The Language Adventures of René

Here's are two samples taken from a forthcoming e-book called The Language Adventures of René.

Each sample in volume 1 contains a common greeting or expression "acted out", so to speak, by a fictional character called René, a foreigner language student studying in Beijing whose course of study includes a part-time internship in a joint-venture market research company.

René encounters a number of difficulties in communicating with Chinese and makes a number of errors along the way. He experiences an epiphany of sorts, a moment of understanding, where he realizes that he has expressed himself incorrectly or that a common expression in English finds a different medium of expression in Chinese. Numerous examples could have augmented each sample, but the challenge has been to condense the "narrative" to one or two pages and allow readers to grasp various aspects of the language quickly and easily.



Ràng wǒ zài kăolǜ kăolǜ
(I’m undecided)

The other day René and his boss were discussing a proposal that he had submitted several weeks ago to improve productivity in the company. As they talked, René felt that his boss had not seriously thought over the proposal or was just trying to avoid giving a direct answer. When René asked if he had come to a decision, his boss said:

Ràng wǒ zài kăolǜ kăolǜ.
(lit: "let me again think it over")

René later heard that his boss had turned down the proposal. He wondered why his boss had not told him directly that he was not interested in the proposal in the first place.

Many Chinese people tend to avoid a direct "no" to a proposal or request. A direct "no" might be appropriate in English, but not in Chinese. René’s boss gave a vague response because he didn’t want to be rude or appear to hurt his feelings.

A number of expressions are used when you want to be non-committal or give a vague non-direct response. Here are three examples:

a. 这很难说。
Zhèi hĕn nán shuō.
(‘lit: ‘this very difficult say’)

b. 让我想想再说吧。
Ràng wǒ xiǎngxiang zài shuō ba.
Let me think about it and I’ll get back to you.

c. 让我再考虑考虑一下。
Ràng wǒ zài kăolǜ yíxià.


Wŏ yǒu shì.
(I have something planned)

A few weeks ago René asked a colleague at work whether he would like to join a group of his friends for dinner that evening. The young man said:

对不起, 今天晚上有事。
Duìbùqǐ, jīntiān wǎnshang yǒu shì.
Sorry, I have something planned for this evening.

René had clearly understood that his colleague had declined the invitation with the first part of the phrase ‘duibuqi’, but was not sure with the second ‘wŏ yŏu shì’. According to the dictionary, shi means "matter", "affair," "business". René had learned the expression Wŏ zhào nĭ yŏu shì (‘I have something I want to discuss with you’) and concluded that his colleague must have some important business to attend to.

(Wŏ) yŏ shì is intentionally vague but can be used in a number of situations when you want to politely refuse a request or invitation regardless of whether you actually have something do to or not. In many respects, it is a mask, a cover, that says: "Don’t bother me" or "Leave me alone."

In certain informal situations, the speaker might asked you again after declining an invitation:

今天晚上有事, 去不了。
Jīntiān wǎnshang yǒu shì, qùbùliăo.

I’ve got something on tonight, I won’t be able to come along.

来吧. 小李 也来。  
Lái ba. Xiăolĭ yě lái.
Come and join us. Xiaoli will also be coming.

Whereby you can politely say:

今天晚上我确实(真的)有事, 改日再说吧。
Jīntiān wǎnshang wǒ quéshi yǒu shì. Găirì zài shuō ba.
I really have something to do tonight. Perhaps some other time.

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