Better Non-comprehension: Getting Beyond “ting bu dong”

A while back I was having a conversation with my friend Ben about the challenges he faced learning Chinese. He said that one of the problems was that whenever he didn’t understand even part of something that was said, the whole conversation would shut down pretty fast. I asked him for some more details on these types of encounters, and pretty quickly it came out that he was using the phrase 听不懂 (tīng bù dǒng, “I don’t understand”) exclusively, anytime he had trouble following what was said.

Big problem! While 听不懂 is a useful phrase that any beginner needs to learn, it can’t help in all situations. In short, Ben’s strategies for communication were long overdue for an upgrade. His Chinese was good enough to go beyond just 听不懂; he really needed to start communicating his non-comprehension better. What he was communicating with that 听不懂 was essentially, “I don’t understand anything you are saying,” when in fact it was only part of what was said that gave him trouble.

There’s a solution to this problem. It involves better communication on the part of the listener. When you don’t understand, you can communicate what you don’t understand better. Because sometimes the person talking is drunk, or old, or young, or suffering from a speech impediment, or mumbling, or even drugged! None of that is your fault (one would hope), but you do have to deal with it.

Here are some options for when you’re ready to go beyond 听不懂:

"ting bu dong" Keanu

  1. 什么?我没听清楚。 What? I didn’t hear clearly.

    This one is good partly because it’s not the over-used 听不懂, which immediately clues the listener into the fact that you may, in fact, know more Chinese than just a handful of phrases from a phrasebook. Also, claiming that you didn’t hear clearly (whether true or not) kind of implies that if you had heard clearly, you may have understood. Give yourself a little credit. People frequently don’t speak clearly.

  2. 我没明白你的意思。 I didn’t understand what you mean.

    Don’t be fooled; this is not the same as 听不懂. This sentence may be used by native speakers when they understood every word, but the sentence doesn’t make sense to them or the speaker’s meaning is unclear. So this one is perfect for those situations when you understood every word but don’t know what the person means. This is a really good one to add to your repertoire.

  3. 你在说谁? Who are you talking about?

    This one only makes sense if you’re reasonably sure the person is talking about somebody, but you’re not clear who. Obviously, this can really backfire if they weren’t talking about any person, but most things people say involve some person, so there’s a little room for error here.

  4. 你的意思是…… So you mean…

    Sometimes your best bet is to just guess what the person means. Don’t underestimate the usefulness of this strategy! I’ve seen beginners with 5% comprehension totally guess what a speaker means (and then articulate it in super basic Chinese), while an intermediate learner stands next to them with 60% comprehension, dumbfounded. The difference is paying attention to context. One of the advantages of guessing the speaker’s meaning (even when you don’t guess right) is that you’re kind of “showing your cards.” You’re giving the person an idea of your vocabulary and listening comprehension level. And sometimes the words you use are enough to help them modify what they said originally into a form you can understand.

There are a lot of others you could use too, and probably all of them are better than 听不懂. You just have to put yourself out there a little. Don’t shut people out with your non-comprehension. They’ll help you if you let them.

Zhongwen Extension for Chrome: Now with Grammar Links

I’ve been recommending the Zhongwen extension for Chrome for years already, and it’s also the one we recommend to users of the Chinese Grammar Wiki. Well, with the most recent update to the extension, that recommendation has gotten a lot stronger! The Zhongwen extension now makes it easy to look up words on the Chinese Grammar Wiki by keyword. For example, if you’re using the Zhongwen extension and mouse over “,” you’ll notice that it has a grammar keyword entry. Press “G” to open that in a new tab, and you’ve got a list of all the grammar points on the wiki that use 都. Pretty useful!

