The Internet TESL Journal

Overcoming Chinese-English Colloquial Habits in Writing


Ted Knoy
tedaknoy@ms11.hinet.net
http://mx.nthu.edu.tw/~tedknoy
National Tsing Hua University (Taiwan)

This article introduces common Chinese-English colloquial habits in writing and provides suggestions for instructors concerned with the writing needs of their students. Despite the increasing number of Chinese authors submitting articles to international journals, the colloquial obstacles are seldom addressed. In addition, although an increasing number of on-line writing centers cater to the needs of non-native English speakers, the materials and services provided rarely pinpoint the language-related stumbling blocks that Chinese authors face. Directly translating from Chinese into English is not necessarily grammatically incorrect. Once aware of repetitive writing tendencies, the Chinese writer will begin to realize that directly translating from Chinese can sometimes mask the intended meaning.

Introduction
An increasing number of Chinese authors are submitting articles in English, as evidenced by the growing number of engineering and science colleges in Chinese speaking universities that require doctoral and even master candidates to publish in international journals. However, limited resources are available for helping Chinese authors proofread, edit and prepare their manuscripts for publication. Moreover, in addition to grammatical and writing style errors, Chinese-English colloquial habits often prevent Chinese authors from concisely expressing their intended meaning. Although an increasing number of on-line writing centers cater to the needs of non-native English speaking writers, the materials and services provided rarely pinpoint the language-related stumbling blocks that Chinese authors face when writing. This article summarizes efforts underway at the Chinese On-line Writing Lab (OWL), National Tsing Hua University to incorporate awareness of Chinese-English colloquial habits in the tutorial process.

The Chinese On-line Writing Lab
Originally established in 1989 as University Editing before going on-line in 1997, The Chinese On-line Writing Lab (OWL) at National Tsing Hua University, Taiwan provides comprehensive on-line writing services and learning curricula for Chinese authors of English manuscripts. (URL address: http://owl.univ.kiev.ua ) Staffed by native English speakers who are fluent in Chinese and long term residents of Taiwan, the Chinese OWL stresses the correction of Chinese-English colloquial habits in writing in addition to general writing style and grammatical errors. To achieve this objective, the Chinese OWL has published four books that are part of The Chinese Technical Writers Series. These books concentrate on aiding Chinese technical writers in the following areas: (a) writing (b) structure and content and (c) quality.

Writing in a Non-Native English Speaking Environment
From the perspective of a Chinese writer in a non-native English speaking environment, instead of emulating the writing of a native English speaker, the nature of Chinese-English should be the initial concern. Several helpful books are available on general ESL approaches to writing. However, few of them focus on the unique situation of a Chinese writer in a non-native English speaking environment. As an alternative approach, the language tutor can make the Chinese writer aware of incorrect colloquial habits (separate from writing style and grammatical errors) so that examining alternative ways of constructing sentences slowly begin. This gradual process of experimenting with different ways of constructing sentences in a clear and direct manner is prefered over the copying of words and phrases from international journals. In sum, a writing approach for Chinese students in a non-native English speaking environment should be presented in a Chinese cultural perspective. Such an approach begins with examining the nature of those problems encountered when directly transposing a sentence from Chinese to English.

Tutorial Writing Suggestions for Chinese Writers
The following suggestions for tutorial writing can help both the language instructor and tutor in making the Chinese writer aware of incorrect colloquial habits that occur during composition.

