Chinese (il)logic from inside

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[Prefatory note:  The Chinese author of this guest post, TCI (encrypted acronym to protect her identity) holds a humanities M.A. from a top tier American research university which she attended from 2016 to 2018.  She has been employed for several years as an adviser to  students in China who desire to study abroad (especially the USA) in high school, college, or university.  Her statement will be followed by the remarks of a long experienced, well established practitioner of that profession (application counselor) in China who explains its aims and modus operandi.

The author (TCI) emphasizes what she considers to be a lack of logic in Chinese thought.  It is ironic that her focus is very much on the gender of personal pronouns at a time when many people in America are trying to do away with or downplay that aspect of personal pronouns.  Before dismissing what she says out of hand, bear in mind that for TCI it is a cri de coeur.  She grew up in China learning one system of thought, came to America and struggled to learn another, and now she has gone back to China and is trying to teach the next generation of students who want to come to America and think like Americans how to be less fraught in learning this new way of thinking.

Although, in this essay, TCI cites her examples mainly from the gender of personal pronouns, she could also also do so with regard to tense, number, conjunctions, and other facets of language usage.  In her mind, these misusages are not the failure of inadequate language training, but of not subscribing to the demands of strict logic.  Mind you, this is what TCI genuinely believes.  Since she is the one who time and again has felt that her way of thinking was illogical, we have to try to get inside her head and sympathize with why she feels that way and empathize with her efforts to overcome such feelings of illogicality.]


As I have been tutoring my sister writing her English essay lately, I realized that she, and along with her many peers, aren't very logical when it comes to writing academically or talking / storytelling. I then realized I had the same issue when I first came to the States as a high school sophomore. When I wrote essays for my English class, I expressed lots of personal opinions. Instead of using concrete evidence to support my point of view, I used different adjectives to explain my point. In one word, I wasn't very logical. As time went on, I gradually got better. But I now realize it's not only me, or my sister. The majority of Chinese students have this issue.

I discussed this matter with some friends who also studied in the US or the UK. One thinks it's because Chinese schools don't teach logical thinking. I think that is partly true. But when I think of it at greater length, I wonder could it be more than the school's teaching? Is it because Chinese, as a language, is totally different from English? [VHM: emphasis added] Is it the same with people's habits of thinking or speaking? For example, he/she/it in English vs. tā 他/她/它 in Chinese. In English, he/she/it sound totally different, are spelled differently, have different variants (such as his/hers/its), while in Chinese 他/她/它 all sound the same. Their variants 他的/她的/它的 still sound the same. The only difference is how you write it on paper. I searched for 他/她/它 in the oracle bone scripts. These three characters look drastically different as you can imagine.

I wonder could it be possible that in a Chinese setting, confusions exist and people get used to them. For example, I tell SC [a friend] that another friend didn't do well in a test 他/她考試沒考好 tā kǎo shì méi kǎo hǎo. SC wouldn't know if it's a girl or a guy that I am referring to without knowing who I am talking about. Because it's just tā 他/她. But I wouldn't explain to SC that tā is a girl or a guy. I would just assume SC knows whom I am talking about according to the setting or the context of our conversation. So maybe when Chinese students write, because of their Chinese way of thinking, they assume lots of common understandings. So they don't need to be so logical? When they write, they tend to be all over the place? I also thought of how Chinese as a language could be more complicated than English? Sometimes by looking at how certain characters are structured helps one understand the context, such as 人 rén (person) vs. 眾 zhòng (lots of people), while in English it's person vs. crowd. Because Chinese language is structured in such complicated ways, therefore people just don't pay so much attention to the logic? (I am not saying that Chinese or English is better than the other, just trying to figure out why are most Chinese students illogical )

I am not sure if this example demonstrates my point clearly. I remember when I first came to the States, I had the strangest problem with my English speaking. I mixed the usage of he/she when I could express the rest of the sentence without any problem. Sometimes, even though I knew clearly I was talking about a girl, I would say "he xxxxxx". It was like part of my brain wasn't functioning properly. But I overcame the issue in about two to three weeks as I got used to English speaking everyday. I asked around and found out I wasn't the only one who suffered from this problem.

