Laowai Delusions of Fluency
I always love to speak Chinese to laowais, in fact, I am really good at teaching, be it language or Engineering stuff. A lot of laowais like the way I teach them how to pronounce ’si & shi; zhan & zhang; lan & nan;….’. But the thing is, laowais like to show off their Chinese whenever they are in the meeting or some conferences. They think their Chinese is already up to a standard whereby they can involve some serious discussions. But the fact is, they suck. They can speak some basic Chinese pretty well, some even have Beijing accent. But the truth is they are really far far away from being professional.
This is so true. I’m not trying to trash talk other foreigners’ Chinese; I’m talking about myself. It’s easy for me to say that I’m “fluent” in Mandarin because I’ve got the pronunciation down pretty well and basic conversation is a piece of cake. But when the discussion gets abstract or intellectual, I fumble. I’m reminded of this fact repeatedly in grad school. It’s usually not so difficult to follow the conversation, but to actually make a contribution on par intellectually with my classmates is no easy task!
I remember a while back my girlfriend once said to me, “when I talk to you, I don’t feel like I’m talking to a foreigner. I feel like I’m talking to a Chinese person. But it’s an uncultured (没有文化的) Chinese person!” I feel this is mainly due to my lack of sophisticated vocabulary, which I blame on years of self-study and taking a practical approach to language learning.
I know I’m not the only student of Chinese facing this issue. I don’t mean to discourage anyone, but I think that it’s important to stay humble. It takes a lot of hard work to become “conversationally fluent.” I know. But it’s still a long, hard road from conversationally fluent to “educated fluent.” Kidding yourself about your Chinese level doesn’t get you anything but awkward pseudo-intellectual conversations.