Living with Chinese as a Second Language

Having lived with Chinese Mandarin for over 15 years, with most of that time spent residing in Taiwan, it is sometimes hard to remember what life was like without it. Perhaps a bit simpler, maybe less varied, definitely not as culturally challenging.

By Stuart Hill

Mandarin Chinese

“Chinese” the language of China comes in several forms, with Mandarin being spoken in Taiwan.

The migrant experience is certainly not a new one in global terms, but in countries like Taiwan, where very few people choose (or qualify) to migrate to, the sight of a foreigner speaking one of the local languages can still generate its share of curiosity.

It’s not uncommon to see a foreign spouse on TV who speaks great Taiwanese, or a sincere foreign student complaining in broken Mandarin about some incident, or even an old China hand spreading their politico-economic theory replying to an interview question with a Chinese proverb tainted with a heavy Beijing drawl. Yet in daily life it still seems pretty rare to find a non-native Chinese speaker carrying on a conversation. Let alone two!

How Come You Speak Chinese So Well

One of the most over-used compliments in the Chinese lexicon of nice things to say to non-native speakers: How Come You Speak Chinese So Well? Good advice is to not believe it, and dismiss it with a self-deprecating and equally nauseating put down of yourself.

On a more personal scale, my experience using Chinese with Taiwan locals has run the gamut of insults and praise. Loudly pronounced Mandarin exaggerated with a strangely American accent. Am I deaf? Or just a blank stare: “You talking to me?” written on the other person’s face. Am I mute? Or annoyingly over-polite: “Your Chinese is fantastic”. Am I just plain dumb?

No, my Chinese is not fantastic, but yes it is better than most foreigners I know. That said, as we are taught to say in Chinese class, “it still has a long way to go”; and this describes my situation pretty accurately.

When growing up in Australia I had lots of opportunity meeting first generation migrants, mainly the parents of my school friends, as well as shop owners, taxi drivers, or people working in trades, those that couldn’t speak English as fluently as someone many years their junior.

You Don't Understand What I Am Saying

Though it does feel like a criticism, You Don’t Understand What I Am Saying is typically more of a statement of the obvious. The short form You Don’t Understand can feel even more like a slap in the face.

Today I can relate to this situation completely, having been reduced to using gestures and speaking Chinese baby talk for a year or so, eventually graduating to 5th class Chinese, then perhaps barely breaking above junior high school level. And for the last part, I never even mastered the slang that would get me in with the cool school crowd.  If you want to throw reading skills into this mix, I can barely be called “functionally literate” which, as in most cultures, guarantees total exclusion from all kinds of understanding, relationships, and opportunities.

Luckily, I have a reasonable grasp of the basics of adult conversation for what is required in the office (at least for my job) and down at the bus stop, or ordering food in a restaurant. I can kind of keep things going during a catch up with friends over coffee, or discussing something in the news that day. Maybe my friends are humoring me, but they seem to get what I want to say (most of the time). At least they smile and nod at all the right moments.

Can you speak Chinese?

One of the most asked questions in Taiwan: Can You Speak Chinese? But there are several ways for this question to be asked, the above is just one.

And yet, even after all this time, there are constant reminders of never quite mastering this second-language communication; cultural and historical references that are beyond my knowledge, but which constantly appear in daily references in the media and people’s standard conversations. Things that are just too far removed from what I know.

Which just seems to reinforce the fact that learning any language — even your first and only language — never stops (or never has to stop if you are interested), and that it is a huge struggle to expand your existing knowledge. Time and necessity seem to conspire against making any progress. The process is like staking claim to an iceberg, defending it from invaders, while somehow seeking to expand your territory small bits at a time. Meanwhile your iceberg is actually melting from underneath you. That’s what memorizing Chinese characters is like.

No wonder people decide to give up.

Have you been in Taiwan a long time

Something of a recent phenomena is this question: Have You Been in Taiwan a Long Time? Usually means I haven’t stuffed up my dinner order.

Very recently I was stopped during a business meeting I was attending. First I was asked by one of our guests if I was following the meeting at all. Yes, I was thank you. Then as everyone was leaving I was pulled aside by this same person and asked for some tips on how to study Chinese. So here they are:

Tips for Getting Started Using Chinese

Don’t Speak Chinese, Sing It: As a tonal language, Chinese can be a bit hard to get your tongue around for native speakers of English or German, for instance. But the easiest way to break out of your “monotone habit” is to treat Chinese phrases like lines from a song. The faster you get to the point of not thinking about tones, the better your speaking becomes. It is certainly not easy, which is why memorizing what tone each character carries is still important, and especially so for when someone challenges your pronunciation. However, being able to sing a phrase and not say it, can get those tonal rules a bit more under control.

Learn to Read Body Language: Proponents of body language theory will tell you as much as 90% of communication is done through non-verbal means. In many cases that means MOST of what you are communicating to others gets reflected in gestures or movements of various parts of your body and not by what is spoken. Turning that idea around, body language provides lots of information without requiring the communicator to vocalize its meaning. It also means you don’t need to understand what someone is saying to “feel” the message. Thus combined with only a few words in Chinese, you can still piece together a range of ideas or intentions, whether it is what someone has said to you, or something you want to say, with a range of body gestures.

Strip Your Thoughts of All Their Sophistication: Starting a new language really takes you back to being a kid. And an illiterate one at that. It is highly frustrating failing to say what you feel, literally not having the words to express yourself. Which is why first stripping your native vocabulary of all the depth and complication it has can really help. But it is easier said than done. First remove slang. All slang. Next remove multi-syllabic words. Finally, reduce all your ideas to their simplest form, with an equally simple way of saying them. Now translate that thought into a Chinese word. It is surprising how economic you can be. Chances are you will be better understood.

Immerse Yourself in the Language: Surround yourself with the way the language is used in everyday situations. Visit Taiwan or China or other Chinese speaking countries as often as you can. Go one step further and consider living their for 1-2 years, and get familiar with the way Chinese is used for work and play. It not only helps with grasping pronunciation and grammar, it helps to rapidly improve your vocabulary.

Where Did You Study Your Chinese? is possibly the 3rd or 4th most asked question. Surely the absence of a Beijing drawl and a failure to curl my tongue around each "Yes" should be an obvious giveaway?

Where Did You Study Your Chinese? is possibly the 3rd or 4th most asked question. Surely the absence of a Beijing drawl and a failure to curl my tongue around each “Yes” should be an obvious giveaway?

Over the years several people have asked for suggestions about how to study Chinese. These are just a few ideas that have seemed to work for me. There are probably many other really good ways to become a brilliant Chinese speaker or writer (marry a native Chinese speaker might be one) but regardless of methodology, all require huge amounts of patience, determination, and time.

Good luck!


4 responses to “Living with Chinese as a Second Language

  1. Pingback: Top 5 Stories of 2013 on Syurati-vision | Syurati-vision the Blog

  2. I’m not sure where you are getting your info, but good topic. I needs to spend some time learning more or understanding more. Thanks for fantastic info I was looking for this info for my mission.

  3. Excellent insight into your experiences with learning to speak Chinese, and thanks for the tips. Before you started your 15 years experience with Mandarin how would you rate yourself with other languages that you may have been taught at school?

    • Hi Simon, thanks for reading my account of learning Chinese. In junior high (years 7-8) I did very rudimentary French, German, Latin and Japanese. I can still tell you I’m 12 years old and order a chocolate ice cream. But that is it! I wouldn’t count myself as a natural at languages. But having an interest in other cultures does help.

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