(English version follows Chinese)
對外國人來說，可以喝、可以用的都是water。Hot water 是用來洗澡或是特殊清潔等需要的。只有在很有需要的情況下 (泡茶/咖啡) 才會用上boiling water.
當歐美的朋友向你介紹：這位是我的brother (或sister / uncle / aunt / grandmother / grandfather / cousin…) 時，你心中很自然地會同時生出很多疑問吧：
- Brother / sister：是哥哥還是弟弟？姐姐還是妹妹呢？
- Grandfather / Grandmother：祖父母？外祖父母？
就以日常生活來說，英文take a shower和take a bath絕對是兩回事。當外國人聽到中國人一句「他在洗澡」，他們心中也馬上起了沒有解釋清楚的疑問。
又比如我們說「有沒有筆，讓我記一記？」他們肯定會追問：甚麼樣的筆？因為英文會說明到底是pen (原珠筆) / pencil (鉛筆) / crayon (蠟筆)…。 要說「作為書寫工具的統稱」的筆，就只能說 writing instrument – 平常裏是不會這樣說的。在一些工作的說明裏，英文會列明準備 “paper and pen, pencil, crayon…”，而中文往往會攏統地說「準備紙筆」。
當我們說「坐車去吧」，他們也會感到含糊，非得弄清楚：car / taxi / bus / train / bus / tram…？對他們來說，這些車之間完全不一樣，沒弄清楚以前他們不能行動。當然，我們說的「車」指的是「有別於飛機、船之類的交通工具，也不是走路或騎車」的意思。可是在英語日常對話中，沒有人會說 Let’s take a vehicle。同樣地，中文說騎車，不必說明是自行車或是機車；而英文就一定不會含糊。以下是一種經常會出現的情況：
外國人：我沒有車子。我坐巴士 （公車 / 打的）來。
Europeans and Americans drink cold tap water because in Europe and in America, tap water is safe to drink. It is not the case in China. We have to bring the water to boil first to ensure safety.
This Chinese habit of drinking 開水 (boiled water) may bewilder many foreigners.
It certainly is a Chinese habit to drink warm or hot boiled water. However, it is worth knowing that the word 開水 refers to water that has once been boiled and is thus safe for drinking. 開水 can be cold, warm, hot, or boiling hot.
Water, just one simple word, is for both drinking and washing to Europeans and Americans. Hot water is used for shower or baths, or some special cleaning purposes. Boiling water is for brewing tea or coffee.
A word as simple as 開水embodies a lot of cultural uniqueness. Language is indeed the product of each culture, and the lifestyle and thoughts of its people.
When Chinese is being precise
When someone introduces another person and says “this is my brother (or sister / uncle / aunt / grandmother / grandfather / cousin…), a series of questions would immediately be raised in the head of a Chinese:
- Brother / sister: is s/he elder or younger than you?
- Grandfather / grandmother: paternal? Or maternal?
When it comes to uncle, aunt or cousins, it raises even more questions. There is this natural urge in a Chinese to find out more about the relationship. In the Chinese language, the bloodline and relationship between two people are clearly defined by each name.
However, it is not to say that Chinese people or language are more precise than English.
When English is being precise
For some everyday activities, such as taking a show or a bath, a clear distinction is made in English with the change of one word. In Chinese, when people say 「他在洗澡」(he’s washing himself), the lack of precision about how the person is washing themself could be a little confusing.
When a Chinese says “May I borrow a 筆”, it refers to any writing instrument. In English, people tend to precise whether it is a pen, pencil, crayon…etc. You would never say “May I borrow a writing instrument?”. When it comes to giving instructions and preparing the list of materials needed, the one word in Chinese 筆 may seem ambiguous. You would most likely be precise and include everything - pen, pencil, crayon...
Similarly, a Chinese would suggest to “take a 車” when you need to travel far. You would precise to take a car / taxi / bus / train / bus / tram… A 車 refers to any kind of vehicle that runs on the road, as opposed to a ship, a plane, or walking. In English, you would never hear people suggest “Let’s take a vehicle”. While you would say to ride a motorcycle or a bicycle, in Chinese 騎車 tends to be less precise. The scenario below could arise everyday:
Chinese: Did you come in a car?
Non-Chinese: No, I don’t own a car. I came by bus (or taxi).
Chinese: That’s what I meant.
Non-Chinese (thinking): Perhaps, but that’s not what you said…
True bi- or multi-lingualism
The words in a language that can best illustrate the characteristics of its people are often the ones that are most common and the simplest. It is important for us to recognise that while cultures and languages differ from each other, no one is more superior nor inferior.
When we bring up children to be bilingual or multilingual, it would benefit them for us to explain the differences between the cultures and practices to them. It’s only by understanding these cultural characteristics they will become true bi- or multilinguals.