Understanding Chinese, easier from locals or expats?

16 Comments
Distractions

请讲普通话 - Please Speak MandarinIn a recent post, the Atlantic’s James Fallows talks about a song and video by a group of Harvard Chinese language students. The song, “Hāfó/Harvard Welcomes You! 哈佛歡迎你!”, has the American students singing in Chinese, praising their studies and teachers in Chinese Bb – Elementary Modern Chinese.

Fallows draws a good comparison between the style of song and 北京欢迎你, the song that super-saturated every inch of China in 2008 (on youku/youtube). Here’s the song, judge for yourself:


Sorry, only Youtube version available — note to 中文Bb students, upload it to Youku if you want people in China to see it.

Fallows brings up a good point, that I’ve long realized but never really considered (and that he doesn’t seem to fully believe himself): It’s easier to understand foreigners speaking Chinese (even somewhat poorly) than it is to understand most Chinese doing the same.

When thinking about the incredible range of English that is spoken around the world, I have often wondered how, say, an immigrant from Russia could comprehend the English spoken by someone from Haiti — or from Chile or France or Japan etc. I have assumed that comprehension is easier if one of the parties is a native English speaker, than if everyone is working in a second language. (Ie, that I could communicate more effectively in English with a native speaker of, say, Korean — than if that Korean were trying to talk in English with a native speaker of Portuguese.)

But maybe that’s not right. I’m reminded by the Hafo clip that it is so much easier for me to understand Chinese when a foreigner is speaking it than when it is coming out of the mouth of a native Chinese speaker. (And, yes, it helps in this video that the kids are native English speakers, and they’re singing – slowly, and the vocabulary is fairly basic, and there are subtitles in Chinese characters which removes ambiguity about homophones etc.) So maybe my working hypothesis about English is wrong too, and two non-native speakers might have an easier time chatting than I would with either of them.

I agree with Fallows, it doesn’t seem right, but does seem to be true. I’m sure this will raise a few backs from those ardent learners who feel the best only way to learn is by complete submersion into the murky depths of rural Heilongjiang. And they’re probably right to an extent; but I think some credit needs to be given, and thus encouraged, for Chinese language practice not just outside of our learning circle, but inside it as well.

I’ve always felt a bit self-conscious speaking Chinese around other foreigners. “How’s your Chinese?” is trumped only by “How long have you been here?” in laowai-on-laowai first contact questions. If your Chinese is better than theirs, you look like a braggart when using it; if your Chinese is worst (particularly if you’ve been here longer), you look like a inept slacker.

But when I hear foreigners speaking Chinese, I rarely need clarification on what they’re saying. Like Fallows says, this is likely due to a limited and overly-pronounced vocabulary, but it’s a huge boost for my listening confidence and I find it quite encouraging.

The other big difference is that with few exceptions, most of us are speaking putong hua while the vast majority of the country isn’t. Having spent most of my time in China living in Suzhou, putong hua was rarely heard on the street. Fortunately, the city is rich and well-educated and so its residence usually have no problem switching to standard mandarin when dealing with outsiders like myself or my 东北人 wife.

We moved down to Hainan about two months ago and are having a much harder time with things. The local dialect is awesome. It’s what you would get if you served putong hua in sticky fruit juice on a hot day. It suits the locale well, and reminds me a lot of other SE Asian languages. However, it’s impossible to understand much of it — even for a native Chinese speaker like my wife. The problem is compounded by the fact that standard mandarin seems to never have found the ferry across the Qiongzhou Strait, and so conversing with anyone in the service industry or with taxi drivers is a real challenge.

Fortunately there’s no shortage of affluent Mainlanders to commiserate in Chinese with. And expats.

Which is why I think Fallows’ point is valid, speaking with other language learners assures everyone is speaking not just the same language, but the same dialect. And while I can’t say if this carries over to all learners of other languages, I do know it somewhat applies to my wife and her English language acquisition. She has a much easier time understanding other Chinese speaking English than she does listening to FOBs from Australia or the UK doing so.

As always, I’m curious what you think. Do you find it easier to communicate with other laowai when speaking Chinese? Or do you cringe listening to their misshapen and monochromatic tones? How do you handle the diversity of dialects in China when learning Chinese?

Talk on Understanding Chinese, easier from locals or expats?


16 Comments
  1. Interesting post Ryan. I’ve actually found foreigners are often better at understanding mangled Chinese too — especially mangled Chinese by non-natives — in situations where some natives just throw up their hands.

    I wonder if it has something to do with coming from a non-tonal language.

    • Profile photo of

      I would guess that’s exactly what it is. Also, I think language learners have a much more honed ability for inference. There have been several times when a local here in Haikou says something to my wife and seeing the blank stare on her face I’ve had to translate. I have terrible Chinese, but what I do know I have practiced listening for a thousand different ways.

    • Right. Because we’re GUESSING (to some extent) all day long! We get really good at guessing, based on the context, what’s going on.

