10 Practising and expanding: thinking of register
In our native tongue(s) most of us instinctively adapt our speech to the circumstances in which we find ourselves; this means we are able to use a range of registers.
Register is often divided into levels: from very relaxed speech, which can include slang (and even obscenities), through informal speech, used for instance among close friends, to a level which is usually called ‘standard’, that is polite and neutral, inoffensive and acceptable in all social groups, and even to a higher level in very formal professional or social circumstances.
It is of course important to use the right register for the situation, so you should look out for appropriateness of usage when consulting your dictionary. An asterisk, for example, often denotes slang in an English dictionary. In a Chinese dictionary, if it is formal use, you see the sign shū 书, meaning ‘written language’. If it is informal and colloquial, you see the sign kǒu 口, meaning ‘spoken language’.
In Chinese, written language and spoken language are very different in terms of the use of vocabulary. There are many four-character expressions used in written language. It does not mean that you cannot use them in spoken language. However, if you use them in spoken language, your speech will sound very formal and, in some situations, it may sound a bit odd. For example, when you walk into a Chinese restaurant in China, you will be greeted with the phrase huānyíng huānglín 欢迎光临 by the waiter or waitress. The phrase means ‘welcome your honourable presence’. If you use this expression when a friend is visiting you, you may make your friend feel uncomfortable.