This may help to explain why many of my colleagues do not like to admit students directly from China to our graduate programs, demurring, "They don't know how to think".  Instead, my colleagues prefer that Chinese students study somewhere else (a "feeder" school) before coming to Penn.

Francis Miller

Francis, who received a B.A. from Penn in May 2013, and then finished his M.A. in December 2013, both from the Department of East Asian Languages and Civilizations, offers the following observations on higher educational counseling in China (remember that TCI is a higher education counselor in China):

I worked for a boutique edu consulting company called AIC Education in Beijing from 2015-2017, and then at Xi’an Tie Yi High School from 2018-2023. This year in August I’m starting work with my wife at Avenues Shenzhen.

The role is usually referred to as a "college counselor" or something similar. For example, my official title is Dean and College Counselor. In Chinese, there are lots of different ways to say college counselor, but I think the most professional way for a school-based counselor is "shēngxué zhǐdǎo 升学指导 ("guidance for further studies") For example, before, my title at my school in Xi'an was "shēngxué zhǐdǎo zhǔrèn 升学指导主任" ("Director of Continuing Education Guidance"). Some schools use a more clunky direct translation from English like hǎiwài dàxué zīxúnshī 海外大学咨询师 ("Overseas University Consultant / Counselor")  or something like this. This is not to be confused with people who work at companies or are "independent education consultants", who are usually known as liúxué zīxún gùwèn 留学咨询顾问 ("Study Abroad Consultant"), or simply as an "agent" (zhōngjiè 中介), however zhōngjiè 中介 in Chinese and "agent" in English mean quite different things in this field. Not that you need / want to know the nitty gritty, but an agent is usually a person or company who has a contractual relationship with a university to facilitate recruiting and is compensated with commissions on a per-capita basis based on the number of students who apply and/or enroll at the university, while in Chinese zhōngjiè 中介 is usually the company with consultants who shepherd students through the application process for a (sometimes hefty) fee and/or may write and submit college applications on the student's behalf. 

The biggest professional organization for school-based college counselors is China Institute of College Admission Counseling (ChinaICAC– click on the link to get impressive evidence of the large size of this organization). If you know of students who are interested in working at a school, I highly recommend they check out ChinaICAC. Please feel free to pass along my email to any students you know who might be interested in such a career path.

Closing remark by VHM

Regardless of what you may have heard from other sources or read in the media about declining applications and enrollments from PRC students, at a place like Penn the number of students from the PRC who apply and enroll continues to grow.  At the same time, their quality ceaselessly improves, such that the competition to get into good schools is ever more intense.  I must say that teaching M.A. students from China during the past decade or so has been one of the greatest joys of my entire career.

It is interesting that many of them, especially those who receive their degree from the Graduate School of Education, go back to China to take up a position as "college counselor", thus ensuring a constant stream of self-perpetuating students who go abroad to seek higher education.


Selected readings


  1. AG said,

    April 11, 2024 @ 7:23 am

    Slightly off topic, but speaking as a teacher, concrete examples have just grown *immensely* more important in essays (and they were already extremely important), because AI, at least currently, can blather on vaguely about any topic but absolutely cannot use relevant, specific examples to back up points. (I can't comment on the bewildering essay above, because it also lacks such examples.)

  2. Terry Hunt said,

    April 11, 2024 @ 8:34 am

    Regardless of the languages involved, I think the underlying issues that TCI describes are common in untrained (or inappropriately trained) writers – a lack of consciously exercised insight into the readers' state of knowledge (theory of mind), and a lack of distinction between types of writing (opinions and feelings versus objective, verifiable facts).

