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Contextual Analysis (1)


    Despite popular demand, I've decided to go ahead with another Chinese Lesson for the Day. The topic this time is "context", something that makes learning the language exceptionally difficult for us Westerners.
     Native speakers of Chinese are "
high context", while native English speakers are "low context". That is, a Chinese will not load sentences up with information which is (or should be) known to the listener already, either from general background knowledge or from the context of the conversation; but English speakers tend to make each sentence complete in itself, so that the listener can understand it with as little reference to outside information as possible.
     For example, suppose two people are waiting for a bus and one of them sees it coming around the corner. A Chinese would simply say "come now"*, assuming that the listener will understand (from the fact that they're standing at a bus stop) what he's referring to. In contrast, a native English speaker would feel compelled to state the obvious: "The bus is coming", or at least something like "Here it comes."
     Since they rely on context to make the meaning clear, Chinese speakers often leave out "little words", like pronouns and conjunctions, that we consider essential in English. "Go market buy apple carrot" is a literal translation of a typical Chinese sentence. An English speaker who hears this might say, "Oh, you mean YOU ARE goING, TO THE market, TO buy SOME appleS AND carrotS!" (He has figured this out from three observations: the speaker was headed toward the market with a shopping bag in his hand; there's no such thing as an apple carrot; and nobody would go all that way just to buy one apple and one carrot.)
     The English speaker feels that the Chinese was terse to the point of unintelligibility, while the Chinese feels that the English speaker was verbose to the point of pedantry. One wonders indeed if ever the twain shall meet.
     The heavy reliance on context makes it especially difficult to come into the middle of a Chinese conversation and pick up the thread right away. The people who started the conversation will be saying "predicate, predicate, predicate", because they know the context and see no need to repeat the information. It can take the interloper or eavesdropper some time to figure out who's doing what to whom. And if for some reason you want to watch a "
continuing play" on TV, you'll find it much easier if you tune in at the beginning of episode one.
     The reliance on context is not a feature of the language itself, of course, but rather a habit or custom of native speakers. Just as it is possible to say "Come" in English to indicate that you've seen the bus, it is also possible to say "The bus is coming now" in Chinese. You'll just sound like an ignorant foreigner if you don't adopt the native speech habits.


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     This web site was blocked in China for a couple of weeks recently. I can understand why they block some sites – they want to protect innocent Chinese netizens from foreign "spiritual pollution". But why block this site, which consists primarily of translations of materials published in China? Did they want to protect innocent foreign netizens from "spiritual pollution" by the Chinese media?
     Anyway, as of this writing, the website is no longer blocked. I really have no idea what the censors are doing. I wonder if they do.

     *Boring Footnote. The Chinese who sees the bus coming will say "lai le" (来了). "Lai" means "come", without tense. "Le" is a grammatical particle with no direct equivalent in English. It is used sometimes to inform the listener of a "change in circumstances", that is, that something about the context of the conversation is or soon will be different.
     In English we usually use verb tenses to express the idea of changed circumstances. Sometimes the word "now" can also serve this purpose. (As in "I get it now", or "It's coming now.")
     Some
commentators say that "le" is used "to indicate a completed action", much like the perfect tenses in English. This is only partially correct. (To put it more bluntly, it is incomplete and misleading enough to be essentially incorrect.) For example, depending on context, "wo zou le" (我走了) might mean either "I left" or "I'm going now). Click here for a better if more complicated explanation.


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