Boring Small Talk is an Opportunity

At AllSet Learning, I hear about a lot of different learner problems. One of the more common ones from intermediate learners is, “I just keep having the same boring conversations over and over again: where are you from, how long have you been in China, are you used to eating Chinese food, etc.” Learners tend to see these limited, unchallenging conversations as contributing to the intermediate plateau they are on.

(Side note: not too long ago, these same learners were likely struggling to get Chinese people to talk to them in Chinese, so from that perspective, this problem is a good one to have!)

Cab Driver Snap in Shanghai
photo by Toshihiro Oshima

There are two things I say to these learners:

  1. You’re being too passive. Here you have a friendly, willing conversation partner, and all you can do is sit back and let them pick the topics from the same old boring set?

  2. The small talk is just a signal. They’re trying to tell you they are willing to talk to you, and you’re wasting a good opportunity with your passiveness.

You can’t really expect a Chinese person to outright say to you: “Hey, I’m interested in you! Let’s talk! You can talk to me about anything you want.” So what does it look like when a Chinese person conveys this same information with other words? It looks exactly like boring small talk. So when you start getting hit with boring small talk, take it to mean this: “Hey, let’s talk! I can’t think of any good topics, though, so I’m going to throw boring topics at you until either you get brave enough to start a real conversation, or we both tire of this.

That’s a lot better, isn’t it?

Now about being too passive… All you have to do is keep a few interesting questions handy to pull out when you are in this kind of situation. Sure, not every situation is appropriate… You might be more willing to ask a cab driver about bizarre things than your girlfriend’s aunt. But at least have them ready for when you are “prompted” the next time. Keep updating your questions if you find certain ones are getting old.

Here are a few examples of what I’m talking about:

  • Is Mao your hero?
  • What’s the best foreign food you’ve ever had?
  • What do you think of India/the USA/Japan/Israel?
  • What do you think of religion?
  • Do you give money to beggars? Why or why not?
  • Do you play games on your cell phone? What games?
  • Do you believe aliens exist?

Yeah, some of them are a little serious or weird, but those tend to have one of two effects: (1) they stop talking to you (no more boring small talk!), or (2) you get an interesting perspective from them.

Good luck!

Pip & Estella

Hypothetically speaking, in a rewritten Chinese version of Great Expectations which takes place in modern China, Estella’s name should definitely be 冰冰. But what about Pip? Suggestions welcome! (His name in the typical Chinese translation is 匹普, which is horrible, and we’re certainly not using.)

great-expecations-chinese

(I will neither confirm nor deny that this question is related to Mandarin Companion‘s next release, which may or may not be the first Level 2 book.)

Why You Won’t Learn Like a Child

It’s not that you can’t learn like a child, it’s that you won’t. You’re not willing to. Not because you aren’t committed, or aren’t smart enough, but because you’re an adult with a little bit of self-respect. And you get frustrated.

Have you ever hung out with a crazy friend who will go up to any stranger and say anything, seemingly without inhibitions? It’s awkward but also awe-inspiring, because it opens your eyes to how much your own inhibitions prevent you from doing and experiencing. This is sort of how I feel about my daughter as I watch her simultaneously acquire English and Chinese. Like all toddlers, she is awesome in so many ways that I feel that 99% of adult learners will not let themselves be.

You want to acquire language like a child? Here’s a list of things to do.

  • Be told something is useful. Shrug it off and discard it because it’s boring and tackle something fun. [I see learners of Chinese tackle the HSK word list every day because they see it as “useful.” A child would not do this.]

  • Say something wrong. Be corrected. Say the same thing wrong again. Be corrected. Say the same thing wrong again. Be corrected. Etc…. and yet never lose the desire to keep communicating. [This is perhaps one of the most amazing things that kids can pull off. They know no shame, feel very little frustration, and when it comes to language-learning, that makes them invincible. They’ve never learned a language before, so have no idea “how they’re doing at it,” and don’t care.]

