Sunday, October 25, 2009

Chinese Conversation Practice part 1


A brief respite from my Heisig related posts (although more to follow). For many language learners there comes a time when they want to practice conversation. If you don't have the benefit of Chinese speaking relatives etc. then this is not always easy to arrange even (apparently) if you are living in a Chinese speaking country. Even supposing you have a Chinese relative or friend or two then there is much benefit to be gained from practicing casual conversation with strangers, you can repeat subject matter and practice different ways of saying something or the different ways that someone may reply in the twists and turns of real conversation.

I am a computer programmer, casual conversation doesn't always come easily in any language ;) however I am happy to have discovered that in the UK there are plenty of Chinese speakers around and plenty of ways to get conversation practice if you need to. This post is just a quick introduction with on very specific example, I hope to follow up with a few more specifics and examples in further posts.

When to have conversations

There is some debate about when to try to start having conversations in your target language, I never attended classes so I try when I feel I want to, I think that is important. Some say that attempting to talk too early causes damage, I don't think so, so long as you are aware of what you are doing and treat what you say as unfixed experimentation (assume that the story is not over and at some stage you will have different/better ways to express the same thing).

Watching an expert in action

A long time ago when the first Asus netbooks came out I was in an electrical shop looking and playing with the display model. A guy in his 30's with an Eastern European accent came up beside me and started talking to me about it, we had an approximately five minute computer related conversation and then went our separate ways. I had a number of things to do in the same area of town and returned to the shop a little later, the same guy had engaged someone else in a conversation about the netbook, I was curious and returned a little later to see the same again, in fact my curiosity was roused even more and I returned a couple of more times in the next hour to see him engaged in conversation with three more people, I overheard a little of some and it seemed he was going over similar territory each time.

I am pretty sure this guy was practicing his computer related conversation, that little Linux netbook was a perfect focus as it was likely to attract people having a least some interest in computing. Even if he wasn't practicing English it is the type of thing I may have done.

One example of many

I think many aspects of getting a conversation in your target language have a lot in common with the advice for how to get into fruitful conversations with members of the opposite sex, in some circumstances the paths may converge, I am happily married however.

One particular technique I like at the moment is a variation on the classic "asking something you already know" method. There is an ancient Chinese character jiong 囧 that has gained new life in comments etc. on social networks because of its resemblance to a human face that can express embarrassment, surprised resignation etc. there is a nice article at the site (nice site with audio although it would be better if a faster version was included). When an opportunity arises (cafe, laundrette, tube train, whatever). I simply sketch the character and ask nicely if the person could explain the characters meaning for me (maybe adding that I guess it represents a face maybe not). I have used this five times so far and always got a great little conversation out of it, this particular approach ticks a lot of boxes.

  • If you approach it correctly it is hard for the Chinese person to be dismissive, it should result in at least a brief conversation.
  • Many Chinese find your choice of character amusing or interesting.
  • There is enough ambiguity about its use that if you ask a group of two or more the conversation can get interesting.
  • This question is level neutral, it gives nothing away about your Chinese level and could easily be asked by a very advanced learner (even some youngish Chinese don't know about it. In fact I am usually told it is a new character rather than an old one that has been reused (although as one Chinese guy pointed out to his friend after a little thought "then how do we type it?")

That is one of many ways I have, do you have any? More to follow on this subject in later posts. Of course the most important thing is to be open open and friendly, a smile works wonders, and as I am sure many have discovered Chinese health shops are usually better than restaurants for practice.


Keith said...

Hey Chris. This was a very interesting article. I enjoyed it very much.

Greg said...

Chris, great article. It got me thinking about my attempts at starting conversations - and here are some of the things I do.

1. When I go into a Chinese restaurant, they ask 'how many', and I reply, "Liang wei" - holding up two fingers. So then they know I speak a little Chinese, and sometimes it begins from there.

2. Similarly, I try say as much in Chinese as I can in Chinese restaurants, in the hope that they will engage me in basic chat. Simple stuff is usually enough to get it going ... xie xie, yi ping pi jiu, bu yao, hen hao chi, etc.

3. As I mentioned in my one post, a massage with a Chinese person has their undivided attention for 30-60 minutes.

4. I keep promising myself I'll use this again - only used it once so far. I prepared a question, and then spoke to a Chinese person at a train station, saying "Are you Chinese? I'm trying to learn Mandarin - can I ask you a quick question?" Then I asked my question, which was to do with the difference between 'ke yi' and 'ke neng'. I guess question choice is irrelevant, and you could use the same one repeatedly, as long as it gives you the chance to turn it into a basic conversation.

Thanks again for a great article.

Chris said...

@Keith glad you enjoyed it :)
@Greg yes, nothing wrong in asking the same question again and again imho. that is the beauty of passing strangers, also health shops are excellent, resources most chains require the assistants to be fluent in Mandarin as the Doctors from the Chinese mainland often have poor English, I will be writing more about these in my next article.

If you catch them at a non-busy period you can sometimes pay £5 to £8 for a neck/shoulder massage and then stay a lot longer chatting (particularly if the assistant/s have English questions they will happily trade for your Chinese queries).

Resturants can be good but you can find staff who are happier talking Cantonese, Malaysian Chinese though are usually awesome they can often speak five or more languages and in my experience make excellent conversation partners (they seem to be better at understanding foreigners speaking Chinese possibly because they are more used to funky accents).

Greg said...

Agreed - and my standard phrase at Cantonese-speaking places has become "Ni hui shuo putonghua ma?". Even if their Mandarin isn't good - it's probably better than mine. Plenty of scope to chat!