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Problems Faced by Chinese Learners in L2 English Learning and Pedagogic Recommendations from an Inter-Cultural Communication Perspective


Manfred Wu Man Fat, Hong Kong

1 Introduction

According to the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis, the languages we learn as a child (i.e., mother tongues) strongly influence the ways we think and view the world. Therefore, language is by no means neutral and it directly influences one's entire life.  It is inevitable that in learning a second language transference happens and learners tend to perceive meanings in L2 from their own culture. Communication between people of different cultures is a process of challenging others' values, beliefs and ways of expressing themselves.  Very often, miscommunication between members of different cultures is not due to linguistic incompetence but a lot of other cultural differences.

Despite its importance in effective communication, Intercultural Communication (ICC), which refers to a 'symbolic, interpretative, transactional, contextual process in which people from different cultures create shared meanings (Lustig and Koester, 1993, p.51), is a relatively neglected area in L2 English teaching (Dunnett et al., 1986; Dirven and Putz, 1993; Fantini, 1995).  For successful ICC to occur, L2 learners need to know the culturally-determined patterns of verbal and non-verbal communication which native speakers follow, the unwritten rules of speaking, the appropriate styles of spoken and written language for different situations, and the non-verbal communication signals most commonly used in English-speaking cultures in addition to the mere competence in grammar and vocabulary (e.g., Oskaar, 1993; Willems, 1996).  Thus L2 learners need to know when to remain silent, whom to talk to, what topics may or may not be discussed, whether communication should be oral and/or written, which style of language (e.g., formal/informal) and dialect is more appropriate in a particular situation.

From my experience as an English teacher in Hong Kong, I realize that very often Chinese secondary learners have difficulties in following arguments.  In oral discussions, debates, speech presentations and essay writing they have the habit of not going to point directly but describe a lot of background information, histories, and only mention their point of view briefly at the end.  Young (1982) points out there are different expectations and norms between Chinese and English native speakers as regarding to where the argument is going and where it is coming from.  Similarly, Green (1991; 1996) found that in writing argumentative essays, Chinese students in Hong Kong tend to state their viewpoint at the end which is 'foreign' to most from English-speaking cultures.  His conclusion is that topic-prominence of their native language in their writing and the influence at the interlanguage level cause Chinese learners to fail to meet the criteria for appropriate development of coherent argumentation-oriented discourse in English.’ (p.120)

In addition, Chinese secondary learners have difficulties in initiating discussions and being passive during group discussions.  With the presence of teachers and during group discussions, they tend to be over-anxious.

As far as linguistic competency is concern, Chinese secondary learners in Hong Kong have great difficulties in learning tenses, subject-verb agreements, certain aspects of morphology, syntax, pronunciation and intonation.  A number of studies have found that there were frequent omissions of relative pronouns in relative clauses among tertiary students in Hong Kong (Berry, 1992). Chinese L2 learners of English also have difficulties in the expression of time order, names, subject-verb agreement, direct and indirect expression, phonology, affixation, suffixes, etc. (Li and Thompson, 1990; Wong, 1988).

The above problems are not specific to Chinese secondary learners in Hong Kong but are shared by most Chinese learners (Wong, 1988; Schnell, 1990).  For example, in Schnell's (1990) study, 65% of respondents of Chinese students in China agreed or strongly agreed that although they sometimes understands words an English speaker are using, they have difficulties in understanding the main ideas of the message. Given this background, this paper focuses on the recommendations on tackling ICC problems faced by Chinese learners of L2 English.  This will be done through an analysis of how Chinese culture contributes to these problems.

There are different approaches in ICC, for example, Hymes (1962) provides a descriptive approach to ICC, Bernstein (1971, 1973) adopts an acculturation approach in his Deficit Hypothesis, McCarthy and Carter (1994) adopt a discourse approach in their studies of ICC and Young (1996) discusses ICC from a Neo-Marxist perspective.  Instead of analyzing the causes of ICC problems from a particular approach, this paper focuses more on the practical pedagogic recommendations.


