Getting by and Enjoying It

21 Oct 2008

A little story from much-loved ChinesePod user AuntySue:

> In hospital I ran into a few Cantonese speaking patients and visitors, who in some cases spoke no English. With the luxury of ample time, I was able to say things I don’t really know how to say, by finding inventive ways to use the few words I did remember. For example, instead of asking if she’d mind opening my water bottle top because my hands were too weak and the cap is tight etc etc, I simply asked “please, can you?” and held the bottle at the top. Worked like a charm. But I’d spent half an hour agonising over the words before accepting that a simpler method was not “cheating” but rather “communicating”.

> When learning a language I too often make it hard for myself by fixating on the words I don’t know rather than finding more uses for the words I do know. Lesson learned. I got my water, the “it’s a talking dog!” look, and a new friend.

Dr. Orlando Kelm, a man of impressive linguistic ability, recently made some related observations:

> My general impression is that people would enjoy foreign languages more if they didn’t have the added pressure of feeling like they are supposed to be equivalent to native speakers. You will notice that our educational system promotes this viewpoint too. We generally teach foreign languages as if learners are somehow going to be total experts some day. (Why else would we spend weeks teaching third semester college students about all of the adjective clauses that trigger the subjunctive in Spanish?) My general impression, however, is that the majority of our learners do not need to speak like undercover spies. They would be just as happy having a great time talking about sushi with Japanese friends in Japanese.

Hear, hear!

I often wonder how good I want my Chinese to be. I have lots of room to expand my vocabulary and improve my ability to express myself, but there are two big questions: (1) do I really need to? and (2) do I really want to?

I’ve gotta say, an unrelenting drive for perfection isn’t exactly the most persuasive linguistic motivation, and the longer I live, the more practical I become. The truth is, I’m not a terribly talkative person, and I’m already pretty comfortable in Chinese. I don’t want to be a Chinese spy (ha!), and I really don’t want to memorize the damn chengyu dictionary. I’d rather get my Spanish and Japanese back to levels where I’m more comfortable and able to enjoy the experience of speaking.

Yes, I think I’ll do that.

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John Pasden

John is a Shanghai-based linguist and entrepreneur, founder of AllSet Learning.

Comments

  1. 頑張るぞ!

  2. Right on – don’t waste your life trying to perfect a language, it’s not necessary. Getting over yourself and not worrying about the mistakes you make or the things you don’t know will make your life a lot more enjoyable.

  3. Oh, that’s my biggest anger point with Chinese textbooks. The one I have now, “New Practical Chinese Reader”, quite openly states that it is merely the first book of a series, with the goal of educating students in a multi-year course to achieve full literacy. This, despite the fact that something like 95% of Chinese learners never progress past Beginner level. Thus, you spend time learning worthless drivel and characters like “Buddhist Nun”, simply because they will pay off later in your studies. You are studying full-time at a university, right?

    The problem is that the book (and most language books) are written by linguists. And a linguist would probably be offended if someone said the he just wanted to learn the language, and to hell with subjunctive clauses. I’ve seen some English books in Japanese that were just fantastic – colorful, engaging, repeats material learned in earlier lessons instead of teaching you it once and then it never appears in the textbook again, uses real English instead of “How do you do”.

  4. On the one hand, I want to say, “well then when do you stop”? But in reality, I guess you never really do ‘stop’ once your at a certain level with a language. I remember you saying once that you initially told yourself you wouldn’t leave China until you were satisfactorily ‘fluent’ and thus ended up making your life here. I think you’ve also talked about how relative all that really is.
    For me, I can certainly communicate well in Chinese, but I think it will be awhile before I’m truly happy with it. That is essentially a road with no end though.
    I guess it just comes down to a decision to allow other things to enter the “frontal lobe” of your learning-mind and moving on to other things.
    It does have to be a bit more intentional when you’ve got your roots down in one place though, no? (Although I suppose you could just drop everything and move to Japan…or Mexico…where they have burritos…delicious, delicious burritos…)

  5. I think I first realized that teaching/learning every linguistic nuance when studying a language at a relative beginner’s level was a waste of time when I realized that native English speakers don’t know the equivalent of this. I hear you (Krovvy) about the annoying NPCR obsessive-compulsive writer who places “shell” and “nun” right up there with basic words. I’ve gotta admit that the one time I needed to use the word nun and I knew it, I felt a little impressive. Only later did I realize that 尼 meant”Buddhist nun” specifically. Damn you, NPCR. Although in fairness, isn’t that character used a lot to phonetically transliterate words?

  6. […] Getting by and enjoying it. I’ve gotta say, an unrelenting drive for perfection isn’t exactly the most persuasive […]

  7. Erick Garcia Says: October 22, 2008 at 4:19 am

    I guess this is why I’m a huge fan of Pimsleur. In reality, we do only need the core syntax and most common vocab for effective everyday communication.

    My parents immigrated from Honduras to the United States about 25 years ago. Even though my mom speaks very fluent english without a hint of an accent she still occasionally asks me questions regarding certain words, how they are spelled, grammar etc.