Zhongwen Grammar Lookup

While working with the extension developer, Christian Schiller, to add this new feature to Zhongwen, I also took the opportunity to do a short interview with him:

Read the rest of this entry »

The Chinese Grammar Wiki: now with tons of Pinyin

Screen Shot 2014-11-11 at 12.07.30 PM

OK, so maybe not all sentences are cheerful…

The Chinese Grammar Wiki has been steadily growing over the years. In its early days, when tons of articles were “stubs,” and lots of grammar points still needed appropriate example sentences, we decided not to include pinyin for those sentences, and instead outsource that work to browser plugins. We recognized that once the page contents stabilized eventually, it would definitely be better to add both English translations and pinyin for all sentences, or at least the sentences at the lower levels.

Well, that time has come! All A1 (Beginner) and A2 (Elementary) grammar points on the Chinese Grammar Wiki now have both English translations and pinyin. Thanks to our tech team and volunteers for slowly but surely making this happen. The Chinese Grammar Wiki is now way more accessible to beginners as a result.

Chinese Grammar Wiki 2014-11-11

Oh, it also has lots more colorful images now! Not exactly vital to the learning experience, but not bad either.

If you’re learning Chinese and haven’t checked out the Chinese Grammar Wiki recently, please pay it another visit. If you like it, please help spread the word!

Cooking Your Way to Vocabulary

Shrimp fried rice...

by pieceoflace photography, on Flickr

Brendan O’Kane writes on Quora in answer to the question, “What should I do in order to improve my Chinese vocabulary?“:

[…] Cooking shows are an absolutely awesome resource for studying any language, because:
  • They’re pretty focused in terms of spoken content. Sure, you get hosts who yammer on about how their grandmother used to make such-and-such a dish for holidays or whatever, but when you get right down to it, the core content — “this is a thing; this is how you make the thing” — is pretty predictable.
  • Most of the discussion involves objects that are onscreen — usually being handled or pointed at — and actions that are being performed for you. If your hypothetical host says “把整头大蒜掰开,用刀切去根部的硬结,放入碗中倒入清水,” you don’t even have to know all of the words: he’ll be picking up the 大蒜 and 掰开’ing it right in front of you, then 切去’ing the 硬结 at the 根部 using his 刀, etc.
  • At the end of it you’ll know how to cook a dish.
  • I like this idea, but I must admit I’ve never done it. There are a lot of highly-specific action verbs that might take years to master if you just learn them as you come across them, but cooking shows are one way to get exposed to a high number of them in a relatively short period of time.

    Anyone out there tried this for Chinese? What are the good Chinese cooking shows?

    Boaz’s Chinese Kids

    Scrolling through Boaz Rottem’s China Flickr photos, I was struck by these great pictures of happy Chinese children. Enjoy!

    Having fun

    CHINA - The Gang Of 6

    3kids

    CHINA

    CHINA- Ballroom Dancers

    CHINA - " Please.... don't shave my head!! "

    CHINA

    CHINA

    See also: BoazImages.

    Spartacus = Super Taka?

    Here’s a restaurant on Fuzhou Road (福州路) in Shanghai:

    Spartacus = Super Taka??

    So the Chinese name is 斯巴达克斯牛排, which includes a straightforward transliteration of the name “Spartacus,” which you can easily find on Baidu Baike and on Chinese Wikipedia, plus the word for “steak.” But somehow the English name of this restaurant is “Super Taka Steak.”

    How does that work? I’d love to hear theories.

    Chinese Teachers: Use Your Chinese Names!

    Chinese teachers, please have your students call you by a Chinese name. You’re not helping them by calling yourself some easier-to-pronounce English name. I would have thought that this was obvious, but after all these years in the business, I can now see that it is not obvious to many otherwise well-meaning teachers. So I’ll spell it out here. (Please forward this to your Chinese teacher who doesn’t ask you to use a Chinese name in your interactions.)

    So why should students of Chinese call their Chinese teachers of Chinese by a Chinese name? I’m glad you asked…

    Using your actual Chinese name shows respect for the culture

    My dad is one of those people that enjoys befriending recent immigrants in the United States. He likes to find out where they’re from, why they came to the U.S., etc. One of the things he always asks “Bob from Iran” or “Alice from China” or whoever is, “what’s your real name?” He does this not only out of curiosity, but also to show a genuine respect for their culture and interest in their identity. Most of the time immigrants are thankful for this gesture (even if he can’t always accurately reproduce the sounds that make up their names).

