I’m now five weeks into the Teaching Chinese as a Second Language MA program at NTNU in Taipei. This post is mostly about my own language learning, but will not follow the stricter style of the previous proficiency reports (scroll down). Since I left Taiwan last time in 2010, my goal has been to learn Chinese to a level where I can survive a master’s degree about Chinese taught in Chinese. Since this is exactly what I’m doing at the moment, even though I might not be in a position to say anything with certainty, I can still comment on the current situation and my progress towards that goal. In short, is my Chinese good enough?
The academic setting
The short answer is “yes”. I can read most textbooks we have without using a dictionary and I can follow along lectures without too much trouble. It requires some effort to produce formally correct Chinese and I still need help with that, but I very seldom encounter situations where I can’t express what I want. I feel confident enough to speak up in class, ask questions and discuss. This was quite nervous at first, considering that two thirds of of the class consists of native speakers.
Written Chinese is as yet an unknown area since I haven’t handed in any written reports yet. However, I’m confident that this will not be a big problem considering that my reading and writing has always been stronger than my listening and speaking. I will need help, I will need corrections and I will need lots of time to think, draft and revise, but I’m sure I can produce acceptable, formal Chinese. Writing a complete master thesis is another matter, but I still have at least a year before I need to start thinking about that and I have lots of opportunities to learn before then.
The social setting
Speaking has stopped being a problem entirely, at least subjectively and in comparison with other areas. I can talk with someone for hours without feeling tired or without stumbling too much. Sure, I might not get all collocations right and I still make other types of mistakes now and then, but I’m usually able to correct myself. This is what spoken Chinese has felt like for some time now, so that’s not what I’m going to talk about.
Instead, I’m going to talk about context. I’ve known for a long time that context is important in Chinese, but it has only recently dawned on me how immensely important context is for understanding spoken Chinese. At first, I thought my experience might just be due to the fact that I was less familiar with Chinese than Swedish, English or French, but I’m now convinced that this is not the case. Understanding spoken Chinese is extremely dependent on context because of the vast number of homonyms or near-homonyms (words that are pronounced the same way or almost the same way).
The dreaded one-line question
This has lead to some serious frustration recently. Let me give you an example. As I said above, I can listen to a three-hour lecture about Chinese phonetics and understand 100% of what’s being said (although I might not know all individual words, I can extrapolate what I miss). However, when a friend asks me if we have midnight sun in Sweden, for instance, I sometimes need to hear it twice before I understand.
The problem isn’t that I don’t know these words. I do. I have known them for many years. It’s not a question of vocabulary. Instead, it’s the complete lack of context. Perhaps we’re having dinner with a few other people and people are talking about some other topic when someone suddenly thinks about something else they’d like to ask me. If it’s a short question and there is no context, I often fail to understand the first time. This almost never happens in English or even French (I should point out that in general, my Chinese is much better than my French). Also, as soon as I know the topic, I have no problem understanding much more complex sentences about that or related topics. Also, I would consider these questions trivial if put in writing.
A difference between languages
Someone (can’t remember who) made an excellent point illustrating this dependence on context. If you walk up to someone in an English-speaking country and, without warning, say the name of a technical term or chemical substance, the person is very likely to hear what you say, provided he knows what the word means in the first place. This isn’t necessarily true in Chinese, not even for native speakers, provided that the word is a fairly short compound. Again, this is because Chinese has very few syllables compared to English. I have no actual proof for that this causes the language to be more context-based, but it seems the natural conclusion to draw and also matches experience. As far as I know, there have been no scientific experiments conducted on no-context utterances, but let me know if you know of any.
Naturally, this doesn’t meant that native speakers can’t handle the basic communication situations I described above. The reason I fail to understand sometimes is partly due to external factors (noise, music, distance), but it’s also because of a lack of listening speed. In short, I don’t associate sounds with words quickly enough (see this article on Hacking Chinese for more about this). This might seem odd considering that I have heard many of these words hundreds, perhaps even thousands of times and can use them fluently in my sleep, but I still think it is the reason I don’t understand what’s being said. There is a significant difference between “very fast” and “native” in this case.
I’m not complaining, but I do feel frustrated sometimes
Unfortunately, this means that there isn’t much I can do apart from listening to more Chinese, which seems to be the remedy for most language problems I have. Still, this is okay, because all things considered, this is a very minor problem. I can still communicate without too much trouble with most people I meet. I can read and understand textbooks about linguistics, phonetics and teaching methods with some degree of confidence. I can talk about these topics and I can understand when others discuss them. I don’t complain, but I do feel frustrated sometimes.
Perhaps it’s partially a matter of pride. Not understanding a very basic question will lead people to believe that I can’t speak Chinese or at least can’t speak it very well. Considering that I’ve spent some serious time learning to speak Chinese and consider the endeavour to be a success on the whole, this feels a bit bad. However, it’s also just a matter of frustration arising from the fact that I know that this problem raises a barrier between me and some native speakers. Of course, people who know me know that they can mostly treat me as a native speaker in dialogue about a specific topic, but realising that takes much longer if basic communication sometimes fails.
In short, this will lead people to underestimate my language ability, which is about more than just hurt pride since it does influence interaction with these people.