      On the weekend, I went out with some friends, and one of the girls kept going back and forth speaking to me in English/Chinese, and talking to her friend in Shanghainese. It didn’t occur to me to ‘not listen’ since we were all in Conversation together. The girl was slightly caught off guard that I was following along, and when she told me they’d been speaking in Shanghainese (“how did you understand??”) I figured any difference in accent/dialect was overcome by my constant feeling of helplessness, and thus I was trying to make out what they were saying based on body language and precending/following sentences, etc (like a puzzle). This ‘guessing’ skill has been something I employed frequently ever since I started studying aggressively Chinese in college (my prof used to drown us in superfast mandarin, and insist, “You’re not supposed to get it all…As long as you understand 80% you can guess the rest”)

  2. As a speaker of fluent Japanese, English, and to some extent Mandarin, I have encountered this argument before but still find it extremely hard to believe or accept. Two native speakers of the same language, speaking in Mandarin? Perhaps, for reasons we will discuss later. But one from Brazil and the other from Uzbekistan? Nuh-uh, not unless they were both taught in the same language.

    Example: an English friend has previously found himself sitting between two small groups of Korean and Russian businessmen. They couldn’t understand one another due to the thick accents, so my friend was left ‘translating’ from one thickly accented form of English to another.

    If you remove the standard – or otherwise – accent, it seems rather unlikely that the Chinese of a non-native speaker is ‘easier’ to understand. Native speakers are likely to use a greater variety of words and expressions unique to the Chinese language. If they grew up speaking a dialect, they may well have a thick accent which coats every word of Mandarin coming out of their mouths. They are also less likely to take the listener’s degree of proficiency into account when speaking.

    In other words, IF you believe a white guy speaking Mandarin as if in slow-motion, with enough intonation for a dog to get the message, and with the vocabulary of a kindergarten child is easier to understand than a native speaker, then yes, you’re probably right. Otherwise? I’m somewhat sceptical.

    If you have ever spoken Japanese with more than one Chinese person, however, you will note that they all have disturbingly similar accents. Generally speaking, they also make the same mistakes with certain words or expressions. Why? Because they have been taught in, and thus are coming from their mother language, Mandarin. (Lets leave dialects alone for the time being.) Grammar, vocabulary, sentence structure. The same applies to Japanese speaking Chinese, although their pronunciation and intonation tends to be a little more freestyle.

    Previously, I have been told by a non-native friend that my Japanese was easier to understand than that of the Japanese locals? Why? I can think of several reasons:
    1) He speaks fluent English, and as a native speaker myself, I have a tendency to shift towards grammatical constructions an expressions similar or identical to those found in the English language.
    2) Living in Tokyo and having formally studied Japanese as a foreign language, he inevitably spends more time practising Japanese with non-native speakers, such as myself. Remember that time in class where the teacher made you practice with the person sitting next to you?
    3) We are more likely to know and/or choose the same words or expressions in the same situation, given our relatively limited vocabularies.

    Conclusion? Is it easier to understand? Yes. But for all the wrong reasons. It’s not because he isn’t a native speaker, so much as because he speaks MY language, we’ve both studied Japanese using English and we’ve followed the same learning process working from the ground up.

  3. I wrote about this exact phenomenon about a month or so ago. I recommend the post (check the comments too):
    http://confusedlaowai.com/2011/03/the-most-spontaneous-chinese-ive-spoken-was-to-a-laowai/

    What it basically boils down to is, expectation + limited linguistic skills. These combine to form a easier target. Almost as if speaking to yourself in a way. However strange that may sound, haha.

    But yes, this is definitely a phenomenon, but I’m not sure if it’s entirely positive or not. That I’m still thinking about.

  4. I agree. I always feel much more comfortable speaking chinese around the foreign students the I do local people. (At my school the foreign students I spend time with are Japanese, Mongolian, and Indonesian.) They can understand me better, and I feel less nervous around them (because they are learning too.)

    And yeah, like someone else said, the tones also help. They can totally understand me even if I mangle my tones and say “I had some great go to sleep at a restaurant last night” and they know that I meant to say “dumplings” but a Chinese person would just stare at me unable to understand.

  5. I used to study in Germany and I would say that holds true for the German language too. Foreign students understand other foreign students much better.

  6. Interestingly enough, after reading this article we had another foreign guy come into our company today as a consultant. His Chinese was quite good in terms of vocab but tones and accent were a bit dodgy. I could understand him fine, but my (Chinese) colleagues complained they often couldn’t. I think this is to do with whether or not ones ear is attuned to hearing messed up tones. I’m guessing for most Chinese people who do not often hear foreigners speak Chinese, their brain can only process one set of tones and intonation for a certain phrase. Any variation to that and they are thrown and need it repeated. I also wonder if shared context plays a part. When with other foreign students talking about the great “delicious pork and chive sleeps” in the restaurant, you all know the context.