    @krovvy: I remember the best times in teaching English was when I taught middle/high schoolers how to stop saying “How do you do” and start saying “What’s up?” etc.

    When I was in Sichuan my ESL students would sometimes kick themselves so much because they never got to that “magical state” where English in any form was totally comprehensible.

  8. I think after 5 years of learning Spanish in school, there was still a lot I didn’t know, even after scoring a “5” on the AP exam. I feel that I’m still learning a new word every now and then, but then again, I still learn a new English word every now and then, so that should not be a surprise.

    I can’t help beating myself up (but not physically) for not understanding something in Chinese, but I know that there are ways around saying a phrase I simply don’t know how to say. I learned that while studying Spanish. I often find myself expecting to understand 方文山 after only studying a short time, but I know I shouldn’t be so hard on myself. I mean, not understanding every bit of the latest Jay Chou isn’t the end of the world, as long as I can get make it to his concert using my Chinese. (It’s a dream, really.)

  9. I think after 5 years of learning Spanish in school, there was still a lot I didn’t know, even after scoring a “5” on the AP exam. I feel that I’m still learning a new word every now and then, but then again, I still learn a new English word every now and then, so that should not be a surprise.

    I can’t help beating myself up (but not physically) for not understanding something in Chinese, but I know that there are ways around saying a phrase I simply don’t know how to say. I learned that while studying Spanish. I often find myself expecting to understand 方文山 after only studying a short time, but I know I shouldn’t be so hard on myself. I mean, not understanding every bit of the latest Jay Chou song isn’t the end of the world, as long as I can get make it to his concert using my Chinese. (It’s a dream, really.)

  10. Oops, sorry for the double post! It said there was an error, and then it posted twice!

  11. I myself just want to be able to understand what others are trying to say and be able to express myself – and that definately includes (computer) written language. As soon as I reach my current level of English in Mandarin I will be perfectly comfortable. Currently I am rather moving backwards though, so my older projections of another 5-10 years to that goals might be obolete …

    John, as you already reached that point and are in a Mandarin environment, I think no further formal study is necessary. Those language abilities grow organically by themselves after a certain point (you might, however, want to continue formally learning if you aim at becoming some TV curiosity like DaShan. Oh, and you won’t be a spy anyway. There are some non-language related features that give it away. Sorry for crushing that dream.)

    Ever considered learning something totally different? Not another language, but let’s say physics, economics, or philosophy? To come to another vantage point on life…

  12. So what about Dashan 😉 ?

    I seem to remember a post in which he was presented as a shining beacon 😉

  13. Hobielover, even native speakers don’t understand Jay Chou’s singing.

    I have decent Chinese by now, I think, but I still feel it’s vastly inadequate. I got near-native English almost without trying (or at least that’s how it feels), and although English is a lot easier to learn for a Dutch than Chinese, I still feel my Chinese should be a lot better than it is.

  14. @Lu: Yeah, I know, because he mumbles. I’m not so frustrated that I can’t understand Jay’s mumbling so much as that I can’t always figure out what Vincent Fang wrote from him to mumble, like “兰亭序.” Of course, that’s because of all the references to Chinese calligraphy and ancient poetry.

  15. I lived in Mexico for a number years and even though sometimes people think I’m a native speaker of Spanish when I first meet them, I still find that there are words I don’t know every now and then and I suspect that there will be for a while yet. In fact, just this last week I learned how to say whirlpool and scythe, but I really can’t say that they’ve vastly improved my language skills. I consider fluency as being able to describe the object/action/idea you want to get across, not knowing its name is just an inconvenience but sadly my Chinese still has quite a bit to improve before I’ll be at that point =)

  16. I wouldn’t worry so much about being able to understand song lyrics. Imagine if you were Chinese and stressing over not being able to understand “Louie Louie”? Or American?

  17. I’ve been thinking about that a lot, and now that I’m in a MA TESOL program, we’ve been talking about it too. The question came up why so many people become fluent in Japanese, while very few foreigners become even conversant in Chinese. It’s because of that emphasis on perfection, I think. Learning Chinese just becomes too unrewarding (if that’s a real word), slow and frustrating the way it’s taught now.

    For me, it was helpful when I realized how many people speak “bad Chinese” in real life, and just thought, “If Chinese people can speak bad Chinese, why can’t I?” It’s be great to speak Chinese “perfectly,” but it’s better to speak imperfectly and be understood than say nothing at all.

  18. When I was living in Germany I came up with a couple strategies to compensate for poor vocabulary. The first was to play ‘twenty questions’ when I didn’t understand something… ‘Are you asking me to go somewhere?’ ‘Is it someplace fun?’ ‘Is there food?’ etc. If I could come up with yes/no questions I had a much better shot at understanding the answer. The second was to figure out some sort of riddle to substitute for the actual word I was missing. Like, if I didn’t know how to say ‘nausea’, I could say ‘the feeling you get when you eat something old’. You can really come up with some amusing sentences that way, and people have great fun guessing what you are trying to say.