  • Ask how to say something, forget two minutes later. Ask again. Forget 3 minutes later. Ask again. Forget one minute later. Ask again. Etc…. [Adults, quite simply, get quite embarrassed when they keep forgetting something that they feel they should be able to remember. Everyone has a limit, and eventually adults will get too embarrassed to keep asking.]

  • Say something simple. Repeat it. Again and again, until your conversation partner is visibly agitated. Do the same thing the next day. You’re locking that in.

Working Lunch 7969
(Yeah, I’m in the middle of a non-sensical conversation with my mom, but she’ll wait.
photo: mliu92)

  • Repeat something that you’ve just been told in order to confirm it. Then do it again. And again. Because why not do a triple or quadruple confirmation? You’re locking that in too.

  • Say a word wrong, and get corrected on your pronunciation. Try to say it correctly, but fail. Shrug it off and doggedly continue with your incorrect pronunciation for now, because you know they understand what you mean (and hey, you’ll get it eventually!).

talk to the hand, the toddler is not listening
(Stop. I call it “pasgetti.” Now you just deal with that, and let’s move on.
photo: sesameellis)

  • Ask how to say something. Discover the word is hard, and just dismiss it, as if you never really wanted to learn it anyway. Give your dad a withering “I’m going to pretend you didn’t just say that” look. [Adults will sometimes postpone difficult vocab, but very often, they’ll bite off more than they can chew rather than “retreat” and live to fight another day. My daughter repeatedly dismisses the English word “electricity.” In Chinese, “” is easy.]

  • Tell your teacher super basic information all the time that your teacher obviously already knows. It’s like telling your Spanish teacher how to conjugate “estar,” or telling your math teacher about the Pythagorean Theorem. [They don’t need you to tell them this, but telling them helps you.]

  • Talk and talk, even though you know you’re not making any sense. Use body language, tone of voice, and context to communicate something, anything. Then wait for the listener to try to make sense of that train wreck of a message, and just take it from there. Feel no shame.

  • Make so little sense when you talk that you confuse your listeners. When they express their confusion, laugh at them. Then continue to not make sense if you feel like it.

DSC_9287.jpg
(Whoa, whoa… who said anything about making sense? I’m just talking here. Come on, keep up, buddy.
photo: nautile)

If you can do all these things as a language learner, then congratulations! You are a rare learner indeed (or maybe roughly three years old?). You will learn quickly (if you don’t get shunned by too many native speakers for not acting “normal”).

But even if you can’t do these things, adults have lots of advantages over children, and no one expects you to learn like a child. Different ages call for different learning strategies. (But it doesn’t hurt to be just a little reckless in your learning, either.)

The Beauty of Chinese Numbers

The beauty of Chinese numbers is that they are consistent. You learn the rules, and they just work. Even if you try to get flippant and say 一十 for “10” instead of just regular old , no one’s going to get upset.

The consistent beauty of Chinese numbers is made all the more obvious by the relative skankiness of numbers in English. I noticed this because my daughter (now somewhere between 2½ and 3 years old) has pretty much mastered all the numbers to 100 in Chinese, but the teens in English continue to stump her. She can count to 20 no problem, but if you ask her to read a random two-digit number that starts with “1” in English, that’s where the trouble starts. If she’s speaking Chinese, she can read either Arabic numerals or Chinese characters all the way to 100, but doing it in English trips her up especially for the range 11-20. She’s actually much better in the 60-90 range, because they’re regular.

If English numbers were totally regular like Chinese, we’d see these little gems (pretty much all of which my daughter has tried to pull off at one time or another):

Just numbers!

