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Gareth is an Australian who has lived in JiangSu, SuZhou (Heaven on Earth) for a few years - he is a keen observer of the Chinese people, Chinese culture and the changes that are occurring in China at break-neck speed. He can often be found on his a nightly 'perch' in front of his bar in the famous Bar Street in Suzhou, talking to the locals in his bad Mandarin, teaching the 'flower-selling girls' English, eating street food and smiling at the local chengguan (neighbourhood police). Gareth also has several other businesses in China around Business and English training. His experiences have been varied and interesting and his years in China have taught him to be wary of promises but excited about prospects, not a bad situation to be in!
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Lay of the Lingo    

By Garreth Humphris
3713 Views | 12 Comments | 11/20/2011 2:57:52 PM

I have to admit, my Chinese is pretty poor!!! And if you have lived in a place for 9 years like I have and not really picked it up, it is extremely poor!

Many people would argue that I am in a Chinese speaking environment so it should be easy... but it isn't.

I live in China but I don't live in a Chinese speaking environment - I live in a SuZhou City dialect speaking environment, and if I go a few kilometers down the road, then I may as well be on another planet because their language is pretty much incomprehensible!

To make matters worse, my environment is actually made up of about 50 different dialects - my friends speak Hakka, Sichuan, FuZhou, Nanjing, TaiZhou, and a polyglot of other dialects and they all sound different... add in a few dialects like Singaporean Chinese (hey, there are at least 3 different Chinese dialects there, cobbled together with some Bahasa Malay and some Indian subcontinent languages as well as English) and the Taiwanese variants and you see that I could be learning quite a few dialects! Just sitting with people listening to them doesn't help me because when they speak between themselves and they may be speaking any one of the shared languages between themselves, and they often swap... just to confuse you!

Then there is that horrible way Beijingers stab you with their 'r', but that's another issue.

So that’s the excuse I have, know too many dialects, can't speak to anyone!!!

There also seems to be a ’game’ with many Chinese to teach foreigners as much useless (or worse, offensive) language as possible... yes, my helpful teachers in the past have taught me enough rude Chinese phrases to make a navvy’s hair curl, but I can’t utter a single word of it in public... sure, yelling ’go to hell’ at a taxi driver is mildly effective and useful, but some of the other ones I have been taught can be uttered in no place other that the bathroom!

Watching the dramas on the daytime tv should be helpful too right? They write characters on the bottom of the screen so you can understand... not so easy!

Oh yeah, the writing’s the same... just write it down and everyone can understand... right!

To read a newspaper, you need to have mastered around 3000-4000 common characters - these little pictographs are so cute and understandable individually in my textbook, but put them together in a sentence, much less a paragraph and they become a fire-breathing dragon... and don't ask anyone to do it in handwriting - incomprehensible scrawl - akin to 'doctor’s script'!

Sure, I have flashcards, I have so many flashcards that it takes an hour and a half to sort through them... reviewing a character once every hour isn't too effective!

And I've spent a small fortune on books... I have 3 bookshelves of Chinese textbooks - from China and abroad - but I can tell you exactly how many have been read!!! No more than I can count on one hand!!

I was discussing this dilemma with a friend of mine who suggested 2 alternatives - employ a “long haired dictionary” - 1) a pretty girlfriend who speaks no English so I am forced to speak Chinese to communicate with her all the time or 2) marry someone and vow never to speak English to them.

Another friend sort of did this second option and now his 6 year old daughter acts as an interpreter and spy between him and his extended family! Maybe not an effective path!

So, maybe I’ll just have to change my CLM requirements, either to fluent English speaker or someone with extreme patience and an iron-will capable of teaching me Chinese... any takers? Based On current progress it will be at least a 50 year task!!!!

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#2011-11-20 14:57:23 by JohnAbbot @JohnAbbot

Just to back you up on a couple of points, my first long term relationship with a Chinese woman was with a woman who taught me to say everything in baby talk. At first I think it was done in fun, but as the relationship grew colder I suspect it was done in spite. Everytime I said anything she laughed, at first lovingly but eventually mockingly, and told me I sounded like a baby. I assumed she was enjoying and later criticizing my accent and pronunciation. I didn't realize what was really going on until after we separated and new dates would question sincerely why I spoke in baby talk.

