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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
Update: Fiona Tian has created a useful video based on this blog post:
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 “都,” 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!
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:
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.
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!
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?
Scrolling through Boaz Rottem’s China Flickr photos, I was struck by these great pictures of happy Chinese children. Enjoy!
See also: BoazImages.
Here’s a restaurant on Fuzhou Road (福州路) in Shanghai:
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, 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.
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” (张) 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.
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).
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.
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:
Unfortunately I didn’t notice the wifi until I was on the way out. I do wonder how good the wifi was.
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:
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.”
I’m kind of used to Baidu copying almost every initiative that Google comes out with, so it’s always interesting to see what Baidu does that’s consciously different from Google’s way. One such thing is Baidu Images. You’re probably used to Google’s search-centric approach. While you can search for images on Baidu too, Baidu takes a much more curated, discovery-based approach to the home page.
Check out this screenshot:
Oh, also there are lots of pictures of pretty girls. No matter what you search for. Apparently that’s just a Baidu thing.
But also, there’s this “动漫” section now (indicated by the red arrow at the top). If you click on that, you get some kind of manga/anime directory at the top (I didn’t really look at this much):
But then if you keep scrolling down, you get an endless collection of Chinese comics! This is kind of cool. Here’s just a tiny selection:
But if you go to the 动漫 section of Baidu Images, you can scroll down forever. That’s a lot of comics!
I recently gave a talk to some Chinese teachers about IB and AP Chinese programs in the US. In my research for the talk, I did quite a bit of reminiscing about my own 4 years in the Hillsborough High School IB Program. I had all but forgotten about “CAS hours,” and I seriously can’t remember at all what my “Extended Essay” was on. But one thing I totally haven’t forgotten about was “Theory of Knowledge.” That class was seriously cool!
It’s also a nice talking point for Chinese teachers, who are always eager to hear about how western schools systems foster creativity and independent, critical thinking. Theory of Knowledge fits in nicely there.
But the truth is that Theory of Knowledge would be far too little, too late if that’s all our school systems did to try to encourage independent, critical thinking. And it’s not exactly “creative” either. Those aspects of our western educations begin far earlier, even before we start school.
I was reminded of this the other day when I tried to buy a coloring book for my daughter. I had only two criteria: (1) it had to have lots of nice pictures to color (no text), and (2) it had to be cheap. Criterion #2 was the easy one. I had no idea I was apparently asking for way too much with #1. Take a look at what I found in the book store I went to:
Do you see a trend? In each book, the child is shown exactly how to color the picture. There’s a right way and a wrong way. (Oh, and also, you generally can’t just color without having new vocabulary forced on you.) I checked every single coloring book candidate in the children’s book section, and they were all like this. Not a single one just had blank pictures without “models” to follow. (Those models, by the way, waste a lot of space and paper, which could be more pictures to color.)
As if that weren’t enough, take a closer look at this picture:
At the top, that reads:
> Coloring reminder: When coloring, be sure to use different colors for the different parts of the dragonfly’s body.
Why can’t a 3-to-4-year-old just color the dragonfly all one color? Well, because dragonflies are never a solid color in nature, of course!
What’s even more heartbreaking is what’s at the bottom of that same page:
> 学生姓名：__________ 家长评分：___________
> Student’s Name:__________ Parent’s Score:___________
That’s right. If you’re going to color a dragonfly, you have to put your name on it and claim responsibility for your crayon crimes, and then stand judgment for the objectively right or wrong colors you have committed to that paper.
I can imagine the harsh frowny faces the publishers would give a child that artistically attacked one of their pictures, American-style, and ended up with something like this:
To be fair, the kind of coloring book I was looking for does exist in China. In fact, I’ve bought one before at our local Carrefour supermarket. I was expecting higher quality and more variety at an actual book store, but instead, all I could find was this prescriptivist nonsense.
This is only a post about coloring books. I really wish this were the biggest problem with the Chinese educational system.
Today is Mid-Autumn Moon Festival in China, so here’s a little moon pun for you:
The first line is where the pun resides. It reads:
> 月圆月期待 [moon round moon looking forward (to it)]
This is pretty nonsensical because the character for moon, “月” has replaced the identical-sounding character 越. Most intmermediate learners will recognize this character as being part of the 越……越…… pattern.
So the meaning is:
> 越圆越期待 [The rounder it is, the more you look forward to it]
Still seems kind of nonsensical to me (in this context, anyway), but it’s just a lame pun for a billboard.
The brand an product is:
> 元祖雪月饼 [Ganso “Snow” Mooncakes]
Happy Mooncake Day!
It was in the summer of 2012 during a talk with all-star intern Parry that I first discovered that confidence-based learning was a thing. The concept had occurred to me before, but it really gelled when I saw this graph:
Confidence-based learning applies to any kind of learning, but I think it applies especially well to mastering the tones of Chinese. Let’s take a quick walk through the four quadrants of the graph above…
- Uninformed. So this is your typical beginner. You don’t know much, and you know that you don’t know much. It’s hard to say much of anything, and tones are only a part of the problem. Obviously, study and practice are needed.
- Misinformed. In this case, the learner has learned a lot of Chinese, but has either not had sufficient practice, or has gotten bad feedback, leading him to believe that his tones are much better than they actually are. Part of the problem may be Chinese speakers’ tendency to overpraise any ability to speak at all. If no corrective feedback is ever given, how will the learner know his tones are still in need of work? This is the “unjustified confidence” I’ve talked about before in my post Laowai Delusions of Fluency. It helps to stay humble, and honest feedback is essential.