2 Problems Faced by Chinese Learners in ICC

In this section, characteristics of Chinese culture which contribute to ICC problems for Chinese L2 learners of English will be identified.


Concept of Time and Reasoning


A common complaint by westerners in communicating with Chinese is that they always do not focus on getting things done in an efficient manner.  Part of the reason is the huge difference in the Chinese and western worldviews.


Scollon and Scollon (1995) differentiate between the western Utopian and eastern Confucian Golden Age concepts of time.  The Utopian concept of time is based on a belief in progress and we have yet to reach our greatest accomplishments.  In addition, there is always the idea of time urgency to reach our goals as soon as possible.  The Golden Age concepts of time, on the contrary, is based on the idea that the present time is worse than the past.  Therefore, there is no hurry to rush forward because it moving forward is getting away from the better conditions of the past.  One obvious ICC problem from this difference is that those holding the Utopian concept have a negative evaluation the slower counterparts from the Golden Age.


The inclination of Chinese to be more inductive in reasoning as compared to the deductive reasoning which is more common in the west (Scollon and Scollon, 1995; Li and Thompson, 1990) causes differences in the expectations of the flow of arguments.  In addition, Chinese logic is described as 'binocular', which means 'seeing the same situation as consisting of two sides' (Irwin, 1996, p.43) compared to the monocular, binocular and polyocular logics commonly used in western individualistic cultures.


These two characteristics contribute to a totally different set of expectations and norms of Chinese learners in their logic of arguments compared to that of native speakers of English.  At the same time, they explain why Chinese learners have the tendency of giving a lot of background information before stating their points of views at the end in introducing their arguments.


Organization of Society


Most expatriate teachers who teach Chinese students for the first time will often comment that Chinese students are passive in the classroom.  The lack of initiatives in participating in classroom activities is caused by Chinese learners' concept of the roles of teachers and students, in which teachers should be dominating, authoritative while students should be obedient and respect teachers who are at a higher level in the social hierarchy.  Confucianism emphasizes on the hierarchy of relationships and collectivism.  Each individual in the society has a set of responsibilities and obligations to fulfill in the hierarchy which is based on kinship, age, experience, education, gender, geographical region, political affiliation, etc..  In contrast to the western individualistic and egalitarian culture, Chinese perceive themselves not as biological individuals but are intimately related to immediate kinship.


Kinship often extends to friendship and an obligation is involved when one is called upon to render help.  Failing to recognize this cultural characteristic may cause miscommunication.  For example, a Chinese father who fails to get any help from an American friend who is working at a well-known American university to have his son admitted to the university might think that his American friend is not willing to help, not because he cannot help.


The hierarchical organization of Chinese society results in differences in pragmatic issues.  For example, Chinese are less likely to express their emotion, either positive or negative through jokes or invectives especially in the workplace.  Another example given by Brick (1991) is the difficulty of young Chinese in addressing older Australians by their first names and expressing their own opinions to authorities.  On the other hand, to Australians Chinese are very often over-respectful.


The emphasis on the interests of groups rather than that of individuals means that one will employ different rhetorical strategies in communicating with those of own group (ingroup) and others (outgroup).  Brick (1991) mentions in addressing friends and those in subordinate position, Chinese tend to be direct or even rude when translated into English.


According to Scollon and Scollon (1995), Chinese societies tend to be organized in terms of Gemeinschaft, or community organization, which is based on the fact that individuals shared a common history and common traditions.  One implication is that Chinese tend to emphasize more on group harmony rather than achievement of goals and efficiency which is more prominent in the western culture (Brick, 1991).  This explains why Chinese are always perceived as inefficient.  In contrast, Chinese tend to perceive westerners as aggressive and ignoring the human relationship aspects (Scollon and Scollon, 1983).


Yet another neglected issue is how male-dominance in Chinese culture affects communication between the two sexes (Irwin, 1996).


Non-Verbal Communication


Scollon and Scollon (1995) point out the importance of kinesics and proxemics in ICC.