    These issues are frequently encountered in queries to, and "newbie" writing for, Wikipedia. Querants on Wikipedia's Reference and Help desks not infrequently assume a reader's pre-knowledge of what the querants are talking or even thinking about but have not explicitly stated, and tyro article writers and editors insert judgemental personal interpretations (wiki-termed 'original research') and unjustified praise ('peacock terms') rather than neutrally paraphrasing only facts from referenced sources.

    My own experience of secondary-level schooling is half a century out of date, but I suspect that this is where latterly the appropriate understanding is being inadequately imbued

    TL:DR – it's not Chinese lack of logic, but a worldwide phenomenon.

  3. Joe said,

    April 11, 2024 @ 9:55 am

    Unfortunately it feels like we're all trying to decode this short essay, but maybe we're getting close? If I've gotten the point, and I'm not sure I have, maybe it could be illustrated by replacing the word "logic" with "precision", or "specificity". What I think we're talking about is not so much a discontinuity when different ideas in the text don't quite flow together, but rather the formlessness when any given idea isn't fully isolated from the related ideas that the reader might guess you're writing about.

    Long before generative text engines, I briefly moonlit copyediting academic journal articles for non-native English speakers. All of us in that service dreaded the ones from China in particular, because they tended to be missing grammatical details like tense and number that were very difficult to reconstruct. At the time I assumed it's because those details are expressed in some other way that doesn't translate word-for-word to English, but as I've learned very slightly more about the Chinese language(s) I gather some of that simply isn't expressed in the first place and is conveyed only by context? I can empathize only by imagining if I had to explain to a German or Latin speaker that English doesn't need several different versions to cover all possible cases because it's usually clear who's doing what to whom (sorry for the rare counterexample), or that we really lose nothing by not knowing the gender of every inanimate object, or that (contrary to TCI) in many stories even the genders of the characters are no more relevant than their ages or hair colors.

  4. Jarek Weckwerth said,

    April 11, 2024 @ 1:05 pm

    I feel what TCI is talking about is a run-of-the-mill Sapir-Whorf kind of example of cross-language differences in what gets encoded in the grammar; plus lacking practice in speaking/writing an L2 that encodes things differently than your L1. I really don't think it has anything to do with (being able to do) logic. It's about what information is present in or absent from the linguistic forms. As such, it may e.g. constrain the possible logical arguments that can be made but only because the available facts are different.

    This type of thing is responsible for a lot of (maybe most?) L2 "errors". Articles in article languages for people from L1s without them; tenses that encode things differently; noun and adjective cases; verb persons; you name it. This is bread and butter for most language teachers and linguists around the world.

    At least that's what can be gleaned from her example.

    The fact that the example doesn't talk to the first paragraph may of course be a symptom of something else; maybe of differences in writing styles taught in China vs. the US. But these are again not unique to China/Chinese; for example, Eastern, and more generally continental Europe (even France) has many similarities. I would even argue that it's English writing that is the outlier. But I still don't think that, strictly speaking, this is about the ability to think logically.

