Understanding Chinese, easier from locals or expats?

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?