  7. I agree with parts of the above comments. I find that Mandarin, when spoken by a native English speaker, is easier for me to understand, but that the Mandarin spoken by a native speaker of any other language tends to leave me confused. Having spoken to a number of people about their language skills, it seems that most people continue to process thoughts in their native language, and then try and phrase them in the second (in this case Mandarin). I have been told that this is a common thing, and a hard habit to break even for advanced learners. If it is true that most intermediate and elementary speakers process their thoughts in the native language, then I would not be surprised to find that native speakers of a certain language, as a group, have trends that form in the mistakes that they make when speaking.

    In terms of whether it is helpful to practice speaking with non-native Mandarin speakers, I would ultimately say no-Regional dialects can be killer, but I would prefer one of these to spending too much time around a foreign accent.

  8. Interesting post. And I somewhat agree, although, and as said by others, it’s hard to accept. In my opinion there are a few things making “Chinese Chinese” harder to understand than “foreign Chinese”. Some of them have been mentioned above. There are the matter of dialect and regional accent, and the almost universal “standard” putong hua Chinese we foreigners learn, no matter where on the planet.
    But I think two very important factors are adding complexity to native speakers Chinese:
    First, the real playfulness of spoken Chinese, where You often can break up two-syllable words or compounds and put “stuff” in the middle, one of the most simple examples would be: 打不开.
    In general, I think, the Chinese grammar is kind of open towards various and creative sentence building, and any sentence can be put various ways while meaning the same.
    Another important aspect is 口语. This is very hard to learn, and almost impossible for people who do not actively engage in discussions and different aspects of life IN China. I had to learn a whole new language i felt, when i first came to China with my nice and neat University-taught Mandarin.
    There are so many changing meanings, nuances, new words and 说法s, its a long way to actually speak “street Chinese” (bad name, I know).

    I wonder, is there no linguist that has looked into this interesting question??

  9. You’re not far off, remember, being ‘perfect’ is NOT the point… the point is to sound natural. How’s your English? I’m sure it was excellent by the time you were 2-3 years old, but you don’t talk like that now, do you? Of course not. Now you use figurative language, cultural references, simile and metaphor, constantly. And slang.

    It’s one thing to sound clear, its another thing to have achieved a high level of fluency whereby native speakers can just relax and be themselves around you. Obviously, studying Chinese in Harvard is a waste of time, because there’s no immersion. You’d be better off spending three months in Shenzhen (or Harbin).

    The point is, yes you’re right, but what makes ‘locals’ sound so unclear is likely that they’re beyond the point of literal communication and now into references/simile/metaphor. Obviously the Taxi driver is a bad example (if you can’t understand his ‘weird’ accent, that’s a dialect problem).. Next time you’re on the subway, try eavesdropping on some locals. You should be able to understand most of what they’re saying, but where are the gaps? I imagine there are local slang and bizarre references that you’re just not privy to. Just like a Chinese Student trying to eavesdrop on you speaking English. In other words, you could speak ‘clearly’ in English, but why the hell would you want to? Your friends would smack you upside the head if you started talking like Spock.

  10. I agree with a lot of the above comments. I think it has a lot to do with coming from the same language background, and so being prone to a lot of the same mistakes, like using English grammar in a Chinese sentence, or only knowing the meaning of one or two basic words that share the same pinyin (but different tones, like the 睡觉/水饺 problem mentioned above, whereas a native speaker might have a ton more vocab to mentally strip of wrong or nonexistent tones and run through in her head (which is not a process she normally has to do when speaking with another native speaker).

    I had an instance in one of the English classes I teach the other day where a student kept repeating “FIFteen” (with a very strong stress on the first syllable). I was totally thrown and had to get the guy to write it down for me because I had no idea if he was trying to say 15 or 50. Every other student in my class though? They knew what he meant. Stress wasn’t so important to them (like tones don’t seem so important to us) and so it was obvious – to them – what he was trying to say.

  11. Hi, guys. First, just to clarify, I am a Chinese but now considered as Laowai here because I am now living in Europe. I find the argument in the post highly controversial in the sense that if Europe can manage to keep such an extent of diversity in its language, why China, a country of more or less the same size, not? Just because we have only one sovereign? In another instance, people have already acknowledged the fact that in India, there are more than forty different dialects that one could not count on by only learning Hindi you can communicate with the rest of the country. Is there any difference?
    In fact, the authority in Beijing has for long attempted to reduce the diversity of the Chinese language into one. As a native speaker from the South, we have argued in every possibility for our right to speak our own language (even though the written language is the same in Chinese, the verbal languages vary a lot in different parts of the country and even have their independent vocabulary.)
    The title of the post raises a quite interesting perspective, which I have been working on for quite some time. How do one comprehend the situation is highly dependent on the position one takes. The glo-cal problem is not a new problem but has become a major topic in the contemporary cultural domain.

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