  5. Pamela said,

    April 11, 2024 @ 1:54 pm

    It seems to me that TCI is considering two different things. It is certainly possible that derivations in Chinese work very differently from English, leaving words in the modern languages with contrasting relationships to other words with which they might have a contextual connection. But this seems to me, as to some other commentators, to not be connected (at least not directly) to the logical construction of sentences and paragraphs. I notice American undergraduates have the same problem as Chinese undergraduates in forging a disciplined relationship of generalizations to specific evidence–this is something that, evidently, all teenagers and very young adults just have to be taught. What is more striking to me is the difference in academic writing between English-language scholarly publications, and Chinese. For Chinese academics writing for English journals, there appears to be a profound reluctance to state an idea plainly and then develop it. It seems somehow to be more desirable to be coy, roundabout, equivocal, and to bring in supporting evidence in a piecemeal fashion. As for the reader, it is the reader's problem if the writer is starting somewhere in the middle of specialized discourse and getting more specialized as things process. I would say this is characteristic of something in contemporary Chinese culture, except very similar qualities have famously attached to Japanese scholarship for a very long time, and on a continuum one would, I think, find British scholarship somewhere in the China-Japan direction from American academic writing, which might be at an extreme. The upshot is that American scholarship looks more logical, as it tends to be clearer what the author is arguing, and the evidence tends to be marshaled in what I think TCI might consider a logical way (I would also consider it logical, though depending on the quality of the main idea it might be more or less useful). I think that on some level, American academic writing compared to East Asian (and, distantly, British) looks aggressive, and it may be for this reason that Chinese academics do not assimilate it quickly. But in the case of Chinese students and academics, there is the powerful reinforcement that they live in a society in which the plain expression of ideas is not valued, and may be risky. Chinese academics plunging into English language scholarly publishing may be trying to sprint from a standing start, so any progress is impressive.

  6. AntC said,

    April 11, 2024 @ 6:22 pm

    Geoff Pullum:

    Even the truly silly advice, like "Do not inject opinion," doesn't really do harm. (No force on earth can prevent undergraduates from injecting opinion. And anyway, sometimes that is just what we want from them.)
    ['50 Years of Stupid Grammar Advice', 2009]

    In English, he/she/it sound totally different, are spelled differently, have different variants …

    I'd call English's pronoun system pretty darn illogical — certainly compared to other European languages. Why make that distinction in the singular but not the plural? Why in the third person but not the second? etc, etc.

    "You" not only doesn't distinguish sex of the referent, it doesn't distinguish number.

    … just assume [someone] knows whom I am talking about according to the setting or the context of our conversation.

    (Gosh that "whom" is antique.) 'according to the setting or the context' is how all languages work. The advice learners need is to look out for the cues of what is sufficiently indicated by context.

    All the Chinese-origin speakers I know of EFL struggle with pronouns. (They seem to choose more-or-less at random.) It's OK. Knowing that Chinese languages don't mark sex in pronouns, I can usually understand. If not I'll ask. (And as Prof Mair points out, English is on the way to abandoning sex-marking anyway.)

    There are surely more significant hurdles for EFL learners to clamber over!

  7. katarina said,

    April 11, 2024 @ 10:59 pm

    Chinese may be less grammatically precise than European languages but I don't think this means the Chinese are less capable of logical thinking. Numerous students from China who do not have enough English will go into computer science or mathematics, or some other science, and do very well, and all these subjects require logical thinking.

  8. Jarek Weckwerth said,

    April 12, 2024 @ 12:34 am

    @ AntC: English's pronoun system pretty darn illogical

    Well my point (which is, I think, relatively standard) would be that it's not about logic but about what is encoded in the system. That may reflect some ecologically important information about the reality (like sex or number), so it's not really random in the strict sense, but the selection of features is, let us say, haphazard, and compounded by unpredictable changes over time leading to an apparently "illogical" sediment (such as that which has created English you).

    And all of this may well have an influence on the structure of thought, even if you don't argue for the most extreme versions of Sapir-Whorf. For example, garden-path sentences (and there have been countless posts on those on here) will work very differently in an isolating language and an inflecting one. And onions are female characters in children's stories in my L1. But, as I said above, I think logical reasoning is only affected by what information is made available by the grammar. Other than that, the basic logical operations are the same.

    But then again I'm a very simple phonetician, so I may very well be totally wrong.

  9. Andy Stow said,

    April 12, 2024 @ 1:56 pm

    Is this the reason I struggle to be "logical" in French? Because my L1 is English, I can't intuitively grasp that, of course, a table is feminine, and a tire is masculine.

  10. AntC said,

    April 12, 2024 @ 4:14 pm

    @Andy I can't intuitively grasp that, of course, a table is feminine, …

    In French, 'lion' is masc. You might call it 'animal', also masc. But if you call exactly the same animal a beast 'bête', that's feminine.