Kinesics is the movement of our bodies.  One example they mention is that Chinese tend to smile more easily than westerners when they feel difficulty or embarrassment.  Smile because of embarrassment by an Chinese might be interpreted as being friendly by a westerner and cause problems in ICC.  Another example is that Chinese tend to avoid direct eye-contact in face-to-face interaction out of respect while they might be perceived as not paying attention or even disrespectful by westerners.


Proxemics refers to the use of space.  One point that is of particular interests is the concept of “‘bubble’ of space” by Hall (1959), which is the space a person moves and in which he or she feels comfortable.  Scollon and Scollon (1995) point out Asians in general have a smaller sphere of personal space than westerners.  With different expectations of personal space, a Chinese speaking to an American might find that he or she is trying to keep a distance while on the other hand the American might feel that the Chinese is intruding into his or her personal space.  This inevitably affects the evaluation of each other and interpretations of interactions.


Chan (1992) provides a summary of contrast in communicating styles between Asian and western cultures as follows:








Implicit, nonverbal


Explicit, verbal




Goal oriented



Emotionally controlled


Emotionally expressive

Self-effacing, modest


Self-promoting, egocentric


Linguistic Features

The following differences between the Chinese and English languages contribute to ICC problems:

Pronunciation and Intonation Transfer

Intonation transfer from L2 learners’ L1 to L2 is a natural phenomenon.  A number of studies have found that English spoken by different Chinese dialect groups have different accents (e.g., Brown, Deterding and Low, 2001; Bolton and Kwok, 1990)  The distinctive system of pronunciation and intonation of Chinese as compared to English may cause Chinese to be perceived as rude and inconsiderate. More serious intonation transfer may even affect comprehensiveness.

Grammatical Errors

Apart from topic-prominence, the non-inflected nature of the Chinese language also contributes to ICC problems for Chinese L2 learners (Wong, 1988; Chang, 1987; Li & Thompson, 1990).  Levinson (1983) points out in Chinese and other language without true tenses the concept of time is expressed by adverbs as well as other implicit and contextual assumptions.  Another factor which contributes to the difficulties of Chinese L2 learners in learning tenses is the difference in the concept of time of Chinese as compared to native speakers of English (Hinkel, 1992; Guiora, 1983; Coppetiers, 1987; Levinson, 1983)[6].

3 Pedagogic Recommendations for Language Teaching

As ICC is a significant issue in language learning and teaching, teachers should be sensitive to the ICC needs of learners.  Without adequately addressing this issue means learners' development of communicative competence is hindered.

Two broad approaches, which include increasing shared knowledge between different cultures and dealing with miscommunication through discourse analysis of cohesive devices, cognitive schemata, prosodic patterning and meta-communication, can be employed to raise learners' ICC awareness (Scollon and Scollon, 1995).  As this paper focuses on the practical aspect, recommendations on raising learners' socio-cultural awareness, training in non-verbal communication and achieving linguistic competence will be discussed.

Socio-Cultural Awareness

The most direct way of raising ICC awareness is to share the cultural differences explicitly with learners.  Dirven and Putz (1993) equates the aim of foreign language learning as to an awareness of cultural communicative differences, followed by increased tolerance and finally accommodation.  Dunnett et al. (1986) point out the importance of asking inter-cultural questions, choosing ICC topics for discussion and problem solving to raise learners' awareness of intercultural differences.  For example, they suggest learners to list down stereotypes with teachers leading discussions on the stereotypes.  They also suggest other techniques such as the 'lifeboat scene', 'culture assimilator', brainstorming, role-play, value hierarchy. etc..  At the same time, they give the following specific suggestions on how to achieve greater cultural awareness among learners:

·  Giving more emphasis on ICC elements in curriculum, select materials and course books with stronger emphasis on ICC issues, as well as incorporating contents and developing specific strategies for teaching culture.

·  Providing learners with a comprehensive programme of extra-curricular activities on English-speaking cultures.

·  Hiring teachers with a strong background in comparative culture or ICC and those with overseas training experience.

·  Providing in-service training in ICC to teachers and orientation to new teachers.