That's about when I gave up on learning Chinese, although my primary reasons for giving up were that I could simply not get the tones, and even when I did finally learn to say something in acceptable Mandarin, the next three Chinese I spoke to didn't speak acceptable Mandarin themselves, but some local bastardization of it, so they couldn't understand me anyway.

However, as to Chinese generally taking joy in teaching us to unknowingly be saying swear words or baby talk, for every one of us trying to learn Chinese there have been a hundred of them trying to learn English, and countless foreigners have had the same fun at their expense, so I think we're stuck with just grinning and bearing it.

Another great article BTW!

#2011-11-20 18:23:36 by pinksilk @pinksilk

OH I think even to Chinese also have such "problems",because China is large,so many dialects,u see,i m a native Wuxi person,so i can understand most dialects arround me,such as suzhou\shanghai \hangzhou\changzhou\changshu\dialects,but i cant understand most dialects in China,foe example guangdong dialects,i cant understand,so it seen a common language to use all over China------mandarin,in fact mandarin is north part China dialects.
so if a chinese speak mandarin,can tell where he from,east,west,north or south part of China,their mandarin mixed with their own dialects.so most Chinese not speak a standard mandarin,but first of all just can make others understand what he say,so it also same to a foreigner to learn Chinese speaking,must mixed with own languang tone,but of course finally can make most chinese understand,that moment means mastered speaking Chinese already.

#2011-11-20 22:00:48 by doctorj @doctorj

any foreigner who gives it a stab feels like you do, garreth, given the difficulty of the language for anyone who does not have a pictograph based home language root. last winter i wrote an article here that never was published that outlined the (relative) success i've had in learning enough to get around both there in china and in our chinese communities here in the states. my various journeys to china revealed that yes, while there are hundreds if not thousands of dialects the vast majority of chinese understand putonghua, or the "common language" of the nation. i began my lessons with a random house deck that was too tied to memorization and yielded slow results so on my first trip there i grabbed a bootleg copy of the more effective rosetta stone application which produced better outcomes. more recently i came across the pimsleur method, which is a series of CDs you can play anywhere. now the natives claim i have perfect tones, so much so that in telephone conversations some chinese think they are talking to someone from near the capital region (yes, with the hard R inflection since the tapes orient around beijing). the pictographs are another matter, so i've enrolled in the local community college and now write around 100 characters to go at least slightly beyond baby talk. hard work? hell, yes. but after giving a speech to a group of beijing businessmen at my local university this week i found it so very gratifying to see the reactions on all their faces when the taiwanese interpreter had far less interpreting than he planned. the looks on everybody's faces was worth all the effort!

#2011-11-21 10:23:19 by abi513 @abi513

Ditto Garreth! I understand your sentiments, even though I've only been in China half as long as you.

I recently started Mandarin lessons when time permits since I find myself in the position of having a big "Loss of Face" when Chinese ask, "David, you have been in China over four years and do not know much Chinese?"

However, I point out to my Chinese teachers and friends that unless you're in the Beijing area, you can take Mandarin lessons all day long, but when you walk out the door, it's local dialect you hear on the streets. There is little reinforcement of the language. If a Chinese person was studying English in the USA or Australia, when they left the classroom, they would usually get some reinforcement of what they had learned in class.

However, I determined for myself that age, lack of time, local dialects were all a convenient excuse for me, so I've started some Mandarin Chinese classes. My expectations are not so high, but believe anything is better than nothing.

BTW, the writing issue you mention is possibly due to some Taiwan, Hong Kong or other area movie or TV show may be using Traditional Chinese writing instead of Chinese simplified used in the Mainland.

While many of the more educated Chinese can read both, many small town or countryside people cannot read Traditional Chinese or just bits and pieces that are similar to Simplified. Hell, I've come across some older taxi drivers in Chengdu that can't read Simplified Chinese since they came from some small countryside town!

#2011-11-21 11:52:45 by victoriaspirit @victoriaspirit

Hi Gareth, have you tried to use the software RosettaStone? I'm using it now to learn French. Before I taking two jobs and working crazily like 16hours a day I spent 1 hour per day on the software. After a few weeks I picked up quite a lot of words and can show off a few sentences in front of my friends.

As for foreigners learning Mandarin, my opinion is you don’t need to speak the language because the tone is too hard to get it right. Some of my foreign friends can speak fluently Chinese but I have no idea what are they talking about. If the tone is not exactly right then you are not speaking Chinese. This language is way too hard to master. Why do you think Chinese don’t understand each other and like there are 10 languages in China? It’s the same language just with different tones! It’s hard to pronounce but you can still learn to understand it. If you can understand 80% of the conversation then you can pass living in China. You still can’t speak the language but you know what’s going on around you I think that’s good enough.

