Whatever foreign language you learn, reaching a level of genuinely fluent spoken language is a headache for learners. It is the same with Chinese learning.
Authentic spoken Chinese requires not only correct pronunciation, tones, words, and good grammar, but also a knowledge of Chinese culture. So, good oral spoken Chinese is not merely about translating word-for-word. Studying genuine everyday spoken Chinese can help you to understand more about Chinese culture and Western culture, and vice versa.
Let’s start with...
1. Greetings in Chinese
Although some people say 你好 nǐ hǎo to greet each other, this is mostly used by people like teachers, doctors, government officials and other kinds of learned people.
The most common greeting is
吃了吗? Chī le ma？
while 你好 Nǐ hǎo is usually to greet a stranger when you have to converse with him or her.
In Chinese culture, people show their concern or friendliness by asking about each others’ daily life necessities (which are generally regarded as private by people with a western culture background). Besides that, Chinese people also may greet each other by saying
你忙啥呢？Nǐ máng shá ne? and 你去哪儿？ Nǐ qù nǎr?,
which mean “What are you doing?” and “Where are you going?” respectively.
2. Status: Names and Titles
From ancient times on, Chinese people have attached more importance to one’s social status; they respect high-ranking officials very much.
Parents take pride in their sons if they are hold the position of governmental official. People address others by their family name plus job title, like 王经理 Wang jīng lǐ for “Manager Wang” and 张主任 Zhāng zhǔ rèn for “Dean Zhang”, etc.
They don’t call people by their given names like in English. It is impolite or even rude for a young person to address an elder or for a subordinate to call his or her superior by their given names or full names.
3. Responding to Compliments
Chinese people take modesty as a virtue. They understate their ability or their belongings like their house, watch, car and so forth when talking to others. It is common for a job interviewee to say:
Běn rén méi yǒu jīng yàn, néng lì yǒu xiàn ,qǐng duō guān zhào.
which means: “I am not experienced and my ability is so-so; please excuse me as much as possible if I am not good enough.”
This is the right attitude to display to others in Chinese culture. However, a person from Western culture will usually try to show his or her best to the interviewers.
Likewise, when you compliment a Chinese person, they will refuse the compliment to show their modesty. If you say, 你的儿子真出色！which means, “Your son is really outstanding!”, a Chinese person’s response will probably be 没有，没有， 他还不行, which means “No, no. He is far from being that good,” even though the parent agrees and is very happy to hear your compliment.
In Chinese, not accepting a compliment is a way of showing respect to others by not being superior.
In Chinese culture, the relationship between males and females is very sensitive, so Chinese people are very cautious not to offend a lady or a lady’s boyfriend. In Western culture, a man might tell a lady that she is very beautiful to be polite. But, in Chinese culture, saying 你真漂亮！Nǐ zhēn piào liang! to a lady can be considered as concupiscent or lewd. If the Chinese lady doesn’t yell at the man, she feels at least embarrassed and unhappy. Chinese people are conservative in regard to sex.
All the above-mentioned are differences between everyday Chinese and the Western languages, and they reflect the different mindsets and social morals or values. Some spoken Chinese in students’ books for foreigners are not genuine enough, or are written or edited by Chinese who can speak English (or some other foreign language) and tend to be of English style, even if unconsciously or unintentionally. It will help a lot with your everyday oral Chinese to learn more of Chinese culture.
Wang Li (1999). Ancient Chinese Zhonghua Publishing House