Another way of raising the cultural awareness for teachers is to conduct simple comparison between L2 culture and learners' cultures.  Lado (1986) provides some general guidelines for such comparison, in which teachers can look for Form, Meaning, Distribution, Misinformation and Linguistic Evidence with learners.  Form is the physical setting and objects of a event, Meaning refers to the meaning of a event to members of the culture, Distribution is the frequency which the event occurs, Misinformation is the wrong misinterpretation of people of another culture towards the event, and finally Linguistic Evidence is the differences in languages the two cultures in describing the same event.

A western wedding dinner is a good illustration of application of Lado’s guidelines.  The differences in Form can be easily recognized, with buffet food distinctively different from Chinese food.  Other differences in Form include the clothes of couple, guests, etc., how food is placed, decorations and how people eat.  Teachers can ask learners how a western wedding dinner is different from a Chinese wedding dinner.  More matured learners might be able to tell the differences in the meanings attached to marriage between Chinese and western cultures. In discussing Distribution, teachers can point out the importance of the selection of wedding date and time for Chinese wedding.  It is because a good wedding date and time will bring good luck and prosperity not only to the couple but also to its immediate families, ancestors and offspring.

In their resource book ‘Cultural Awareness’ for language teachers, Tomalin and Stempleski (1994) list out the guidelines for ICC activities of general knowledge of people, knowledge of the English speaking cultures, cultural behaviours, patterns of communication, values and attitudes, etc..  Through a task-based approach, their book aims at increasing learners' cultural awareness on their behaviours as well as those of English-speaking cultures, and raising learners' ability to explain their own cultural standpoint.  The more specific aims of their book are based on Seelye's (1988) goals of cultural instruction.

At the same time, they provide language teachers with the following practical teaching principles: 

1. Use the target language to access the culture.

2. Incorporate cultural behaviours as an integral part of lesson.

3. Achieve the socio-economic competence learners feel they need.

4. Make the awareness of own and target cultures as the aim for all levels of learners.

5. Let learners know teaching about culture does not necessarily result in changes in behaviours but increased awareness and tolerance towards other cultures.

The above principles are very useful in developing learners’ intercultural competence.  Language teachers should employ them as guidelines for their successful ICC training.  Bardovi-Harlig et al. (1991) focus specifically on conversation and provide guidelines for teachers to raise learners' pragmatic awareness.

As culture learning should be in tandem with language learning, teachers should make sure there is a balance between the two elements.  In his teaching model which consists of four components, namely, language learning, language awareness, cultural awareness and cultural experience, Byram (1990) emphasizes on the mutually supportiveness of the components and the balance in the proportion allocated to each component in different learning stages.

All of the above suggestions can be employed to raise learners’ awareness of the differences in time concept, reasoning, organisation of society mentioned in the previous section.

'Pragmatic Ethnography' is yet another alternative in teachers’ ICC training.  It involves 'simulating the processes of exploring, describing, and understanding an unknown culture by means of actual ethnographic inquiry, contrastive analysis of real culture groups, and contact with real culture bearers' (Damen, 1987, p.54).  It should be undertaken by language teachers in order that they can be better facilitators. 

Non-Verbal Communication

Teachers should raise Chinese learners' awareness of their non-verbal and paralinguistic features such as kinesics, proxemics and differences in communication styles as summarised by Chan (1992) discussed above.

Raising metapragmatic awareness, which refers to 'speakers' capacity to comment on language use and give off signals about social relationships' (Roberts, 1998, p. 111) should not be neglected too.  Since metapragmatic activity is implicit and suggestive in language and non-verbal communication, there is a high chance of misunderstanding as metapragmatic assessments are based on inferences.  This is especially true in ICC because of the differences of worldviews, concepts on the organization of society, etc., of different cultures.

