More Thanh Words

"My name is Thanh and I'm a Blogger". Now that I have admitted to that, I can say that I'm a stereotypical "geeky" Engineer who enjoys sci-fi books and movies and into all things technological. I also love music and have a passion for FOOD. I'm a social person and like to talk to people. I hate people who are fake or overly aggressive. If you're also into some serious discussion, with a pinch of sarcasm and a dash of real emotion, then please read on.

Monday, July 24, 2006

The Language Of Words

Sometimes I think communication between humans is such a complicated process that we shouldn't use words, just sounds like other animals. This may simplify things a lot. The fact that we all know similar words doesn't necessarily mean the process of communicating is any easier. The structure of sentences and how it is expressed is so vital, but sometimes that gets misintepreted. Women may be better at verbalising their points of views due to generally having a better ability to learn language. Also, the fact that women communicate more with words also helps them learn to decipher what people are saying. Men may suggest things with their body language and grunts but that is very ambiguous sometimes and hard to translate into what their meanings are.

Having grown up in Australia and gone to school here, my main language is English. This means that I think in my head in English. Ideas come in English and are processed that way. My Chinese is adequate to carry conversations but by no means fluent enough to discuss world politics in. The Chinese language is the exact opposite in terms of how words are phrased, pretty much back to front of English. So for someone who has grown up learning Chinese for instance, even when they learn English to a very good level, how does their thought process work? Do sentences still get mis-interpreted due to the natural way that they will think in Chinese?

I bring all this up because of some recent communication issues I have had with some people. I think part of the blame is on me too, as I'm not communicating in a clear enough way taking into account that English is not their first language. I had once said to someone "You're such an idiot" after they made a very funny comment. I have said this comment to many friends and have heard it said about me many times, and since we all know that its meant in a fun joking way, no one takes offence to it. However, this person got upset and asked why I was calling them an idiot. This person just didn't get the nature and context in which the comment was made. They tended to break down every single sentence I said and it always sounds bad when you do that, taking things out of context and not using the tone, facial and body expression in which the comment was said. They didn't grasp that this term was used in a very funny manner because English wasn't their first language, and they took the meaning very literally.

It's even harder to interpret what people mean through emails, as you get even less of a sense of the tone, facial expression and body language in which the words would normally be used in. Hence you project your own interpretations on the words. Sincere words and thoughts usually get read by me as sarcastic funny comments since that is my personality. Therefore sometimes when people write something that is sincere, I say to them to stop giving me bullshit and playing with me. Here's an example from recently from an email I wrote to someon. I had written "Have a good weekend anyway, don't study too hard, have some fun too". I thought this was just a light hearted comment reminding the person not to work too hard and to enjoy their weekend a bit. When I talked to this person, they had asked what I meant by my sentence. Was I suggesting that they had no fun in their life and were boring and that studying wasn't a worthy activity. I was shocked to hear this. An off handed playful comment was turned into something that was seen as insulting. Either I had not chosen my words carefully enough, or it was misinterpreted.

I'm totally at a lost as to how to effectively communicate what I want to say without being mis-interpreted. Do I repeat things many times in different ways to make it perfectly clear? Do I use easier language so no confusion can arise? Have I unfairly projected my own fairly good English skills onto others and assume that they will understand the sentence the same way I do?

3 Comments:

Blogger wei.z|Lisa said...

That is a very interesting thought, because I'm also Chinese but, like you, I was born here and 'think' in English.
I had a similar problem with a person from China, where we were having a 'casual' Chinese conversation. It got to a point where I did not understand the guy because he was speaking not just Chinese, but using the phrases which I didn't know the background context to. He said in chinese, which literally translated,'do you sit at home and wait to die?' in response to my comment of doing nothing on weeknights. As I didn't know the context of the comment, I took deep offence by it. Now he tries to communicate to me in English which I find frustrating, because as much as he thinks he understands English and the Australian context behind it, he doesn't get it all.
I believe communication is really important, it may seem easier not to have it (as then we can communicate universally) but words no matter how they are expressed (written/spoken) are essential to the way we socially interact. Even though you have a hard time expressing (?) yourself, you're using words to make yourself more understandable, yeah?
Sorry this is a bit lengthy >.<

7/26/2006 7:48 PM  
Blogger thanh7580 said...

Firstly that comment about sitting at home and dying is hilarious. What would have prompted him to use those words?

The problem is that since we have grown up here, we use words in a different context sometimes. This means others who take the words literally may misunderstand it. For example, I was giving an example to this person when I used my most sarcastic tone and said, "Where are you man, you've ditched me". Even then he said that he thought I was serious and very upset. I said that was my most sarcastic tone and usually the reply I get from friends would be "Whatever, I'll be there in a sec".

As for the not using words part, I didn't really mean that. It would be much harder if there wasn't a language. In fact, we would not be the advanced society that we are without verbal and written language. I don't have a hard time expressing myself, but people who haven't been brought up here with English as their first language often mistake my sarcasm as being angry or serious comments. This then leds to arguments over a misunderstanding.

7/26/2006 9:28 PM  
Blogger The Oriental Express said...

Though somewhat exasperating and perplexing, that's half the fun of learning languages!

We all bring with us our point of reference, cultural beliefs and conditioning, etc. which lead to miscommunication. That is why we all can have a good laugh over "Mind Your Language" TV serial.

I remember when I first went to Melbourne, and my sis asked me to open an account, so that I need not always have to change currency. One day while drawing $ from the bank, the officer asked, "How do you like your $$". "Oh, thank you, I like it very much!" My sis laughed and explained the officer wanted to know whether I prefer big or small notes!!! We learn to laugh at ourselves.

7/26/2006 11:53 PM  

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