Orlando Kelm on Language Power Struggles

To follow up my recent massive post on Language Power Struggles, I’d like to highlight the responses of Dr. Orlando Kelm, a professor of linguistics, teacher of many years, and learner of multiple languages. Dr. Kelm’s experience is largely with Portuguese and Spanish, but he’s also studied Japanese and Chinese, among other languages.

Dr. Kelm’s three main points were:

1. Chinese perception of use of English: There is something interesting about Chinese adoption of Putonghua as a lingua franca, despite all of the regional dialects and local languages. As related to use of English, it’s almost as if people accept their local language for personal interactions and Putonghua for official interactions. From there it is a small leap to English for professional interactions. Recently when in Beijing I visited a multinational engineering company, German-owned even, but the official language at work was English. It was amazing to see rooms full of Chinese engineers, most who had never been out of China, all using English to talk to each other at work. It certainly strengthened my understanding of the way English was perceived as a professional tool, no different in some ways from switching among c++, php, html, or java.

2. Our skewed view: My guess is that the type of person who is interested in this blog represents a minority. No doubt, most of the world probably confronts mono-lingual English speakers who assume and demand English for all communication. Our frustration with people who want to speak English with us is most likely counterbalanced with a frustrated world that feels obligated to speak English, even when they feel inadequate in doing so.

3. John asked if my experience in Latin America (with Spanish and Portuguese) was similar to his in China with Chinese. The short answer is no, not really. Indeed I have run across people who insist on practicing English with me, and from a professional end English is everywhere, but the aggressive power struggle seems less in Latin America. My guess as to why… well, first I believe that Latin Americans think that English speakers who do not speak Spanish are just unmotivated or lazy, people who could learn it if they really wanted to. On the other hand, Chinese think of their language as “more difficult”. Deep down they must think that it’s easier for them to learn English than it is for ‘us’ to learn Chinese. Add that to the items mentioned by all of these blog comments, and we see that despite John’s cool proficiency charts, language proficiency is only part of choosing which language is used.

Really interesting answers. Thanks, Dr. Kelm! (For more of Dr. Kelm’s observations, please visit his blog.)

Thank you also to all the readers that pitched in and shared your own observations. You’re certainly correct in that there are way more factors at play than I brought up in the original post. It’s been enlightening bringing it all together from so many different perspectives.


John Pasden

John is a Shanghai-based linguist and entrepreneur, founder of AllSet Learning.


  1. Ray Walsh Says: May 21, 2010 at 3:30 pm

    Of course this blog represents a minority. However, that minority has noticed a real and valid situation. The situation of Chinese people refusing to speak Putonghua to someone who is speaking Putonghua to them.

  2. benjicaine Says: May 23, 2010 at 11:21 pm

    The other day I was forwarded an email by my (Chinese) boss that she received from another Chinese worker at a university. She had neglected to trim the back-and-forth exchange that had been going on between them for several messages. What was interesting to me was that the entire email exchange was in English, even though both my boss and the other are Chinese, and even though their English is good, I know that their Chinese is better. I chalked it up to be some sort of formality, especially as they both are employed in the ESL industry.

  3. Thekippies Says: May 24, 2010 at 9:29 pm

    I’ve noticed that sometimes there are a different sort of language conflict in different groups in Shanghai among people- usually between several people who don’t know each other well. For example two or more Shanghai ren will talk to each other in Shanghainese even though 2 other putonghua speaking people (one being me, the foreigner, the other being a non-Shanghainese) are present. I’m not sure if this is just a phenomenon of Shanghai snobbery or if it happens all over. Sometimes it happens with just me, the putonghua-speaking foreigner. Although I consider it very impolite, I can see how they could think “oh well, she’s a foreigner” and ignore the fact that I can communicate with them But I always think its weird when they exclude another Chinese person as well. Actually government people do this all the time in Shanghai.

    • This is quite common in India (since each state in India has a different language (and script)) and among Indians working abroad. It is probably due to lack of awareness that it is considered rude/impolite to speak in their own language in presence of others who don’t speak that language. I have noticed an awareness (that it is rude to speak in their own language in presence of a foreigner or another Indian who may not speak their language) among some Indians who have lived abroad and among some sophisticated Indians who have not been abroad.