    Once I got some practice coming up with these ‘workarounds’ I really started to feel comfortable communicating in German. Of course, there were still lots of things I couldn’t understand, but that is a different question. Getting to the point where you can understand a sportscast, a local accent, or hip kids is always going to be a big step up from just developing conversational ability.

  19. @Tora: Each country has it’s own unique vocabulary. I’ve been mistaken for a native Spanish speaker as well, but there are many words in specific areas that I do not know. It would seem that there are dozens of ways to say “pen” in Spanish. You stick with one and don’t really worry about it. I don’t worry about the slang, either.

    @Andy: What is “Louie Louie”? Understanding Vincent Fang is a bit different from understanding American rock song lyrics. It’s more like understanding poetry, and like I said before, I’m not stressed over not understanding Jay Chou’s mumbling, just Vincent’s (written) lyrics.

  20. @hobielover: Look at the wikipedia page for ‘Louie Louie’… I’ll try pasting the link here… don’t know if it will work….

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Louie_Louie

    Basically a lot of people (native english speakers, of course) thought the lyrics were obscene. The song was banned in some places which made it more popular, of course. But basically no one could really understand the mumbled lyrics, which weren’t really obscene.

  21. Oh, then that’s kind of before my time, then. I’m only 19, so me knowing “Louie Louie” would be like me knowing about the “Mickey Mouse Club.” The great thing about Chinese music, though, is that they always include the lyrics in the CD cases, so you can tell what they’re actually singing if you can read it, which is part of the reason why Jay continues to mumble.

  22. John, your blog has been such a wonderful source of knowledge for me and many many others who have made the jump to living and speaking in this (from our American eyes) far-off land. I completely see your point in sitting back and enjoying your Chinese as it naturally progresses, of course it’s not going to get worse living in China. If anyone deserves a break from the study of Chinese it is most certainly you. You are also someone who is oddly (maybe that’s the wrong word, is nerdily a word?) fascinated with the grinding struggle of learning languages, so playing around with your ability in Japanese and Spanish is only right.

    My consternation comes because, as a loyal reader of your blog and someone who is trying to make a life over here, I do not want you to stop perfecting your Chinese. Lets be honest, there aren’t many people writing great blogs about learning advanced levels Chinese in China. Where does one turn when they want to read about that? When one wants to hear about the struggles of Chinese and life in China that go beyond tones and hungover study abroad experiences? YOU were that intellectual source of knowledge and insight that I turned to and I know I am not alone.

    So please, for your readers, maybe you could every now and then open up your Chengyu dictionary, read an interesting Chinese novel, find an unknown Chinese website, try your hand at classical Chinese, or just listen and watch the fascinating country you live in. If we are lucky you might even find time to write about such adventures in this tried-and-true blog.

    You may not need to and you may not want to, but can you really ever stop climbing higher and higher with this language that has meant so much to you? Please please do what you want. Just know that no matter what I will be checking in to this site and hoping for that next great tidbit of knowledge on this infallible language.

  23. Jonathan,

    Thanks a lot for the nice comment. I appreciate it.

    It’s not that I will stop learning or stop finding the Chinese language interesting, it’s that I refuse to put myself through some kind of painful, guilt-ridden study ordeal in order to reach some goal I’m not even crazy about.

    Don’t worry; I’ll continue to write about Chinese. This post does not so much reflect a recent decision as much as a philosophy I’ve already been following for a while anyway.

  24. Yes, you have said before that you do not to pursue some kind of “painful, guilt-ridden study ordeal in order to reach some goal I’m not even crazy about.” Totally cool, better than cool in fact.

    Looking back at what I wrote I feel that I was a bit melodramatic. Guess I just wanted to thank you and show my appreciation.

  25. I think of myself as more of an old fashioned explorer living in a post-modern society. I see many of the people who learn for the sake of learning in this way too. There’s really no reason for me to speak mandarin because I am from an English speaking country. Why would I put myself through all this just to be able be understood in another language that is not the primary or even secondary language in my country.

    It seems a little bit stupid really when you think about it. There are so many other useful and practical things I could be learning that make sense for an Australian. However, I have never really fit into any kind of mainstream of anything to do with Australia.

    Anyway, I really get a lot of satisfaction from being able to understand little bits and pieces and being able to say little bits and pieces in another language. It’s the exploration of the language that I find so fascinating, just the same as my fascination with music for all these years.

  26. Your nonchalance is remarkable and inspiring. Thanks for the insight.

    There’s one point I want to raise, though. You seem to assume a particular arc to Chinese language aquisition; at any rate, in your “language” section you identify five specific stages. I don’t doubt the general applicability of the process you outline, but I’d like to draw your attention to a small group of outliers: learners whose early focus on classical language and literature often threatens to short-circuit their acquisition of modern Mandarin. This is really a huge problem in some premodern literature programs in the States. Most graduate-level courses are conducted in English; command of modern Chinese is generally assumed (kind of on an honor system) but not necessarily really up to par.

    Any thoughts?

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