Language Learning

Inauspicious “4” and Sri Lankan head waggle

During these years living in Sri Lanka, I have gradually picked up some Sinhala words. I naturally shake my head while responding to others with harihari, and tell tuk-tuk driver to go with a yamu.

I am not a smart language learner but haven’t given upyet. I love my mug with Sinhala words because I am a mum at home. But some of my Sri Lankan friends speak Chinese fluently. They work for hospitality industry or Chinese companies. More Sri Lankans tend to learn some Chinese for their career development.In my point of view, the knowledge of cultural differences and different mind-sets or habits is even more important.

Last week, I spoked to some Sri Lanka friends who attended a Chinese language learning program at Colombo University. I asked their feeling about the courses. To my surprise, they didn’t really involve the topic too much into the learning difficulties, but shared the deep impression of some cultural differences.

One told me: “It’s my first time to know that the number 4 conveys inauspicious meaning in China.” The other friend said: “I had never known that the number 520 means, “I love you” for Chinese people”.

It’s true. The pronunciation of number 4 in Chinese language sounds like “death”, which is the exact reason why people don’t like it. “520” is a subtle way for Chinese youth to express love and avoid possible embarrassment.

Knowledge seems funny but quite useful, especially in the hospitality field. Imagine what will happen if a luxury hotel arranges a VIP Chinese group into room 4, 14, or 44, which sounds like “death”, “will die” and “death-death” for them.

The other example is people’s way of communication. Not through the language in particular, but most specifically the way people express yes or no. When Sri Lankans express “yes”, they waggle their head. But in China, this body language means no.

Then you can imagine how confusing it will be. I noticed this difference during my first trip to Sri Lanka in 2010 and got initial shock when I invited a local friend to have dinner together. He continuously waggled his head: the rapid movements of head from side to side which I took as the meaning of refusal, and sad.

This is the opposite of the ‘yes’ head nod generally used for Chinese.That might be the reason of failure in a potential romance, misunderstanding.

Why do we learn a language? Because we want to know each other better and help communication. But if we only focus on grammar and vocabulary, that may not work well, and culture should be combined. On the contrary, even if we know little about each other’s language, but with rich background cultural knowledge, the results will be beneficial.

Sri Lanka will open the borders for foreign travellers. Attracting the Chinese is quite ideal to recover the inbound tourism. The reason is China has controlled Covid-19, which makes the industry safer. Secondly, in recent years, more Chinese tourists have been visiting Sri Lanka. China has been the largest tourism source market in the world since 2012.

If people in both sides know each other better, it will not be limited tourism. If we establish an effective cultural exchange mechanism, people-to-people connection would strengthen.

Amy Yang, an author and blogger lives in Colombo and writes about Sri Lanka mostly in the Chinese Language, with seven books published and more than million followers in China.

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