  1. Maintain a direct English conversational flow in your manuscript - while maintaining the logical approach of the manuscript - by preventing overuse of traditional textbook words or phrases.
    Writing English in a non-English speaking environment can be a formidable task for a Chinese writer. Traditional writing approaches taught in Taiwan (and other Chinese speaking countries) have sometimes placed an unrealistic demand on the Chinese writer to produce compositions of the same quality as those of native English speakers. While this does not mean that experienced Chinese writers can not produce excellent English manuscripts, such an expectation placed on the Chinese graduate student or novice writer trying to publish in English for the first time is unrealistic. Although foreign journals and publications provide valuable references, traditional teaching styles have frequently over emphasized the need to emulate them. Another problem created by relying too heavily on foreign journals and publications is that the writer can often not justify why a sentence has been written in a particular manner. This can lead to plagarism and is therefore not recommended. Also, this approach of writing is dangerous due to the lack of standardized technical writing curriculum in Taiwan universities and research institutions. Both unrealistic quality expectations and the overemphasis on sentence phrases and structures taken from foreign journals and publications as a writing source have unfortunately led towards random copying and sometimes, even plagiarism.
  2. Place the most important subject and/or clause at the beginning of the sentence so as to make the primary idea or emphasis more accessible.
    Why is the main idea or primary emphasis occasionally unclear in English sentences written by Chinese authors? The primary emphasis or key idea of a sentence is often lost when directly translating from spoken/written Chinese and over relying on use of traditional textbook words or phrases occurs. Often the intended meaning is hidden within the sentence. Unless the intention is to connect with the previous sentence, this tendency robs the manuscript of a direct English conversational flow that, in contrast, often places the primary emphasis or key idea at the beginning of the sentence.
  3. Avoid the over used tendency of placing prepositional and other phrases which indicate time (or even adverbs which indicate time) at the beginning of the sentence.
    The Chinese verb form does not have a well defined past, present or future tense. In writing or in speaking, the tense of the Chinese verb is unclear. Therefore, when Chinese is used, prepositional or other phrases (as well as conjunctive adverbs) which indicate time, are placed at the beginning of a sentence so as to inform the speaker or the reader of the appropriate tense. When translating into English, Chinese writers occasionally forget that English has a well-defined past/present/future verb tense. Consequently, the unconscious tendency is often redundant. Consider the following example of this Chinese-English colloquial habit: Now, the company is planning to expand production. Emphasizing Now at the beginning of the sentence is only redundant since the sentence is already in present tense.
  4. Avoid the over used tendency of placing prepositional and other phrases that indicate comparison at the beginning of the sentence.
    Chinese writers often place prepositional phrases that indicate comparison in front of the main idea. That which the main idea is being compared to (not the idea itself) is often placed at the beginning of the sentence. In doing so, the main idea is pushed towards the end of the sentence. Consider the following example of this Chinese-English colloquial habit: Compared to dogs, cats are nice. Instead, one should say Cats are nicer than dogs.
  5. Avoid constant prefacing of the main idea by stating the purpose, condition, location or reason first.
    Chinese writers often preface the main idea by first stating the purpose, condition, location or reason. The logic behind this colloquial habit is that by introducing or directly stating the main idea would be too direct and potentially offensive. However, such an introduction before every main idea (or prefacing the fact) may leave the reader with the impression that the author is indirect, as this tendency pushes the main idea towards the end of the sentence. Consider the following example of this Chinese-English colloquial habit, where sentences often begin with: purpose (In order to and For the sake of) condition (If and When) location (In, At, and From) or reason (Due to, Because, and Since).
  6. Use transitional phrases to connect two sentences or two paragraphs.
    Although placing the main idea towards the beginning of a sentence is a good idea, always doing so would confine the sentence so the paper seems to lack any connection between sentences and paragraphs. To connect sentences, Chinese writers often rely on conjunctive adverbs (e.g. Thus, Therefore, Consequently, and So). Additionally, the Chinese writer must place prepositional and other phrases that indicate transition at the beginning of a sentence. A transitional effect is desired when attempting to make a connection with the previous sentence or paragraph. A balance between placing the most important emphasis at the beginning of a sentence, along with occasionally creating a transitional effect, allows the Chinese writer to directly and smoothly express the desired content.
  7. Avoid long sentences by limiting each sentence to preferably one or two primary ideas and using semi-colons.
    English sentences by Chinese writers are often too long and sometimes appear awkward in that the main idea is often lost. This is puzzling as Chinese often stresses the clarity, wholeness of thought being expressed and contained in one sentence. Recall point #5 where prefaces that denote purpose, reason, location and reason are often added before the main idea as a form of introduction. Adding a preface at the beginning of each sentence obviously lengthens the sentence. When translating into English, many Chinese writers are often afraid of separate a sentence between the main and supporting clause because it is thought that by dividing the main idea into two sentences, the reader my not see the connection in the formation of a complete idea. The result is a long, awkward sentence. An alternative method is the use of a semi-colon, seldom used among Chinese technical writers.
  8. Prevent overuse of First Person; Third Person is more objective.
    First Person is so common in Chinese documents (professional or otherwise) that many writers are unaware of this colloquial habit. The writer tends to lose objectivity in the manuscript with overusing First Person; in addition, the main idea becomes lost in the sentence. Emphasis of a personal opinion such as We believe, We can infer, We conclude, We recommend, and We postulate, however, can be used. In contrast, using the Third Person removes a feeling of subjectivity or personal bias that the First Person style has. Moreover, Third Person creates an objective environment so as to allow the readers to assess the quality of the manuscript.

Conclusion
From the perspective of language tutors at the Chinese On-line Writing Lab (OWL), National Tsing Hua University, Taiwan and while focusing on the unique situation of a Chinese writer in a non-native English speaking environment, the Chinese OWL advocates an alternative approach. That is, the tutor points out incorrect colloquial habits (separate from writing style and grammatical errors). In doing so, the writer slowly begins to examine alternate sentence constructions rather than using conventional formations. Moreover, the suggested tutorial writing provides a valuable reference for on-line writing labs concerned with this growing segment of writers.

References

Knoy, Ted (1993). An English Style Approach for Chinese Technical Writers. Taipei, Taiwan: Hua Hsiang Yuan
Knoy, Ted (2000). An Editing Workbook for Chinese Technical Writers. Hsinchu, Taiwan: C Web Technology


The Internet TESL Journal, Vol. VI, No. 2, February 2000
http://www.aitech.ac.jp/~iteslj/