Seeing Asians speaking English

Who of these two men do you expect to speak better English?*

I am very much looking forward to attending the International Conference on Research and Applications of Intercultural Communication in Wuhan next week. By way of preparation, I’ve googled the conference hotel on tripadvisor and was disappointed to discover that the English-language comments were quite negative. Going by the ratings alone, the Chinese-language comments seemed to be much more positive. So what is it that bothers English speakers about the hotel that the Chinese speakers don’t seem to mind? You guessed it, it’s English!

“Its main drawback for western people is the total lack of English information. There is the major signage with Englsih, but few staff have much communication in English.”

“Reception staff does not speak English.”

“The hotel looks nice and the rooms are ok, however the English spoken is barely average.”

“Few staff speak English at all, and none that I encountered spoke it well.”

Examples could go on and on and I ended up browsing a variety of hotels in China just for language-related comments. What I discovered was an endless litany of English-related complaints. My impression is (and there’s obviously a research project here) that Western travellers to China mostly care about the English proficiency of staff when they assess the quality of a hotel and they generally assess the English of hotel staff in highly negative terms.

I am not aware of any research into the actual English language proficiency levels of hotel staff in customer service roles in up-market international hotels in China but I’d be extremely surprised if the situation was really as dire as it is presented in comments such as those quoted here.

The situation reminds me of the language panic about Asian teaching assistants that gripped US universities in the 1980s and that inspired the by-now classic intercultural communication research of Rubin (1992) and Rubin and Smith (1990). At that time, there were widespread complaints that American students couldn’t understand Asian teaching assistants and so weren’t learning anything. The researchers wanted to test whether the problem might be due not only to Asian ways of speaking but also to American ways of hearing.

The researchers audio-recorded a science lecture aimed at undergraduate students. The speaker on the tape was a native speaker of American English speaking in a standard American-English accent. The lecture was then played to two different groups of undergraduate students. In one case, the lecture was accompanied by the picture of a Caucasian woman and in the other it was accompanied by the picture of an Asian woman. Thus, the impression was created that a Caucasian woman was speaking in one instance and an Asian woman in another. Both women were shown in the same pose and had been rated as similarly attractive. So, we have one audio-recorded lecture spoken in Standard American English and two different visual signals: a Caucasian lecturer versus an Asian lecturer.

Can you guess where this is headed? Right!

The students who saw the Asian lecturer heard a ‘foreign’, ‘non-native’ or ‘Asian’ accent although none was present in the auditory signal. What is more, the perceived accent of the perceived Asian lecturer led to reduced comprehension. The students rated the quality of the lecture and the quality of their learning experience much lower when they thought it was delivered by a speaker with a foreign accent.

Is the same going on with hospitality workers now? Western customers expecting they’ll have a hard time understanding Chinese hotel workers? And this expectation becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy? I’ll find out next week, I guess.

If you are interested in learning more about performance and perception in intercultural communication, you could read the chapter about “Intercultural Communication and Exclusion” in my book Intercultural Communication or you could attend the pre-conference workshop devoted to “Why westerners don’t understand the Chinese: Intercultural communication between performance and perception,” which I’ll conduct at Zhongnan University of Economics and Law on Thursday, November 15, or the repeat at the University of Hong Kong on Tuesday, November 20.

* Both men are German politicians and native speakers of German. Phillip Rösler (l.) is Vice-Chancellor of Germany and Guido Westerwelle (r.) is the Minister of Foreign Affairs. Rubin, D. (1992). Nonlanguage factors affecting undergraduates’ judgments of nonnative English-speaking teaching assistants Research in Higher Education, 33 (4), 511-531 DOI: 10.1007/BF00973770
Rubin, D., & Smith, K. (1990). Effects of accent, ethnicity, and lecture topic on undergraduates’ perceptions of nonnative English-speaking teaching assistants International Journal of Intercultural Relations, 14 (3), 337-353 DOI: 10.1016/0147-1767(90)90019-S

Author Ingrid Piller

Dr Ingrid Piller is Professor of Applied Linguistics at Macquarie University, Sydney, Australia. Ingrid’s research expertise is in the fields of intercultural communication, bilingual education and the sociolinguistics of language learning and multilingualism in the contexts of migration and globalization.

