There’s a scene in the great 1980s baseball film Major League (I realize that the majority of you readers are unlikely to be baseball fans, but bear with me) in which Pedro Cerrano, a newly acquired slugger, takes batting practice in spring training. At first, he hits each pitch way out of the ballpark for home runs. When the coach then suggests the batting practice pitcher throw curveballs rather than fastballs, Pedro no longer can hit a single pitch.
In this way, this scene describes the relationship quite a few foreigners in China have with their Chinese. With fastballs– i.e. topics with which the foreigner is familiar and comfortable- many of us speak with the fluency of a native. With curveballs– topics we don’t know much about– we have trouble communicating at all.
Many foreigners quite naturally go for long stretches without attempting to tackle these unfamiliar subjects, the curveballs in our analogy. I myself am guilty of this. Some days, the only Chinese I speak is to a taxi driver, waitress, and barmaid. Naturally, I’ve become so accustomed to these interactions that I have no problem communicating.
Over time, as these situations crowd out others, one naturally believes that his Chinese is quite fluent. However, these aren’t the situations that test one’s fluency. In baseball, being able to hit a curveball is an essential ingredient for success at the higher levels. In Chinese, being able to handle unfamiliar topics with linguistic aplomb is likewise crucial.
The only way I’ve found is to choose a topic, look up some key words, and dive in with a language partner. A good Chinese teacher will not only refine your vocabulary on a particular subject, but also help with issues like grammar and usage.
Over time, fewer and fewer situations will seem unfamiliar as the comfort zones expand. And hey- who knows? Maybe one day every pitch will be a fastball.