  4. I have trouble believing your first point about a whole room of Chinese people who speak English at work. I’ve spent a good deal of my life at American universities (science and engineering) that are full of Chinese students. I rarely see any of them speak English to each other unless there is a non-English speaker present. This has become so much of a problem that the facility users complain about the amount of Chinese usage at the public facility. I also have trouble imagining a bunch of Chinese people who have never been to the US speaking to each other constantly on technical jargon that I rarely ever witness here in the US. Any lab I’ve ever worked in as soon as the people there found out I speak chinese, there seems to be a sigh of relief and none of them will ever speak English to me ever again (unless present a non-Chinese speaker). Perhaps what you’ve witness is the effect of none-Asian looking person walking into the room of Chinese people.

  5. Changye Says: May 26, 2010 at 8:49 am

    If Chinese people want to speak English (even in China), just let them do as they like. For example, negotiating something in English would definitely give native English speakers advantage.

  6. The Kippies Says: May 26, 2010 at 11:36 am

    To InF’s point, I agree. Although I have heard of certain companies requiring an English-only policy, I have a sneaky feeling this is only enacted when the non-Chinese speaker or boss is in the room. In my company, the Chinese speakers speak to each other in Chinese, and only in English to non-Chinese speakers. But all e-mails are done in English.

  7. Much of the discussion here focused on spoken interactions, but what about written ones? Lately, it keeps happening to me that I send e-mails to people in fairly well-written Chinese, Hindi or just today, Indonesian, and get replies back in English. To me, the dynamics of this is a bit different. There isn’t any of the concern from a spoken situation of not being fluent enough, speaking very slowly etc. It might take me much longer to write an e-mail in Chinese, than a native speaker would take, but once it’s written, I think most people would agree that it’s fairly well written and easy to read. And then you get an e-mail back in English.

    In the case of Hindi, sadly, there are many that are not very comfortable with inputting Hindi on their computers, and that almost never write Hindi, although they speak it every day. In the case of Chinese living outside of China, I could charitably think that maybe they didn’t have a Chinese input system on their computer (but when you write to someone like the Chinese head of the Asian languages department, it’s kind of discouraging!)… and Indonesian has none of those excuses.

    I find it fairly rude. If anyone wrote to me in intelligible Norwegian, I would certainly respond back in Norwegian! How do these people even know I speak English? I almost want to write back and say 我的英文不太好,你能不能用中文写信?:)


  8. It’s a much different case in Asia than in say, Latin America. I look different and stick out here, but in S. America, people really have no way of guessing I’m from the US and not Argentina at first glance.

    It’s interesting to me that so many people find so much difficulty with “language power struggles” over there, though. In my limited experience, mainlanders, even in Shanghai aren’t that bad about it at all. It’s at least ten times worse in Hong Kong or Taiwan. I mean, here I’ve even met fruit-sellers who wouldn’t speak to me in English.

    Stian, that’s interesting. Do you think many other Norwegians would feel the same way? One of my friends worked through the Swedish Pimsleur only to be told that while his accent was great for a foreigner, it was just a waste and that everyone could speak with him in English. I had always thought that northern European countries would be nearly as tough for language learners as China.

  9. Mark, it’s a good point. I know of many people who have trouble learning Norwegian, because people there all speak very good English. I don’t think we’re very interested or desperate for practice, so that’s a good thing, but it’s more of a convenience, if it’s very slow to talk in Norwegian, we might switch to English to make it go faster. Although I think most people will be sympathetic if you want to learn. I feel that written language is different though – as long as the finished product is OK, how long it took you to write it is not really relevant at all. I would certainly always answer in Norwegian if I got an email in Norwegian.

  10. Thekippies:

    About the power situation, it’s interesting to me that you consider it “snobbery” for native Shanghainese to speak to each to each other in Shanghainese even with non-Shanghainese present, yet would you feel that way if 2 Chinese spoke to each other in Mandarin with non-Mandarin speakers present, or would you be one of those who gets annoyed if they start speaking in English to you even though you’re in China?