    As a teacher, you get to decide how your students address you. But in Chinese culture, it’s a non-question; teachers are simply called “[Surname] Laoshi” by their students. As a teacher of Chinese, why would you not use this opportunity to start teaching your students about Chinese culture in an easy, practical way? Get the cultural respect going from lesson one. Students will be totally on board.

    Using Chinese names is good practice

    One of the main arguments for NOT using real Chinese names is that “my Chinese surname is too hard for foreigners.” OK, maybe your surname is hard for most foreigners, but your students have decided to learn Chinese. They probably already know it’s not easy. Even if your surname is particularly difficult to pronounce, it’s probably only one syllable. And it’s one syllable your students are going to be able to repeat over and over every lesson, and they’re eventually going to start getting it right.

    So don’t baby them. Let them struggle a little bit. It doesn’t matter if your surname is “Xu” or “Zhu” or “Jiang” or “Zhang” or “Yu.” They’ll get it eventually.

    Chinese Teachers: Please Use Chinese Names!

    It’s a vote of confidence

    So it’s a pretty safe bet that your students will not be pronouncing “Xu” correctly on day 1, and that’s OK. But when you tell them, “You don’t need to try to say ‘Xu.’ Just call me Vivian,” you’re casting a vote of no-confidence in their ability to learn correct pronunciation. That’s a terrible thing for a teacher to do.

    Not only are you saying, “you can’t learn this,” but you’re also saying, “you can’t learn this, and I won’t even be able to teach you.” So it’s also a vote of no-confidence in yourself as a teacher!

    Cast a vote of confidence in your students by telling them, “my name is a little tricky to pronounce, but don’t worry; you’ll get it eventually. Just keep trying.”

    Have confidence in them from the first lesson, and they will keep trying. They need you to believe that they can learn to correctly pronounce your name.

    Chinese names are hard to remember

    This is totally true. Chinese names are hard for foreigners to remember. But you know what doesn’t help? Enabling learners to never even try to remember, and always copping out by using English names. That’s just lazy.

    Chinese names are hard to remember in the beginning. But learners get better at it by learning more real Chinese names, and the process starts with you, the Chinese teacher. With each new Chinese person the learner meets, he learns a real Chinese name, and one by one, the names start to seem less insane. They become manageable.

    Start your students down this road.

    But what about Hong Kong?

    One thing I’ve heard over the years is, “but in Hong Kong, Chinese people often use English names. It’s also a Chinese thing.” OK, yes, that’s true. But as a learner, I really don’t need help learning names like “Jacky” and “Coco.” What I need is more practice with the less familiar names… the ones starting with “Zhang” and “Wang” and “Hu.”

    So Hong Kong-style English names are easy freebies that we sometimes get, but they’re certainly not the norm for everyone in mainland China, and they’re not an excuse to avoid Chinese names altogether.

    Don’t be absurd

    Lastly, let me leave you a counter-example. Imagine a blond-haired blue-eyed foreigner living in China and working as an English teacher. We’ll call him “Carl.” He teaches English, but he also knows Chinese, and uses it a little bit with beginners.

    But here’s the thing: Carl has chosen “Zhang” () as his Chinese surname, and in his English classes he has all of his students call him Zhang Laoshi (张老师). It’s because “Carl” is hard to pronounce, and he just finds it easier.

    Is that not absurd? Would the Chinese students not find this odd? Does it help the students to call Carl “Zhang Laoshi” in English class?

    Chinese teachers, please have your students call you by a Chinese name. They’ll thank you later.

    中文翻译:中文老师:请用你的中文名!


