Poagao's Journal

Absolutely Not Your Monkey

Jun 20 2008

The Uncanny Chinese Valley

You’ve probably heard about the Uncanny Valley phenomenon, which describes how people are comfortable with obvious robots and fine with obvious people, but are seriously creeped out by robots who are almost indistinguishable from humans. As I was watching some foreigners interacting with Taiwanese people the other day, I began to wonder if there is a corresponding phenomenon with spoken Chinese (as well as other languages). That is to say, many native Chinese speakers seem to go into a kind of “foreigner mode” when speaking with non-native speakers, dumbing down their grammar and slowing their speed, taking pains to put things as plainly as possible. They may even not realize that they are doing this, or see it as the obvious thing to do in such a situation. When speaking with other native Chinese speakers, a greater fluency occurs, of course. What I’m wondering is if there is a point in between these two states, something neither-here-nor-there, that causes confusion and even discomfort for native Chinese speakers, i.e. an Uncanny Chinese Valley?

PhotobucketFrom the Wiki page: “If the entity is ‘almost human’, then the non-human characteristics will be the ones that stand out, leading to a feeling of “strangeness” in the human viewer. In other words, a robot stuck inside the uncanny valley is no longer being judged by the standards of a robot doing a good job at pretending to be human, but is instead being judged by the standards of a human doing a terrible job at acting like a normal person.”

In the Chinese Uncanny Valley, then, at least according to the above theory, the confusion would arise from the native Chinese speaker seeing the other person as either a foreigner doing a good job at pretending to be Chinese (“Oh, your Chinese is so good!”), as opposed to seeing them as a really slow, difficult Chinese person.

I think relatively homogeneous societies where language and ethnicity are closely associated, like many in Asia, are where such a phenomenon would be the most easily spotted. When I’m chatting online or talking on the phone with a native Chinese speaker, there is no hesitation or discomfort, although eventually if we talk long enough it’s likely that I will make a mistake that lets them know I’m not a native speaker, but sometimes while talking face-to-face, I occasionally sense a certain amount of confusion in the other person. Most of my Taiwanese friends don’t have this problem with me, but when I meet someone new, they usually start out in the default “foreigner mode” and then move into this zone of discomfort, and are either so freaked out they can’t deal with me, or they overcome it and things smooth over (my sparkling personality doesn’t really help in this regard either, I admit).

I’m not sure how much of this has to do with reconciling an obviously non-ethnically Chinese person speaking the language, and how much it has to do with the level of Chinese that is being used, but it seems to me that, for many native Chinese speakers, dealing with a foreigner who speaks basic or intermediate Chinese comes across as an easier task than dealing with someone who speaks well enough to almost (but not quite) be taken as a native speaker. Perhaps it has something to do with the way people like to have things (and people) neatly and simply categorized in their minds, which, added to a longstanding association between ethnicity and language, interferes with such categorizations and causes this phenomenon. I’m neither a psychologist nor a language expert, so I really have no idea. It’s an interesting concept, though.

posted by Poagao at 12:15 am  


  1. […] Poagao discusses the Uncanny Chinese Valley.  […]

    Pingback by Links 23 June 2008 - David on Formosa — June 22, 2008 @ 8:14 pm

  2. It’s one of the most interesting explanations I heard for why some people complain that they were treated better when their Chinese/Japanese/Korean/whatever was much worse than it is after they studied hard and improved. But given the choice between being an awkward Chinese and a ‘cute foreigner’, I know what I’d choose.

    By the way, unless you are really checking ID cards, how about more ‘a group of white people’, ‘Asian people’, etc., rather than ‘foreigners’? You’re just as bad as the other Taiwanese when you do that.