More posts by Ingrid Piller
  • I stayed in Haikou, China for a month early this year and none of the staff had any English beyond Hi and ‘bye.

    We used Esperanto to speak to a translator who relayed our questions in Chinese.

    It takes 2200 hours for a keen English-speaker to learn Chinese and a similar time for the reverse

    Esperanto takes 100 hours (10 learning, 90 practice) for the same proficiency.

    Travellers and hospitality industry workers can be prepared for anyone, anywhere,without being presuptious or playing favourites, if they make a start and pass it on.

    Free Esperanto courses are available online in a very wide variety of languages.

  • Lisa Fairbrother

    When I was at a conference in a regional city in Japan last month, I heard similar complaints about the Japanese hotel staff’s English from a visitor from an English-speaking country. He was clearly agitated by what he termed the lack of English proficiency of people working in the service industry in a developed country.On the other hand, the visitor did not speak the standard variety of the English of his home country and didn’t appear to adjust the speed or clarity of his speech when communicating with the non-native speakers who were with us. This made me wonder how far he could make himself understood even to people who are proficient L2 users. Incidentally, I had stayed at the same hotel and had used English with a man on reception with no problem whatsoever.

    However, another thing this visitor made me question was the very necessity of English in this regional Japanese hotel, which at least from its website seemed to be targeting predominantly Japanese business customers. There was at least one person on reception who could speak English, so emergencies could be covered, but why should all hotel staff be expected to speak English in a hotel that few international travellers will use?

  • I also want to share an anecdote on this. I recently booked a room in London with a web portal where you can book private rooms. And here, it is not only the locations that are rated but also the customers. So I was rated, too, and it felt really strange to see that I got a positive rating on grounds of my English. It said something that I was polite and spoke ‘excellent’ English (well, I have studied English for a long time, this is why). The rating is actually meant to recommend me to other potential hosts.
    And I thought, wow, this shows exactly what is going on. Not only in business contexts, but even for private individuals, a lack of English means not only a lack of communication possibilities but English is very directly linked to the construction of a morally superior identity. What is responsible for this development?

  • Xiaoxiao Chen

    Ingrid, thanks a lot for sharing! Isn’t it interesting that my findings in my thesis also confirm the generally negative perceptions of Chinese people’s English proficiency in the service industry? I have found in the NYT travel writing that since the 1990s there has been increasing attention paid to the English in China’s service industry and the more recent the time is the more negative the ratings are. Of course, there are a couple of explanations for this negative trend, as I explicated in my thesis. While acknowledging that the customers’ ratings may reflect their actual travel experiences, we should be aware that such ratings also constitute part of the negative discourse about the English proficiency of Chinese (Asians) in general, as exemplified by the study presented by Ingrid. So I guess it doesn’t necessarily mean that in the picture the Caucasian speaks better English than the Asian. Maybe the Asian serves as an interpreter translating the Caucasian’s language into English!

    • Thanks, Xiaoxiao! Your research does indeed add another important piece to the puzzle and I can’t wait to see it published! 🙂 As for the two German politicians: both of them speak English, of course, but the one with the Caucasian face is often ridiculed for his lack of fluency.

  • Grace Chang

    Thanks Ingrid for sharing!
    I would like to respond as a tourist : ) Traveling around the world is a dream to many people for the experience to get out of one’s little world and see the big world outside is exciting, enriching and memorable. One of my north European friends once told me whenever her family went on a real vacation they always chose a place where people spoke another language that they couldn’t understand. In other words, language experience is part of traveling. Similarly, many Taiwanese overseas students shared with me their disappointment when restaurant staff in Australia greet and serve them in Mandarin despite their hope to practice and use their English. I personally would be extremely disappointed if I traveled to a non-English speaking country but all the signage I saw and all I heard was English rather than their own languages. The world would seem much more dull and flat to me.