Doubt. If you’ve learned to be humble, and worked hard at improving your tones, they may be pretty good. But you may still lack confidence. You may speak quietly, or try to rush through words you’re not 100% sure of the tones for. This is actually a pretty good place to be, because you have the knowledge, and you just need some extra practice and corrective feedback. You’re probably used to not getting any feedback, which results in the doubt.
Mastery. You may not be perfect, but you know you’re pretty good, and you can speak with confidence. You know your tones, and you can pronounce them correctly. This doesn’t happen in a short amount of time; it comes as a result of extended practice with good feedback.
You need to KNOW the Tones
A friend once asked me what the correct tones were for a certain word. I told her: “3-2” (or something like that).
She then looked at me and asked, “how can you just do that? How do you know the tones for so many words?”
“I memorized them,” I said.
This is not the answer she wanted; she hoped there was some trick or pattern she could learn. There is another option of course: to learn like a child. Children, immersed in the language environment don’t “memorize” tones per se; they hear them so many times that there’s only one “natural” answer. This isn’t realistic for most adult learners, though, who frequently have to go from dictionary lookup to written or spoken communication. You have to know the tones of the vocabulary you know, and then you have to be able to correctly pronounce those tones.
This knowledge of tones corresponds to the “knowledge” axis of the graph above.
You need to be able to PRODUCE the Tones
Confidence in tonal production comes from the knowledge that you can consistently and correctly pronounce the tones correctly. This starts with being able to produce the tones of single syllables correctly, and then later progress to being able to produce tone pairs correctly, and eventually extends to longer phrases and whole sentences. But you need to practice, and you need good feedback. You need to know when you’re right and when you’re wrong in order to progress and gain that confidence. (See also The Process of Learning Tones here on Sinosplice.)
The way that we build confidence in tonal production at AllSet Learning is through regular pronunciation practice with a teacher (almost every lesson, for about 10 minutes). This is important well into the intermediate level. We have developed our own exercises for this, which are available online as Pronunciation Packs.
At this point in history, I don’t recommend computer feedback to work an tonal production. Perhaps some tonal feedback is better than none, but human perception is a weird thing, and computers do “logical” things which seem extremely strange to humans sometimes. Right now, only humans can reliably tell us how good tones sound to humans. Maybe someday that will change.
So build up your knowledge of tones, and get some good practice with corrective feedback to build your confidence. Mastery awaits.
I’m really exited to announce that AllSet Learning now has its own Online Store. After releasing several new products on Apple and Amazon’s platforms in recent years, I’ve discovered that those channels can sometimes be more than a little “challenging.” But those platforms don’t support all of AllSet Learning’s ambitions. Some of the things I want to do won’t be realized even in the next few years, but others can be broken down into simpler units that people can use right now to improve their Chinese. AllSet Learning clients have been benefiting from some of these for years already. And those are what we’re putting in the new store first.
The title of this post is “Pronunciation Practice: the next Evolution” referring to Sinosplice’s own Tone Pair Drills. We actually used those with AllSet Learning clients in the very beginning, and they worked pretty well, but we wanted to keep improving on the concept. Over the years we tried some things that didn’t work so well, and others that worked great. Each client had different needs, so a modular approach made the most sense. We’ve organized the best of these different drills into “packs,” added professional-quality audio, and it’s with that material that we proudly launch our new store.
If the idea of pronunciation practice is boring to you, I can sympathize. As a student, I totally blew off my “mandatory” language lab sessions, and still got A’s in my Chinese classes. But I had to pay later when I arrived in China and people actually couldn’t even understand me. That was the real wakeup call: pronunciation matters. Besides the occasional reminder, AllSet Learning clients do a regular pronunciation practice over an extended period of time to achieve dramatic progress.
I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: pronunciation practice in Mandarin Chinese should be a regular part of any formal study, starting from day 1 and extending well into the intermediate level. Two weeks on pinyin at the start of a beginner course is far from sufficient, and it’s rare than an intermediate learner wouldn’t benefit from tone pair practice or other focused pronunciation exercises. So clearly, this is an aspect of Chinese study materials that could could stand a little expansion.
Thank you, Sinosplice readers, for the support you’ve given AllSet’s endeavors in the past. As a thank you for your readership, I’d like to offer this 20% discount voucher to Sinosplice readers (valid for 3 days):
Thanks for visiting the AllSet Learning Store and checking it out!
I couldn’t resist snapping this picture in Jing’an Park:
It’s been an unusually short/cool summer in Shanghai. I guess that makes it easier to fall asleep in public with utter abandon? (But then, Chinese people are typically pretty good at that…)
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!)
There are two things I say to these learners:
- 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?
- 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.
- 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?
Here are a few examples of what I’m talking about:
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.
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.)
(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.)
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.
(Yeah, I’m in the middle of a non-sensical conversation with my mom, but she’ll wait.
- 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!).
(Stop. I call it “pasgetti.” Now you just deal with that, and let’s move on.
- 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, “电” 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.
(Whoa, whoa… who said anything about making sense? I’m just talking here. Come on, keep up, buddy.
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 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 十, 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):
– 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’.