Will English make you impolite? A study of the influence of English proficiency level on Chinese students’ performance regarding politeness--taking the speech act of refusal as an example
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Politeness theory is well-known in both the fields of communication and linguistics. It was first proposed by Brown and Levinson in 1987 and it has been heatedly discussed by researchers since its initial presentation. The core and base of politeness theory lies in the desire to maintain face. Speaking of face in communication, China cannot be neglected. According to Ho (1975, p. 867), the origin of the word "face" is a Chinese idea referring to the use of "mianzi面子" or "lian脸". The Chinese are famous for their obsession with saving face (爱面子). Moreover, beginning with the opening-up policy in the late 1980s and its entrance into the WTO, China became more engaged in global affairs. Historically, the importance of learning English has been stressed by all Chinese and in recent decades this has been emphasized even more. Considering these two facts, one may wonder whether the Chinese traditions regarding face and politeness will remain the same under the drastic lash of English language usage? This study was designed find out how does the English proficiency level of Chinese students affects their way of refusing. To insure the validity of participants’ English level, the C-test was designed as part of the survey. The C-test is a method for detecting the real language proficiency level proven to be well-established in linguistics. After finishing the English C-test, participants were asked to complete the Discourse Completion Task to determine their first and most real refusal response to an interaction in a social setting. The results of this study did not show any significant correlation between English proficiency level and the refusal strategy the respondents chose. However, the current study has found several interesting phenomena that are typical of Chinese users of English. These include not willing to refuse people who are more powerful and initiating a “ritual acceptance” to mitigate the tone of refusal. In conclusion, although English language usage does not change Chinese students’ codes of conducts and politeness, preferences for refusal strategies are related to culture and thus politeness is not proven to be universal.