    Comment by Nanashi — June 24, 2008 @ 12:19 pm

  3. Because I knew the group of foreigners involved, and they were really foreigners.

    Comment by Poagao — June 24, 2008 @ 12:27 pm

  4. Your post reminds me of an article from this site:

    “All of that is relatively benign. The real problem is dealing with the occasional neanderthal where even if you’ve attained near native fluency they still have a “See-White-Face, Hear-Japanese, Does-Not-Compute” mentality, or the elitist complaining how you foreigners never bother to learn Japanese, and then you come along speaking proper Japanese and they insist in doing all communication in English. The reason being that more conservative types see language as race, and race as language, and when there is someone not part of the group suddenly among “us”, they unconsciously feel a threat. Dealing with such Groupthink is going to be a challenge, but while you never have to like it you’re going to have to deal with it. Many Japanese view westerners on two levels — if you are taken as a temporary visitor, they nearly always treat you extremely warmly and helpfully; even lavishly. But if you are someone trying to become a member of society, there can be quite a different attitude. In contrast, other Asians are expected to pick up the Japanese language quickly, and there often is little tolerance for those that don’t.”

    Comment by The Taipei Kid — June 24, 2008 @ 10:06 pm

  5. Geez, hopefully I don’t come across as that bitter. That site design, btw, should require working goggles.

    Comment by Poagao — June 24, 2008 @ 10:18 pm

  6. This is a really interesting analogy, and I like it. It made me think about why we find extremely “natural” seeming robots discomforting. Do people fear infiltration? Is this what it’s about? It’s a line of thought I hadn’t explored before.

    Comment by Mark — June 26, 2008 @ 3:54 pm

  7. when I first read this post, I started to think of what similarities there are over on this side of the pond; and yes, there will always be a certain segment of the population who “adjust” the way they talk whenever they see a certain skin tone.

    However, it just doesn’t apply as completely here. There are simply way too many second, third, and fourth generation folks hanging around, busting up all those tight little stereotypes. Just think – a whole generation who grew up laughing at Margaret Cho and doing unspeakable things in front of their Lucy Liu posters…..

    Comment by Z. — July 3, 2008 @ 10:52 pm

  8. This is all quite interesting, Poagao and Taipei Kid. My Mandarin is not nearly good enough to create problem encounters like these, but I’m planning on significantly improving it soon, and I was previously aware that if I indeed do make progress, this looms. You’ve sharpened that awareness for me, so thanks.

    I’d like to suggest that playing distnictly win-lose hardball is the only workable solution. One option is to get out your cell phone and ask if you can take the offender’s picture telling him or her that you have a gallery of photos of people who speak great English but have not become “international.” Further tell them the Taiwan government has given you an artist’s grant and that you’re planning to turn these photos into a collage. Or say something else that either directly or by insinuation derides their “international” thinking deficit. Best of all, if the person has friends present, might be to on the one hand give the person face and on the other take it away. One could say to his friends, right in front of him, “This guy amazes me. In X years here, I’ve never met someone who had such good English combined with such a low level of international-style thinking. He’s special!”

    Whatever, I think the key to effectively handling this stuff is to use the idea of “level” and declare the person lacking. This is a shame culture, and prejudice and excessive racial identity are, at bottom, built on shame, so appeals to logic or attempts to provoke guilt will prove ineffective. Supercliousness is easily toppled by shame, and can be toppled by almost nothing else except self-honesty, which is glaringly absent in these types of fellows and felloweses.

    Comment by Vin — July 5, 2008 @ 8:45 am

  9. I’m Asian but English is my first language — I speak / read / write it better than my *native* language. I totally look Asian though, so, inversely, I get default dumbed-down English from Americans or native English-speakers — so go figure — it works both ways as well ^_^

    In any case I guess people in general should just, I don’t know — understand that most everyone wherever they’re from actually can and do speak more than just one language, like, in everyday life, you know? And not jump to conclusions based on how they look — although this is totally understandable… And I think this applies to any culture in any situation.

    Anyway, that’s just me ^_^

    Comment by abyssinian — April 27, 2010 @ 11:07 am

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