To make you feel a little bit better, I have a French friend living in China for 10 years and been married to a Chinese wife for 5 years, now his 3 years old daughter speak much better Chinese than he does.

#2011-11-21 14:11:47 by JohnAbbot @JohnAbbot

DoctorJ: I apologize that your article did not get published, but I can assure you it still will be published. The time draws near.

#2011-11-21 16:42:22 by doctorj @doctorj

true in any language, victoria...tis far easier to listen to others compose in french or anything else and get the gist of things than to be compelled to piece together your own thoughts. we just had a gang of southerners over to the house today, from fujian to guongdong to guangxi, and they were speaking so fast it was hard to keep up. but the good news is they were using the far easier four tone (mandarin) platform rather than the far far more challenging nine tones spoken in the far southeast!

#2011-11-22 00:20:52 by woaizhongguo @woaizhongguo

The only thing I would disagree with in all the above is John's parallel betweeen foreigners' attitudes towards Chinese learning English and Chinese attitude towards foreigners learning Mandarin. In my own experience (and that of dozens of Peace Corps volunteers I talked to about this), Chinese are pretty cruel when a foreigner tries to speak Mandarin. Victoria has said openly what every Chinese believes but most won't tell you: in their minds, foreigners should not try to learn Mandarin. I am not sure why that leads to the taunting, but it does. I have never witnessed an American laughing at a Chinese person's attempt to speak English the way I have seen time and again Chinese openly mock a foreigners' sincere attempt at Mandarin. By contrast, during my time in China I often saw foreigners stopping whatever they were doing and conversing with a complete stranger who wanted to practice her English. And in America, having spent a lot of time in national parks, where a lot of foreigners come, I can honestly say that in the hundreds of exchanges I witnessed where a foreigner tried to speak English, no matter how poorly the foreigner actually spoke, I never once saw anyone laugh at that attempt.

#2011-11-22 00:26:19 by tanshui @tanshui

I am slowly, very slowly, learning Chinese.

If nothing else I have found that being able to say 'ni hao', 'wo hen hao', 'xie xie', ' bu keqi' seems to elicit smiles and appreciation.

When I am stuck and say 'Wǒ bù zhīdào' or 'Wǒ bù míngbái' and shrug my shoulders and smile most people begin to laugh and pat my shoulder.

Once I am settled into China next year I think l things will move along at a good pace. And since it looks more and more like I will be based in Beijing Mandarin should do the trick.

Nǐ shìfǒu tóngyì wǒ de ma? Hāhā

#2011-11-24 10:37:41 by aussieghump @aussieghump

Thanks for the suggestions - some tips I have are...
1)You need a good aural reference - Rosetta Stone is ok, but I find it pretty boring and I prefer to just 'listen along' rather than 'click and learn'...I have used Pimsleur.
2) on your smartphone, get a good dictionary - Cedict is a good source (lots or readers for this available) or a commercial one (I find Pleco pretty good).
3) move your head in the direction of the tone when learning... First tone is nose up in the air, second tone is move face upward as you say the word, third tone is a nod, fourth tone is a head shake... Doing this when practicing helps you 'hear' the tone yourself...
4) work context is as important as the tones...try to use sentences rather than individual words because a single wrong tone in a single word is deadly but a wrong tone in a sentence is funny, but understandable in the context.

I agree with woaizhongguo - many Chinese you meet have little time for 'listening to understand' the dialect. In multicultural societies, i think we become better listeners to language nuances but in China, they don't seem to do this so well and are often rudely dismissive of people (Chinese and foreigner) if there is a dialect problem...i find this 'on the street' or 'doing daily business', but if time is available many people like and appreciate you are learning Chinese. I have 'special' fun with older people who are often enjoying the weather or doing some activity you have not seen - I have had great 'discussions' about the relative merits of a mahjiang hand or chess piece movement, been shown great hospitality over tea and had some crazy cackles with old ladies over a flat tire on a bicycle and talking about 'other crazy foreigners who can't speak Chinese'.

Most important is the 'appreciation' of different cultures and not assuming one way or another - being alert, malleable and ductile is probably better than being a language expert/cultural snob!

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