    So the way I learnt to stop worrying about it is: gender has nothing to do with the thing, but only the word you're using for it. It's not that a table is feminine, it's that 'table' is fem.

    For English, I was careful to use 'sex' above, not 'gender'. You're quite likely to use 'it' for a lion, because you don't know what sex it is. Even if it's known to be a lioness, you might still use 'it', because it's not human. Nothing specific to do with the word.

  11. Jarek Weckwerth said,

    April 12, 2024 @ 4:38 pm

    @ AntC intuitively grasp that, of course I think you'll find that Andy was being facetious here.

    'it', because it's not human. Nothing specific to do with the word. It so happens that English has a word that, in many cases, means 'not human'. So absolutely it's to do with this specific word. While the there is some ecological validity to the human/non-human distinction, it is not something that must obilgatorily be encoded in the grammar. My L1, for example, has pronoun, verb and adjective forms in the plural that distinguish male humans from 'everything else', where 'everything else' includes, oh yes, female humans, lions and tables in one category.

  12. Doctor Science said,

    April 12, 2024 @ 10:03 pm

    It seems to me that some of what TCI is talking about is the difficulty in moving from a high-context to a low-context language and culture (wikipedia). Chinese culture is high-context, and the Chinese language is *extremely* high-context because the inventory of valid syllables is so small.

    As some Chinese friends explained when they were talking about nicknames in Chinese, and why they were never made by shortening to a single syllable (comparable to Elizabeth=>Beth), "one syllable by itself isn't enough information in Chinese, you have to have more context."

    As for the "forgetting which gendered pronoun to use" thing, I heard a native speaker of Hungarian (which has no grammatical gender) say that they found reading Ann Leckie's SF novel Ancillary Justice (previously discussed on LL) in English quite relaxing, because they didn't have to keep track of those pesky pronouns.

  13. Julian said,

    April 13, 2024 @ 3:07 am

    "Sometimes, even though I knew clearly I was talking about a girl, I would say "he xxxxxx". "
    Greek has different words for "the" in "the +noun" phrases according to the gender of the noun.
    The same words standing alone in the accusative case can mean "it."
    Eides ton aeto/ tin alepou/ to pouli? = Did-you-see the eagle/ the fox/ the bird?
    Ne, ton/ tin/ to eida = yes, it I-saw.
    Learning noun gender is not hard (the form of the noun usually suggests it). But I've never quite cracked using the correct form for "it" confidently when the noun itself is not present; that is, having the native speaker's sense of the gender of an object even when they are not uttering the word for the object

  14. David Marjanović said,

    April 13, 2024 @ 1:37 pm

    He/she/it are also confused by native speakers of Hungarian or Finnish in English, and by native speakers of Dari/Persian in German, for example; if you're not used to these distinctions, they're as arbitrary to you as the scarier kind of Australian language where pronouns encode if you're an odd or an even number of generations from the referent… or the English tense/aspect system when you start from anything else in Europe (various West African systems are much more similar). Indeed, it's not any kind of Chinese but most kinds of German that express no aspect (and the rest of German has just one aspect distinction, which moreover cuts cleanly across all tenses, while in English tense + aspect are an indivisible blob).

    I wouldn't say either that English makes more such distinctions than Chinese. I haven't counted, but the classifiers are a glaring counterexample.

    Writing an essay in a certain expected form is not only a cultural matter separate from language, it's also not so ingrained in Western culture that it wouldn't need to be explicitly taught in schools!

  15. Jerry Packard said,

    April 16, 2024 @ 9:24 am

    This discussion brings to mind the debate many years ago between Alfred Bloom and Terry Ao (and others) about whether — believe it or not — Chinese speakers were less able to perform abstract thinking because Chinese does not grammatically encode the counterfactual (eg if he were tall he would have been a basketball player) and because Chinese orthography is not alphabetic/phonetic (W. Hannas).

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