    See also:

    Analysis Paralysis in Chinese Studies

    You’ve probably heard of analysis paralysis, but where does it come into Chinese studies? Studying a language is fairly straightforward, right? I’m referring not to being overly analytical about grammar, but rather about vocabulary. How can one be overly analytical about vocabulary? This is something that technology has made easy in recent years.

    Most of my AllSet Learning clients use Pleco or Anki to review vocabulary. Both have built-in SRS flashcard functionality, so doing occasional reviews pretty much solves that problem, right? Well, maybe… SRS drawbacks aside, certain personality types like to take a more active role in the vocabulary categorization process. Yes, categorization. That’s the trap.

    You see, when you save a word to your flashcard system, you can also categorize it. Where did this vocabulary come from? What type of vocabulary is it? How high priority is it? You can go as deep down this rabbit hole as you want. And you can spend a lot more time organizing and re-organizing your flashcards than actually reviewing them.

    So typically when a client comes to me with “flashcard organization problems,” the way forward is pretty clear: it’s time for some serious vocab axing. The situation can be as bad as physical packrat (or even hoarder) tendencies, except with vocabulary data instead of old newspapers or whatever. In most cases, the learner is much better off chucking the majority of this carefully collected information. Usually the most exquisitely categorized lexical items are the least useful. Reducing everything to one “high priority” list is the way to go. This really is all you need, and you get back all that time you used to waste endlessly organizing words (without actually learning them).

    Vocab Reduction

    For those that are seriously attached to their accumulated lexical data, technology offers a solution: you can back it up! Back up the data, dump it somewhere, and keep your active word list as simple, focused, and clutter-free as possible. (Chances are you’ll never go looking for that backup.)

    If this problem sounds vaguely familiar, you may be thinking of the bookshelf problem. It’s amazing, isn’t it, how we humans can be motivated to do something related to learning a language, but actually pour the majority of our efforts into useless activities? The worst, part, of course, is that even a meticulously curated collection of lists which are somehow regularly reviewed don’t guarantee any kind of conversational ability. But then actually talking to people is a bit too random for the analytical brain to handle.

    The solution is simple, though: less organizing, more talking. A more bare-bones vocabulary list will help you move in that direction. If you’re a vocabulary hoarder, I strongly urge you to reconsider your approach.

    Improbable Wifi

    I’d love to see a list of the most improbable places that have wifi in China. I had lunch at this little hole in the wall the other day, and snapped these pictures:

    IMG_3689

    IMG_3688

    Unfortunately I didn’t notice the wifi until I was on the way out. I do wonder how good the wifi was.

    Missing Elevator Buttons

    I recently read China Simplified’s book, Language Gymnastics. It’s a great entertaining introduction to the Chinese language which combines Chinese and foreign perspectives. The book included this passage in chapter 4, which is aptly titled “Sorry, There Is No Chapter Four“:

    Enter a Hong Kong residential tower elevator and you’ll often discover buttons for floors labeled 3A, 12A and 15B–no doubt alternative universes guarded by daemons and fairies. Other times the 1st floor is renamed the “ground floor” (following British conventions) and the 2nd floor is counted as the 1st floor, so then the 3rd becomes the 2nd and abracadabra! — the dreaded 4th floor becomes the less deadly 3rd floor right before our very eyes. Problem solved.

    Whenever a lift whizzes past the imaginary gaps between the 3rd and 5th floors or the double gap between the 12th and 15th floors, I’m taken by cleverness of it all. A property agent can show her clients a breathtaking flat on the “16th floor” without admitting it’s only 13 floors up. Sweet–higher rent and nobody dies. So depending on your perspective, apartment 4D at 1441 West 14th Street is either a deathtrap or the bargain of a lifetime. I say drop that cash and grab that key.

    Chinese number superstitions are real, and not just in Hong Kong. I happened to encounter this elevator in Shanghai:

    Elevator Buttons

    Yeah, quite a few numbers missing there. In this case, skipping so many floors also means that the penthouse becomes “18,” a number desirable for the “8.”

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