    • Agree – monolingualism is boring 🙂 Of course, you only get to the coolness factor of other languages once you know substantially more than being able to say hi and bye.

  • Neil Blonstein

    While taking the trans-siberian railroad/trains and buses with some 30 Esperanto speakers from Moscow to Hanoi we were met in numerous cities by local Esperantists.. Hanoi was our goal, where 1000 Esperantists from 62 countries share friendship, culture, lectures on law, animals, nature, bicycling, vegetarianism, Christianity, Shintoism, and Bahai among a hundred lectures. English speakers should not sit in their monolingual state—prison. About half of the participants were from Nepal, Indonesia, Mongolia, Japan, Korea, China and of course the hosting country: Vietnam.
    I heard some of the best Esperanto, I’ve ever heard in my 41 years of advocacy.

    The UN Office for Esperanto was founded by Australian Ambassador Ralph Harry. When Ralph passed away he was the President of the Esperanto League of Australia

  • Angela Turzynski-Azimi

    Grace, the sense of disappointment you mention was expressed on many occasions by Japanese tourists I interviewed in the early 90s in Haworth, U.K., birthplace of the Bronte sisters. In an attempt to make the increasing number of visitors from Japan feel more ‘at home’, the local tourist information centre had erected Japanese signage in the village, printed tourist literature in Japanese and were in the process of having signposts carved in Japanese to mark the route from the centre of Haworth across the bleak and desolate Yorkshire moors to the ruined farmhouse said to have been the setting and inspiration for the novel ‘Wuthering Heights’. The rationale given was that they had felt very sorry for these poor visitors left to wander around alone and bewildered with seemingly little or no knowledge of English. Ironically, the host’s attempt to cater to the guest’s perceived needs out of a desire to create a feeling of welcoming hospitality seemed likely to have precisely the opposite effect of that intended, deterring the very people they sought to assist. Disappointment, disillusionment and even distaste were the overriding sentiments expressed.

  • Although two people above have mentioned Esperanto as a way to solve language problems internationally no one has taken up on this idea. I am also an Esperantist and have had similar Esperanto experiences as these others but I have some more important information I would like to bring up.

    As humanity matures and develops on Earth we realize that we need a neutral international language which doesn’t belong to any race but gives everyone equal ownership of it. Esperanto was designed for this 125 yrs ago.

    Esperanto is 5 to 10 times easier to learn than any national language. It is so easy that any trained primary teacher can teach it to completion to children during their years in primary school and at the same time the teacher learns it too. The resources to enable a teacher to do this are prepared and ready to be used as soon as the people of the world show they want it.

    It is very cheap too. The resources are covered at the rate of $US2 per child per year, in classes of 20 for 5 years. If classes are larger the cost becomes lower than $2 per child per year for the 5 years they will need to fully learn it. The last 2 years they will be using it by internet around the world.

    Go to to see more about this.

    What we need is this information to go viral around the internet so that the ordinary people can influence their education authorities and governments to do this. If you agree with this, please copy and pass it on to everyone you know.



  • Sree

    There are some people who can write english well but while speaking they feel discomfort,they don’t speak fluently.I write english well but can’t speak much,recently when i attended for a job interview i was confident about my educational skills but failed to get job as i was not fluent in introducing myself in english.I didn’t properly introduce myself,i was searching for words to say about myself.I am now learning english by watching videos like this one

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  • Rioliza

    Filipinos are known to be good speakers in English (as what most of my friends back in the US used to blurt out). But, fluency is another story. My American friends usually laughed when I emphasized that not all of us Filipinos speak good English; however, all Filipinos, as I call it, have acquired “survival English”. Fluency in English language does not only mean the ability to speak or write in a language, but it also entails ease and control of the language. Most Filipinos fail in this aspect. Despite of the trainings to reduce their accent and truthfully mimicking the ‘whites’, still Filipinos need to take things seriously if they want to be understood and comprehended, not just ‘heard.’

    Good thing about being Filipino is we are not afraid to try, invent and abide.^_^

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