebrows among sticklers for conventional usage and grammar.
- Expression of number and time are different, in that Chinese writers often use plural constructions (-s, -es) and singular constructions interchangeably, and often use present tense verbs even when describing events that took place in the past. (“XXX inform[s] YYY today that 2 order[s] can’t be delivered to bounded zone warehouse through DHL.”)
- Serial verb constructions don’t always agree in tense or number, as in “Asked supplier review their operational process, and ensure factory inventory have no same issue,” or “Customs inspect it and withhold this shipment, which caused this shipment didn’t delivery to XXX in time.”
- Commas are often used to join complete sentences, or to replace other punctuation such as dashes, semicolons and colons. Periods (full stops) are only used to separate groups of ideas.
- Articles such as “a” or “the” are used inconsistently or omitted entirely, such as “[the] Reason is DHL has already finished [the] custom clearance, [the] material now is non-bonded.”
The authors make several important points about these stylistic differences. First, none of them hinder the ability of readers to gather the meaning and intention of the communication. In fact, they tend to be simpler and clearer in expression than grammatically-correct English usage.
Second, they reflect an important cultural difference in that Chinese is considered a “high context language” (more of the meaning goes unsaid in spoken or written communication because it is assumed that the parties share a basis of understanding). Precisely because English is global and spoken by many different cultures, the default is to say more and supply the missing context. Chinese business users are showing this may not be necessary.
The authors conclude that “Chinese English users need to be more confident and positive in their English variety and their ability to function in English, and it is important for parties involved in intercultural communication to develop intercultural competence through exposure to other English varieties.”
As organizations look to standardize on Business English as a platform for communication, these lessons of flexibility and adaptability can help reduce the frustrations of striving for perfection as defined by one set of speakers, while increasing overall comprehension.