  • 10 = Onety
  • 11 = Onety-one
  • 12 = Onety-two
  • 13 = Onety-three
  • 14 = Onety-four
  • 15 = Onety-five
  • 16 = Onety-six
  • 17 = Onety-seven
  • 18 = Onety-eight
  • 19 = Onety-nine
  • 20 = Twoty
  • 30 = Threety
  • 50 = Fivety

Somehow I missed it my whole life, but one of the things that makes the names of the teens so bizarre (aside from the inexplicable “eleven” and “twelve”), is that the digits are represented backwards, only for these 7 numbers. When you see “36” and read it “thirty-six,” the “thirty” corresponds to the 3 on the left, and the 6 to the “six” on the right. So you’re reading the number, digit by digit, left to right. But for numbers like 14, 15, and 16, not only do they sound like 40, 50, and 60, but the order of the syllables better matches 40, 50, and 60 as well. And both the “-ty” and the “-teen” from those numbers originally represented “10,” right? These pairs are essentially pronounced as if they were the same numbers! Confusing as hell. I feel for my daughter.

Fortunately kids don’t realize they have good reason to be frustrated, and just jeep on truckin’.

Clean Water in China?

Last week AllSet Learning staff took a team-building trip to the mountains of Zhejiang in Tonglu County (浙江省桐庐县). It was a nice trip, and one of the things that struck me most about the natural beauty there was the lack of litter and crystal-clear water. Anyone who has traveled much in China knows that it’s a beautiful, beautiful country, but disgracefully covered in litter in so many otherwise breath-taking tourist destinations. Not so in Tonglu!

Baiyunyuan

I was also surprised to learn that the locals there drink the water straight from the mountain streams without treating it at all. They don’t have “normal” plumbing, it’s all piped from the higher regions of the flowing mountain streams. I have to wonder: with so much of China so heinously polluted, could this water actually be safe to drink?

Baiyunyuan

Anyone else want to weigh in with some facts or links?

Baiyunyuan

The 4th Ayi: Chinese Girls’ Nightmare

We learners of Chinese typically learn that “ayi” (阿姨) means “aunt,” and then soon after also learn that it is also a polite way to address “a woman of one’s mother’s generation.” Then, pretty soon after arriving in China, we learn that it’s also what you call the lady you hire to clean your home. (The last one tends to become the most familiar for foreigners living in China.)

Today I’d like to bring up a fourth use of “ayi” which kind of circles back to the first one, but is also subtly different, and additionally extremely interesting in the way that it makes young women squirm in social discomfort. This is the use of “ayi” that you really only learn if you spend enough time around young (Chinese-speaking) children in China.

Many terms for family and relatives are used quite loosely in Chinese to show familiarity or politeness. The way it works for little kids in China is something like this:

  1. Little girls that are older than you are called “jiejie” (姐姐); little boys that are older than you are called “gege” (哥哥). Often this is a two-year-old calling a three-year-old “gege,” or even a 17-month-old calling an 18-month-old “jiejie.” That’s just how it works.

  2. Little girls that are younger than you are called “meimei” (妹妹); little boys that are younger than you are called “didi” (弟弟). Again, the age difference might be tiny; it doesn’t matter. Even for twins, the older/younger aspect of the relationship is strictly acknowledged.

  3. Here’s where it gets interesting… To a little kid, if you’re female, but are no longer a child, you’re suddenly an ayi. This often violates the “mother’s generation” rule that we learn in Chinese class… If the kid’s mom is 34, the kid is usually still going to call a 20-year-old girl “ayi” because a 20-year-old is obviously not a child. (Note: this is largely based on observations in Shanghai; use of the term may vary somewhat regionally. China is a big place!)

But this is where it gets very amusing to observe… a lot of 20-year-old girls have never really been called “ayi” before and they hate it. It feels like they’re being called OLD. In very recent memory, they may have had younger cousins calling them “jiejie,” but now this little kid is suddenly pronouncing them NOT YOUNG ANYMORE. A lot of these 20-year-old girls will correct the little kid that calls them “ayi,” telling the kid to address them “jiejie.” Most of the time the kids will have none of it, though. You can see it on their faces: “What? You’re not a little kid. You’re clearly an ayi.

So yeah, I’ve been observing my toddler calling strange young women “ayi” and watching these young women freak out. And yes, it’s pretty funny to me.

