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.

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About Matt

Matt spent six years in China, mainly based in the beautiful spring city of Kunming. During that time he worked in consulting, journalism as well as English teaching. Matt studied Chinese for 2+ years and loved exploring the mountains of Yunnan by mountain bike). He now lives in New York City where he is pursuing a Masters in International Affairs at Columbia University.

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  1. I agree with you 100 percent. This is something that many people who don’t do languages have a tough time explaining: it can be very difficult to say you’re fluent in a language when sure, you can hit the fastballs, but can’t hit the curveballs. I have the same problem with Chinese – when I am trying to deal with a curveball, I can’t rely on the chance of there being cognates like I can in Spanish.

    I appreciate the reminder and encouragement to jump into the tough subjects and face them head-on, rather than avoid them like the plague.

  2. Congratulations, Matt, you finally persuaded me there might be something useful about baseball.

    You have a very good point, but I would say making friends and family with people who at least prefer not to speak English is key. That way just hanging out with friends and family means constant curveballs. A job requiring the use of Chinese on a day-to-day basis is also very useful in that respect.

  3. An excellent metaphor Matt — and there are most definitely baseball fans around here!

    Having travelled around the country this summer with my friend who speaks no Chinese, I could constantly impress him by the conversations I’d have with taxi drivers and waitresses. My modesty (and guilt for misleading him) often had me confessing that had they brought up a topic even remotely outside my comfort zone I would have crashed and burned.

    I think the most difficult thing is finding a focused set of language and then a situation where you can use it. A language partner is good if you have one, but those comfort zone conversations are such for the simple fact that they are part of most people’s every day routine and so it’s difficult to work in random topics into that routine.

    The only way I’ve found to blend these is by picking topics a taxi driver or waitress might be interested in, but wouldn’t normally bring up in small talk with a foreigner. Things like development, road conditions, pop music, history (yet to meet a taxi driver that doesn’t like talking about history).

    I think when you can fuse your routine conversation partners with non-routine, but still relevant language, it can help expedite the process of branching out of your comfort zone.

  4. I should make a serious comment, though fans of the movie should appreciate the last comment. I’ve definitely measured my success in Chinese to how I handle these ‘curveballs’. The more I can turn to straight ones the higher ability I feel have.

    The most difficult curveball “pitchers” can come from places like Jiangxi province (and I hear Shandong, but I don’t know personally)…when even the easy questions sound nothing like they do everywhere else, then you’re trying to hit against the likes of Koufax and Ryan.

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