Linguistic Competence

Teachers should minimise learners' transference of linguistics and paralinguistic features of their own Chinese culture.  This can be achieved by creating learners' awareness of how ideas are organized in the Chinese language, for example, the non-inflected nature of the language.   Comparison of Chinese and western cultures can help learners to be more aware of the differences thus improve their grammatical accuracy.  Linguistic relativity theory (Whorf, 1956, cited in Fantini, 1995; Carroll, 1993) implies that teachers should raise learners’ sensitivity towards the linguistic aspects of English which do not exist or are not emphasized in the Chinese culture.  Moreover, teacher's focus on training pronunciation and intonation should be on intelligibility rather than the achievement of native standard (Walker, 2001).  This is especially true for native teachers who might easily set unrealistic standards for learners.

It must be pointed out that grammatical accuracy per se does not necessarily results in successful ICC.  A sentence can be grammatically correct, stylistically not deviant yet be strange or even ridiculous from the native-speakers' point of view.  This is what Pawley and Syder (1983) called 'Foreignness' of language use.  Therefore, L2 learners 'must be taught to observe codify experiences as nearly as possible in the same way as native speakers of that language (Carroll, 1973, p. 141), that is, to acquire the worldviews of native speakers.

4 Conclusion

In summary, sharing of knowledge and skills, comparative analysis of cultures conducted by learners and teachers themselves, providing ICC experiences through visits and activities, comparative analysis of the linguistics aspects are effective means to develop Chinese learners’ intercultural competence as well as to raise the tolerance of both learners and teachers towards other cultures.

However, teachers should bear in mind that more contacts with other cultures do not necessarily result in higher intercultural awareness.  It is because more contacts might reinforce negative stereotypes and discriminations.  What is important is that teachers should prepare learners with proper information, attitudes and post-contact explanations in conducting ICC activities and to raise their interests towards the target culture.

Another potential problem in ICC training is that most ICC problems are context specific and cannot be learned in the classroom.  Even if teachers are confident that learners are ready for successful ICC, learners might not be able to transfer their knowledge and skills in real ICC encounters.  This is because ICC issues are more related to one's value and attitudes which is difficult to change.  Johnson (1995) conducted a simulation of employing discomfort as a learning tool in ICC training in which learners were requested to greet each other in unconventional ways for five minutes at the beginning of each lesson.  Even for this simple task of greeting each others, learners experienced a lot of difficulties in the affective aspect and they gave up after three weeks.  Nevertheless, most learners expressed that their awareness of themselves as cultural beings had increased.

The ultimate goal of ICC learning is for learners to achieve ‘intercultural communicative competence’ (Widdowson, 1992; Lafayette, 1978) or ‘Intercultural Competence’ (Meyer, 1990).  L2 English teachers should also take this into account in order to allow learners to develop not only grammatical but also discoursal competence.  Examples of activities to be conducted include case studies, contrastive analysis, culture capsules, culture quizzes, dialogues, problem solving, readings, visits and cultural exchange programmes, etc.  Damen (1987) also provides a very detailed guideline on how to choose appropriate textbooks to facilitate ICC learning.  Incorporating these two  goals in curriculum will enhance L2 learners' communicative competence.  More importantly, teachers as facilitators of successful ICC learning should see the value of ICC.  Fantini (1995) calls for the needs for English teachers to reconceptualize English teaching, continued teachers' professional development, as well as institutional and professional support in ICC.

At a wider scale, education authorities can carry out ‘community languages’ by incorporating ICC learning as one of the core component in curriculum (Broadbent and Oriolo, 1990).  However, most educational institutions do not see the value of cultural awareness training and do not put resources into the ICC development of both teachers and learners.  More effort should be put to raise the awareness of policy makers and the public at large.  Recently, there has been a shift in the goal of language learning towards cultural learning and competence in participating in multilingual communities and global society (see Fantini, 1995).

A more ambitious way is to develop cultural-specific approaches to suit the need of learners of a particular culture. The cultural appropriateness of the Communicative Approach to L2 learner is being questioned (for example, Ellis, 1994; 1996; Kramsch and Sullivan, 1996).  Holliday (1994) advocates the use of action research to develop cultural-sensitive teaching methodology.  Therefore, rather than borrow directly from the above suggestions Chinese teachers in Hong Kong should develop their own methodology against the larger backdrop of Chinese culture.


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