Is English a "writer-responsible language" and Chinese, Korean, and Japanese "reader-responsible languages"?
These are totally new concepts for me. Until David Cragin told me about them, I had never heard of reader-responsible language and writer-responsible language.
Dave works for Merck in the Safety & Environment group, knows Mandarin, has been to China 12 times since 2005, and teaches a short course on risk assessment and critical thinking at Peking University every year. He was recently appointed to the Executive Committee of the US-based Sino-American Pharmaceuticals Professional Association (SAPA), so he has a professional and personal interest in cross-cultural communication.
In an earlier post, we discussed another, related issue that interests Dave: "Critical thinking".
Let us begin our inquiry by considering this post from the CAL Learning (Culture and Language Training for a Multicultural Workplace) Blog by Lauren Supraner: "Who Is Responsible for the Message?"
Here are a couple of key excerpts:
English is a writer-responsible language. That means it is the responsibility of the writer to make sure the message is understood. Writing is clear, direct and unambiguous. Schools teach from early on the importance of structure, thesis statement and topic sentences when writing in English. A good writer assumes no or little background knowledge on the part of the reader.
Korean, Chinese, and Japanese are reader-responsible languages. That means the reader is responsible for deciphering the message, which is often not stated explicitly. For an American who is expecting direct and explicit information, this style can be very confusing.
Dave says that he agrees with the description of English writing. However, he acknowledges that he lacks sufficient basis to make a judgment on the writing of Asian languages.
The post cited above also pertains to speaking because it can fit a similar model. Good speakers in the West see it as their responsibility for the audience to understand them. In contrast, Dave says that when he has heard a regulatory official in China give a less-than-captivating talk (i.e., reading from a script), Chinese colleagues have explained, “he’s important, we need to listen and understand what he says.” Naturally, there are exceptions to these patterns in both the US and China.
Dave thinks that a good example of the English model is the Wall Street Journal, because they always assume the reader has no knowledge and, as a result, almost anyone can read the paper and understand it.
For example, when the WSJ talks about a company, it always explains the company’s business. This headline gives a simple example:
McDonald's Expects Further Challenges
Fast-Food Company Takes Steps to Repair Its Business Fundamentals
While everyone in the US should know McDonald’s is a fast-food company, the WSJ still states it (and will restate it almost any time they mention McDonald’s in an article).
Wal-Mart Looks to Grow by Embracing Smaller Stores
Retailer Tries New Business Models as Its Superstores Fall Out of Favor
Everyone knows Walmart is a retailer, but the WSJ still makes this point. If they didn’t do this, they’d have to decide which companies are known and which aren’t known. By assuming no reader knowledge, they are always consistent. If they don’t do it in the headline, they do it in the text.
Another look at the concept under discussion may be found in this article, "Reader-Writer Responsible", from the "Valuing Written Accents: International Voices in the U.S. Academy" program of the Writing Center at George Mason University, from which I take this excerpt:
Many of our informants were confused about why their teachers in the U.S. placed so much emphasis on structuring a paper, including having an explicit thesis and topic sentences. For many, this confusion stems from their experiences writing within “reader-responsible” cultures. In “reader-responsible” languages, according to John Hinds’ influential “typology” across languages, the burden is on readers for extracting the meaning from the text. In Asian cultures in particular (e.g. Japanese, Korean, Chinese, Thai), readers expect ambiguity and imprecise writing as they work their way inductively through the text. In contrast, in our writer-responsible culture, English-speaking readers expect writers to be explicit and direct. Because of these differing expectations, Hinds says, English-speaking writers typically compose across multiple drafts whereas Japanese writers, for example, may compose only one draft, which is the final product. Even in highly structured genres like the scientific research report, according to many scholars of contrastive rhetoric, reader-responsible conventions are still apparent1.
A scholarly paper focusing on Chinese may be had in Xiukun Qi and Lida Liu (Harbin Institute of Technology, China), "Differences between Reader/Writer Responsible Languages Reflected in EFL Learners’ Writing", Intercultural Communication Studies, 16.3 (2007), 148-159.
(pdf from this link)
This paper reveals the common occurrence in many Chinese EFL student learners’ English writings of a large number of sayings and parallel structures, and of diffusely organized rhetorical structures. Following the theory that the reader-responsible language differs in some way from the writer-responsible language, this study finds that the above mentioned phenomena in students’ writing do reflect some differences between the two languages, in that Chinese written discourse is likely to require readers’ background knowledge for understanding, while English written discourse tends to elaborate major propositions; Chinese rhetorical structures are often intuitively organized, while English structures are logically organized; and Chinese discourse appears to be expressive while English tends to informative. From the view of cognitive linguistics, these differences are attributed to the choice of different cognitive patterns such as imagery, metaphor, perspective, salience, selection, and encyclopedic knowledge. It is the choice of cognitive patterns that opens up a new way for Chinese EFL learners to gain clarity about the pattern of the written discourse of the target language.
Dave asked a Japanese friend who is a professor at the University of Tokyo about the article by Supraner cited near the beginning of this post and whether she agreed that Japanese is a reader-responsible language. She said “yes", and elaborated (forgive her English):
It's very interesting and I agree with the statement though not sure about Chinese or Korean but as far as Japanese is considered, I think it is true. In the lecture of Japanese language since elementary school to high school, we learn how to read between lines and actually, even government administrative documents or even constitution, ambiguous expression is used.
Therefore, for example article 9 of Japanese constitution, which is about pacifism, war renunciation and abandon war potential, we discuss about the possibility and to what extent our self defense force can act in the world crisis.
In his daily work, Dave says that he often gets involved in discussions with colleagues from Europe and elsewhere about how to interpret Chinese regulations and how to deal with confusion about the law’s requirements. There is an issue with ambiguity in how Chinese regulations are written and this can make compliance difficult. The China Daily recently discussed this as regards employment law. In particular, see the last panel on "Ambiguities in Chinese laws that may lead to discrimination disputes", which contrasts Chinese laws with US laws.
While this pertains to employment law, it’s true in other legal arenas as well.
Recently, I received this message from a Chinese colleague who was planning to come to Penn for a visit (I had told him that I had a conflict and wouldn't be able to see him, but that my colleagues were eager to meet with him):
It is a pity but it is fine if I do not meet you this time. I would like to see the Asian Week too at the NY but I am not sure if I would have chance this time.
The quality of the English is by no means poor, but when I showed these sentences to the three of my colleagues who were planning to meet with this visiting Chinese scholar when he came to Penn, none of them was able to say with assurance whether he was still intending to come or not. Consequently, since he was writing in English, I am tempted to say that, rather than there being reader-responsible languages and writer-responsible languages, there are reader-responsible cultures and writer-responsible cultures. Of course, one of the chief manifestations of culture is language, so a reader-responsible culture would be prone to manifest itself in reader-responsible language and writer-responsible culture would be prone to manifest itself in writer-responsible language. Naturally, however, if someone with a background in reader-responsible language / culture is determined to write in a clear and unambiguous manner, that is possible, and if a person with a background in writer-responsible language / culture wishes to be vague and ambiguous, that too is possible.