Predictive Listening

In Linguistics and Language Learning on February 17, 2009 at 5:18 pm
  1. First of all, I’m a frequent visitor to your blog (which I find very interesting).

    What you write about in this post is something that I have experienced myself, although not in a “live setting” (and not just with Chinese natives), but rather email/text chat.

    Some people are just impossible to have a conversation with, and vice versa (as you will see). Despite having stated in a profile or elsewhere that English is among their “known languages”, they don’t seem to understand mine – or perhaps they do.

    However, from some of the replies I get, I wonder if they parse my sentences through a web translator to get the Chinese meaning, then they come up with a reply, let the machine do the translating back into English and so on.

    So I switch to Chinese (my level of which, admittedly, is very low – but you have to start somewhere). The reply I get is ten times longer… I try to figure out the basic points, look up the other words online, write something back and the chaos continues. As you may already have imagined, we both sink deeper and deeper into the quicksand…

    I’m not a touch-typist by nature (nor a native English speaker) so now and then I happen to misspell a word or two (similar to what you see in all those “researches” where a few letters in each word are jumbled…). Let’s say I write “partciluar”, “repsonse” and “advneture” (just hypothetical examples). Then I get a reply: “You use so many difficult words. I tried to look them up in a dictionary and couldn’t find any of them!”

    The ability to predict/read between the lines/fill in the gaps is definitely a useful (and necessary!) skill (and sadly, something that many people lack).

  2. Killer interesting stuff, this blog is really an immense contribution to the internet. You know the funny thing is I’ve been 4 years on the ground in China, and I can’t conclusively say you are right or wrong about almost any of the things you list. I often explain various theories of “difference” between the cultures to Chinese people and just get nothing in response back. Even if you were terribly horribly misunderstanding something, if I tell a Chinese person and can’t at least get a word of protest in response, how can I assume anything other than “no protest means it didn’t offend them means there is at least the possibility that it is true”. Very frustrating and hard to make any progress in understanding when I can’t get a bit of insight out of any natives.

    Then there are all the idiotic robot responses that have no informational value and probably interfere with the chance to get info by distracting the guy’s attention since he feels he “must” say them. (Example: Ask about some small question about the ‘culture’ and instead of getting a response, you’ll get a rant about how “X” is not “Chinese culture”. The problem is they are translating the word “culture” into wenhua which doesn’t mean just ‘culture’ but more like “fundamental tenant of the civilization as a whole”. Thus you ask something about traffic and they feel the need to get all defensive as if to say “the lack of traffic rules IS NOT a fundamental characteristic of chinese civilization over 5000 years”.)

  3. Yeeeha! Great article. I spent a summer in class in China studying Mandarin and since have been back to China more than ten times. And what you write is very familiar.
    Although I must say that since they are teaching English to younger children, that by the time they get to adulthood some will have better skills, and may even be predictive types.

    I find the self-deprecating humor of a native New Yorker does not go over well in China or with Chinese people. Here is an example. Since my skill in Mandarin are not great, just passable, if I tell people that if they don’t want me to understand when they talk amongst themselves, they should just talk faster [cause it is harder for me to understand when conversation is to rapid]… it just feels like all the air has left the room. But I think it is funny. If I tell this to an American, they just laugh. Chinese frown. There are many other examples.

    When I took the Mandarin class in Beijing more than twenty years ago, it was all rote. Repeat repeat repeat. Not only boring, but not very helpful, to me. For me, if I understand the character’s origin, it is easy to remember. If it is just rote, it goes in one ear and out the other. So for me it is easier to learn Chinese language in the US than in China. Of course the immersion of being in China is an enormous help when I go. But to study characters or grammar, I need to be in a Western educational situation.

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