Cross-Linguistic Awareness of Key Cultural Lexis:

a study of Chinese and English speakers

Wei Wei Shen and Martin Cortazzi,

University of Leicester, UK


This paper takes up Wierzbicka's (1997) concept of cultural keywords and scripts to examine a set of Chinese words which have had enduring importance in education, philosophy, and literature in Confucian heritage cultures. These words are widely regarded by Chinese as representing core values in Chinese cultural identity, despite recent transformations in Chinese societies. We show that these words have complex meanings which have long been problematic to translate into English. Translators have difficulty in distinguishing between the meanings of these words so that English versions sometimes overlap or do not maintain consistency of use across contexts. The paper focuses on our recent study of Chinese and British students' awareness of the meanings of these key cultural lexical items.

Using questionnaire data we examine students'undestanding of these keywords and compare native speakers of Chinese (N=153) with English-speaking learners of Chinese (N=34) and English speakers who are not learning Chinese (N=41). The results of a factor analysis and other analyses show significantly different understanding of networks of meaning between the three groups of students. We interpret these results draweing on students' own definitions and comments on the complexities of these words and how to learn them.

We discuss implications for the construction of cultural scripts in applying Wierzbicka's approach to Chinese and for her theory of a Natural Semantic Metalanguage. There are also practical implications for aspects of translation and for raising language awareness in the teaching and learning of Chinese (or other languages) as a mother tongue or second/foreign language.