Thursday, January 17, 2008

Reasons for not understanding Chinese

When you think you are making progress in a language it can be a little depressing when you come across some that you don't understand and feel that you should have. Actually I have observed and worked out a number of valid reasons not to feel so bad. So next time don't beat yourself up.

You can't hear it properly

This one is two fold: firstly when eavesdropping on passersbys it is very difficult to catch what they are saying, even in your mother tongue (try it), particularly if the ambient noise level is high. The second reason can be when you are watching TV or a film that is intended for English speakers. The director may have included some Chinese talking but expects you to get the meaning from context or convenient subs. therefore the sound man doesn't actually go to the trouble of making sure the voices are clear. You may feel disappointed you missed some basic stuff but replay it and you discover the sound quality of the conversation is so poor you didn't have much of a chance anyway.

You are hearing something out of context

Even if you are good, you are going to struggle with out of context snippets, as above this can even cause confusion in your mother tongue.

They are speaking another dialect

Perhaps even another language. Particularly with Chinese, remember that what you may be hearing is a dialect they are more at home speaking in. Dialects close to Mandarin can be a particular problem, they sound familiar somehow but you don't quite get it. You would need some heavy exposure to get used to it. Having said that I think is is good to listen to target language enough to at least determine whether what you are listening to is in the right ballpark.

They don't want you to understand

Yup it happens don't take it personally, for whatever reason (maybe testing you, maybe suspicion etc.), they are actively trying to mess you up with funky language and or speaking very fast.

They don't speak very well themselves

This happens too, they told you they spoke Mandarin (perhaps didn't expect you to know much) and actually their Mandarin isn't so good, making it harder for you to understand

You weren't actually ready for it

Your are a learner, your window of opportunity suddenly appeared and you missed it, sometimes you may catch it, there are times you will be tired, focused on something else and your second language skills will be comparitively poor.

The language is highly specialised

This will happen a lot, you just haven't any experiance of the vocabulary and context being used, or the film is a specialised genre etc. etc. Think of your own language, which is easier for a foreigner do you think, a standard chat-show or a "gangsta" movie.

Of course you may just need to practice more ;) but even you are feeling bad about an experiance then don't, there is always another opportunity. Don't get me wrong this is not setting myself up for failure just providing reasons to remain confident. I am sure there are many more, do you have some you can share?


Keith said...

About not hearing properly:
Before I came to Japan, I watched TV with closed-captioning ON for about 9 years I guess. Never a problem "hearing," right.

Then, in Japan, there were some episodes of "Friends" on. But there is no closed-captioning here. I couldn't believe how much I was missing. Suddenly I became sub-native in English. I couldn't catch every word. It was very irritating.

My conclusion is that my brain's ability to fill in for the missing words that I couldn't catch had diminished.

Basically, I think, if the sound does not reach your ears properly, your brain knows what is missing.

Of course, in a foreign language, you have not reached that level yet, but we think something is wrong with us. People who can hear well in a foreign language have spent a lot of time listening to it. Most likely, TV.

peter said...

enjoyed your blog...learning chinese takes a lot of practice..after all, language learning is a social process

check this out and let me know your thoughts...learn chinese the social way

best of luck


Susan said...

When in Rome, why not let the Romans teach you?

In Huangshan (黄山) southern Anhui province in Eastern China, Fu Shou-Bing logs on to the computer in the public library near his village. Since discovering (, the retired High School Chemistry teacher has been logging on almost every day to the English-Chinese teaching website. Sometimes he cycles the 25 miles home, cooks himself a simple lunch of rice and stir-fried vegetables with salted fish, often returning once again to the library and his new hobby in the evening. boasts an educational website that teaches members conversational English or Chinese (no "this is an apple" stuff here) via video clips contributed by other members. After a vetting and often transcribing process by language tutors commissioned by the site, the clips are available free of charge in YouTube fashion. The twist? Members film each other in everyday activities, hoping other members will learn not just their native tongue, but also cultural innuendos lost in textbooks and more conventional means of language learning.

"One member filmed himself cooking in his kitchen. We got a few emails asking what condiments he used," says a bemused Warwick Hau, one of the site's more public faces. One emailer even wanted to know if she could achieve the same Chinese stir-fry using ingredients from her regular CR Vanguard (华润超级) supermarket. "We often forget our every day activities may not be as mundane to people on the other side of the world," Hau adds. Another such clip is "loaches" - a Chinese mother of 3 filmed her children and their friends playing with a bucket of loaches - slippery eel-like fish the children were picking up and gently squeezing between their fingers.

Lately the members have also begun to make cross-border friends and contacts. The ECpal function works much the same way sites like and work - members can invite each other to view their clips and make friends. And it has its fair share of juvenile humor as well. “Farting Competition” features two teenagers and graphic sound effects. Within several days, the clip was one of the most popular videos that week, likely due to mass-forwarding by the participants’ schoolmates.

For other members keen to learn more than the fact juvenile humor is similar everywhere, there are many home videos featuring unlikely little nuggets of wisdom. “The last thing I learned from the site is why you never find green caps for sale in China”, says Adam Schiedler one of the English language contributors to the site. Green caps signify cuckolded husbands, particularly shameful in China as they are a huge loss of face. Adam vows not to buy any green headgear for his newfound friends.

The subject matter of the videos often speaks volumes about its contributors. Members choose their own content and film the clip wherever they please, some of their efforts drawing attention to rural surroundings and the quaint insides of little homes otherwise not seen unless you backpack your way thru the tiny dirt roads and villages along the Chinese countryside.

Idyllic countrysides and cooking lessons aside however, ECpod marries the latest video sharing technology with the old school way of teaching a language - from the native speakers on the street. It's a modern, more convenient alternative to spending 6 months in China. And why not let the Chinese teach you?


Attila_The_Pun said...

If you get the chance, please check out . Hopefully we will soon have mp3s of native speakers available~