Like a lot of HSKers, I've spent a lot of time learning from textbooks, and as a result, I sometimes unwittingly use 书面语 in my oral Chinese. A recent example is where I used 崭新, and was told this is 书面语 ("written language"); I guess I should use 全新.

As I understand, there's a lot of ambiguity and exceptions for 口语 vs. 书面语. And I get the feeling that different people consider different words as 书面语.

In any case, I would like to be able to speak formal Chinese, such as language suitable for a university lecturer, and not just everyday chit-chat. Indeed, in English, I have adopted a more formal style in everyday life. I strive to use more precise words both in English and Chinese.

Nevertheless, people keep telling me "[pla pla pla] is 书面语", and I don't really understand why this is a problem. So...

Question: Why is speaking 书面语 ("written language") a problem?

  • Just wonder who those people are and where they are. In my entire life, no one has said anything about 書面語。I don't see anything wrong with using 嶄新 in daily conversation.
    – joehua
    Commented Sep 14, 2021 at 0:07
  • I don't think the issue here is divide between "written words" vs "colloquial". At the end of the day, you need to decide if you want your communication style to 1. befit your role as a lecturer, or 2. be clear and concise or 3. has an impact to your audience (it implies talking at their level). Your audience who is giving the negative feedback probably care more about colloquial comm style than substance. Are they important to you? If I'm keen to learn from a teacher, I won't mind their slight accent or occasional awkward choice of words. Key part of public speaking is "Know your audience". Commented Sep 14, 2021 at 0:50
  • 1
    I sympathize with what @joehua said about "who those people are". Some people might blame you for what they simply don't get. On the other side, it can just be an invitation to keep it simple, or as we use to say in Italian "parla come mangi" (literally “speak the way you eat”), a useful suggestion as Anthony Kong, monalisa, and Charles chen explained. Commented Sep 14, 2021 at 13:02
  • 5
    On a side note: 崭新 is ok in spoken language. If someone said you were using it improperly, it could be that you weren't using it in the right context, but they gave you an imprecise reason of it being 书面语. Native speakers are good at spotting what is wrong but they often can't explain with the right reason if they lack proper linguistic training.
    – Betty
    Commented Sep 15, 2021 at 5:08
  • It would be helpful if you can provide your context where you use the word 崭新, so that we might understand if it's a misuse or something else.
    – dan
    Commented Sep 17, 2021 at 8:23

4 Answers 4


Question: Why is speaking 书面语 ("written language") a problem?

Using 书面语 ("written language") is not a problem in itself. The problem is when you use it in a situation or with a person that requires 口头语. Every language has different "registers", or different levels of formality in speaking. Of course you speak differently when you're at home, with your family than if you are reporting the news as an anchor on TV. People use more and more 书面语 as the situation progresses from casual to formal. Knowing when to use 书面语 and how much 书面语 to use in a given situation is an art. It is much more than simply knowing the language.

You said you would like to speak formal Chinese. That is fine, but again, it's better to speak formal Chinese in situations that require formal Chinese. Otherwise you may risk creating distance between you and your audience, and appearing more formal than you intend to be.


Question :- "I don't really understand why this is a problem"

It is not a "problem" in the sense that it would get you into serious trouble with the law, or cause a riot or make you lose half your Chinese friends. I further submit that it is not a "problem" for you personally. Please read further for my explanation.

Whether in English, Chinese or indeed any language, a non-native speaker is more likely to be excused or sympathetically tolerated for not writing or speaking well in that language. And in most languages too there is the more formal written aspect and the rather informal / colloquial spoken aspect. I understand that foreign students from non-English speaking countries studying in Australian universities do get some allowance for not writing in the Queen's English in their exams. (I was told this by a friend who studied there; so it may not be official policy)

Anyway, coming back to the question, if a non-native speaker were to speak in a formal way in an informal setting, whether in 书面语 Chinese or the language of Shakespeare in English, to a native speaker, the latter would just take it that this foreigner / non-native speaker is in the process of trying to improve his / her proficiency in that language and so would give a "sympathetic allowance" and leave it at that.

But, on the other hand, if a native speaker were to do the same, (i.e. speak using the formal classical structure and words of either 书面语 or Shakespearean English to another native speaker in an informal setting), it is not inconceivable that the native listener would get the impression that the speaker is just showing off, or bordering on being non-sociable.

I suppose that was why someone told you about this 书面语 thing, and I would guess that this person is a native Chinese speaker who sees it as a native Chinese speaker would and not from the point of view of a non-native Chinese speaker who is more "free" and who therefore need not be overly self-conscious or concerned with some amorphous social etiquette, like your goodself.


It is just up to your choice.But I have to remind you that in some circunstances you should speak formally.So the 书面语 and 口头语 is kind of like formal or informal in English . 书面语 are more , specificate and if you use them a lot others may think you are boring. Use 口头语 if you can in daily,书面语 can be use when you are seeing your boss or someone else elder than you.


Why is speaking 书面语 ("written language") a problem?

I'm not saying that it is a problem, but that speaking 书面语 ("written language") might be a problem, in any language and for various reasons as, for example:

  1. The chance of not being understood is higher;

  2. As it is not remote the possibility that you are misunderstood.

  3. The problem might be related to overuse. Just as 好成语要用在刀刃上, I believe that 书面语 should be used to stress focal points, just as steel of the best quality is used to make the edge of a knife.

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