    If it’s “impolite” to use the local language in Shanghai, why should you expect them to seak Mandarin to you instead of English in China? To put it another way, why shouldn’t you be expected to learn Shanghainese when in Shanghai? Do you expect to get by knowing only English in Beijing?

    Is it snobbery for Catalans to speak Catalan to each other in Barcelona?

    • The Kippies Says: August 17, 2010 at 11:49 am

      Richard: I’m a pragmatist. When communicating, I think it’s best to use the language that everyone in the room can understand, regardless of where the location of the room is. If everyone in the room can speak a common language, then it is best to use that language instead of the language only a few people in the room know. And yes I think it is impolite to exclude someone by using a language not everyone in the room understands instead of the language everyone does understand.

      Because the official language of China has been designated by the government as Mandarin, and because it is an official requirement that Mandarin be used for all official business and government meetings, I don’t think its unreasonable that I should expect Shanghai people to use Mandarin around other non-Shanghainese for business and official meetings.

      But it’s also possible I am slightly biased against Shanghainese as well because of some bad experiences. I can think of at least two instances here where I felt Shanghai ren purposefully used Shanghainese as a barrier to try to keep me from understanding or to emphasize that I was not one of “them,” usually in the circumstances of a disagreement.

      • Christophe Says: March 15, 2012 at 11:54 pm

        In that case the weak link (the monolingual English speakers) will always destroy the multilingual speakers.

        The study of these language ideology (prestige vs non prestige, etc.) is part of Sociolinguistics: lots of research in hundreds of language about this very aspect.

  11. Or to use another example, would you expect to get by with only a knowledge of Mandarin (and no Cantonese) in HK? Why or why not?

    • The Kippies Says: August 17, 2010 at 11:56 am

      In Hong Kong, the official languages are Cantonese, Mandarin, and English – all official broadcasts are done in all three languages. In my past visits I’ve been able to get by with using both Mandarin and English, but if I lived there I’m sure would help to be able to understand Cantonese as well.

      And I’ve never had an experience in Hong Kong where native Cantonese speakers who can also speak English or Mandarin insist on using Cantonese instead of the language everyone in the room comfortably understands. But then again, I haven’t spent that much time there.

  12. Since you concede that knowing Cantonese would help in HK, I’d suggest that learning Shanghainese would also help in Shanghai.

    The only reason why Mandarin is the only official language in China while both Catalan & Castilian are official languages in Catalonia is because China is totalitarian and Spain is democratic. That doesn’t mean that Shanghainese is any less useful in Shanghai than Catalan is in Barcelona.

    To use another example, would you think it’s rude if Taiwanese spoke to each other in Taiwanese instead of Mandarin in Taiwan?

    BTW, was the Shanghainese spoken in an official meeting or in an informal context? Maybe you’d prefer them talking behind your back out of view; or maybe you should just learn some Shanghainese.

    • Thekippies Says: August 18, 2010 at 9:12 pm

      I think the political, social, and cultural dynamics are a bit more complex than you make make them in saying Mandarin as the official language is because “China is totalitarian.” Actually its a concept that predates the Communist era in 1949. If you are interested in the Chinese view on this topic, I suggest that you discuss the concept of Mandarin vs. local languages/dialects with some Chinese friends. I highly doubt that local Shanghainese object to Mandarin being the official language.

      I also don’t think that the “learning Cantonese would be helpful in Hong Kong” concept can be equally applied to Shanghai. There are many people in Hong Kong who I have met that only speak Cantonese comfortably. Communication without knowing Cantonese is a real problem, whereas in Shanghai I have not met anyone that cannot speak Mandarin fluently and comfortably.

      In essence, I think that its perfectly fine to be in Shanghai without learning Shanghainese. Sure, its fun to learn a few phrases especially because it impresses the locals, but if you suggest spending the amount of time it would take to master Shanghainese, I say forget it. I’d rather spend the time improving my Mandarin.