So, to sum up, the four meanings of “ayi” (阿姨):

4 Ayi

  1. “Mother’s Siter” Ayi
  2. Middle-aged “Ma’am” Ayi
  3. Housekeeper Ayi
  4. “I’m a little kid and you’re not” Ayi

If you’re in China and you’ve never noticed it before, be on the lookout for #4. It’s easy to spot, because it usually involves a young woman in her early twenties approaching and fawning over a cute little kid, then the inevitable offensive “ayi” term is used, the failed attempt at “jiejie” persuasion, and the young woman walking away pouting.

Abstracted Characters

Stylized letters and characters are interesting to me, but how abstract can you get with Chinese characters? You kinda have to retain the strokes and radicals and stuff, right? Maybe not…

Abstract Characters

The characters represented above are 小燕画院.

Although the name is readable, it might take a bit longer to decipher than most Chinese text, even for native speakers. Have you ever spotted characters that have been taken even further into the abstract?

Itchy Feet on Communication

The webcomic Itchy Feet has some great comics on learning to communicate in a foreign language. I especially like his visualization technique for representing a low level of competency in a foreign language. These are about German and French, but could be about any language, really:

blissful ignorance

This one will feel relevant to ABCs in China:

mistaken identity

Itchy Feet is also the comic that did this amusing take on various Asian scripts which went semi-viral a while ago:

creative guesswork

Baijiu Bigotry

I recently saw a link to this article on Facebook: One Billion Drinkers Can Be Wrong (China’s most popular spirit is coming to the U.S. Here’s why you shouldn’t drink it). So it’s a post laegely about how baijiu (白酒) cannot success outside of China because it’s a terrible, terrible liquor. (Some of the comments I read on Facebook went much further, and I’ll address that sentiment below.)

Red Bull + Baijiu

Now I’m no fan of baijiu; I’ve made this clear in the past. And when I say it’s terrible, I know it’s because I personally will never develop a taste for it, and I’m not interested in “giving it a chance.” I’ve done that. Plenty of times. (Same goes for chicken feet.) I think part of it is that I resent a certain idea that sometimes gets tossed around: if you’ve been in China this long, you should have learned to like baijiu by now. Nope, sorry. Don’t like it. Now leave me alone.

But I’ve also learned–thanks to my friend Derek Sandhaus–that it is possible for westerners to develop a taste for baijiu. I seriously doubt it’s ever going to go mainstream, but the Chinese will ensure that there’s always a market for the stuff.

The article linked to below, though, goes way beyond the idea that the Chinese like it and westerners typically don’t. It reminds me of Seinfeld’s “chopsticks bigotry” (which is actually funny, because it’s a bit more self-aware):

I’ll tell you what I like about Chinese people … They’re hanging in there with the chopsticks, aren’t they? You know they’ve seen the fork. They’re staying with the sticks. I’m impressed by that. I don’t know how they missed it. A Chinese farmer gets up, works in the field with the shovel all day… Shovel… Spoon… Come on… There it is. You’re not plowing 40 acres with a couple of pool cues….

What’s interesting about this type of opinion of baijiu is that this is a truly dividing issue. Some westerners will actually hold the opinion that “this is a vile alcohol and no one should drink it, Chinese or not.” You might hear some cross-cultural statements of the some ilk about peeing in public, or disregard for safety, but attacking another culture’s favorite alcohol? It’s just a bit bizarre.

What do you think?

Grammar at 2½: a quick update

I enjoyed writing the post about my daughter’s mastery of Chinese grammar at age two. It wasn’t scientific, but it was an interesting study for me nonetheless.

This just a quick update, because I was wondering when my daughter would start getting into the “harder,” intermediate-level B1 grammar points. Well, I’ve got an answer now.

Soft Grub

Right around the time she turned two and a half, we had soft tacos for dinner, and she busted out with this sentence:

我要把它包起来。 [I want to wrap it up.]

This short sentence is significant because it features both:

  1. The 把 sentence structure
  2. The 起来 complement

[Mind blown]

From the original “cannot use” list, the only other one she’s picked up has been personal pronouns (which she’s still getting used to). I really thought it would be a while before I heard come out of her mouth. She’s definitely not using often, but it’s already in that little brain…

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