      I’m not saying its rude to use the local language or for people to speak to each other in the local language. AND I think its great if you are a linguist and want to delve into learning Shanghainese. I’m just saying that its rude to use language as a tool of exclusion.

      I’m married to someone from Shanghai, and at home he and his dad speak Shanghainese to each other, but when we are all together or doing something as a family, they speak in Mandarin – and everyone understands and is happy. If Shanghainese is used and I don’t understand, my husband helps translate. I don’t feel upset at this at all. but I do feel upset when in a business meeting in Shanghai, the person from Shanghai switches into Shanghainese leaving out the non-Shanghainese speakers in the room. Or when I ask someone a question in Mandarin, and they initiallyreply in Mandarin, but then look at my Shanghainese colleague and start explaining their answer in Shanghainese, and ignore me.

      I guess in a word I think we should all just try to be considerate. Why must we be snobs about a language – we can’t help where we are born or what language(s) we grew up speaking. Just use what works!

      • It’s hard to argue that China was ever a democracy, where feelings of the local populace are taken in to account. In any case, yes, most Chinese you meet in Shanghai would support Mandarin primacy, because the school system is also centralized. Give them democracy, and you’ll likely see the same situation you see in Taiwan now, where Mandarin is official but Taiwanese is everywhere, including on TV.

        If you’re going to live in Shanghai and are married to a Shanghainese man, I don’t get why you wouldn’t want to learn Shanghainese. It’s like living in Barcelona married to a Barcelonian while refusing to learn Catalan. I would think that you’d want to be able to understand what locals are saying even when they are not talking to you (not to mention understand your own children if they grow up in Shanghai). Also, I don’t think “time spent perfecting Mandarin” and “time spent learning Shanghainese” are mutually exclusive. For one, tha’s not how our brain works. For another, if you knew a Wu language, you’ll find that there’s a fair amount of cross-over in vocabulary (a good amount of the modern vernacular/baihua vocabulary was contributed by Wu-speaking intellectuals). You’ll also get over your feelings of being excluded. I’m not even sure that the person who spoke Shanghainese was even trying to exclude you; he/she probably switched to Shanghainese because it was easier for them to explain their thoughts and get the nuances they wanted to communicate over in that language. You can’t say “just use what works” and then get upset when other people use what works for them (in this case, speaking in Shanghainese to someone who understands Shanghainese). Like you said, there’s no need to get snobbish over language; just learn the local language instead of holding fast to the exclusive primacy of Mandarin, and you’ll get over your feelings of exclusion.

  13. Speaking of expectations and power struggles, note that
    1. In Shanghai, foreigners expect the natives to speak Mandarin, and not Shanghainese.
    2. In Barcelona, foreigners (most of whom learned Castilian) are OK with natives speaking Catalan.
    3. In Montreal, foreigners mostly expect the natives to speak French; being treated well if you speak English is a bonus.

    What is the difference between the 3 situations? Merely who has the political power, and how much local autonomy is allowed by the central government.

  14. BTW, I know the history and why it is the case, but it is still mind-boggling when someone considers Shanghainese speaking Shanghainese in_Shanghai to be snobbish.

    Somehow, I don’t think the same attitude would go over so well if the situation was Quebecers speaking French in Montreal.

    • The Kippies Says: August 19, 2010 at 1:46 pm

      All I say is that I’d recommend you come to China and Shanghai to see for yourself.

      Also I find it interesting that English speakers treated well Montreal is only a bonus. French is not the local language – it is from Europe. The local First Nations people or Native North Americans actually speak the local language.

      Given this, would think its still appropriate for people from Montreal to hold fast to their preference for French?

      Or would you suggest that the people in Montreal should learn the language(s) of the local First Nations people/Native North Americans who live there?

        1. No need to go; I’m from there.

        2. There are hardly any Native North Americans left in Quebec. There are a hell of a lot of Shanghainese left in Shanghai. Again, it’s like living in Barcelona and refusing to learn Catalan. Your attitude is barely different from those of the Shanghailanders of years past who lived in Shanghai their whole lives knowing only English and never condescended to learn the local tongue.

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