Eavesdropping is Too Hard

One of the first things I noticed upon returning to the USA after my first year in China was: Wow! I can understand strangers’ conversations!

Many of my English major students get discouraged when they sat in front of two foreigners on the bus and couldn’t understand what they were saying to each other in English. I, too, once thought my inability to successfully eavesdrop meant that my Chinese listening skills still have a long way to go. But here’s the truth I’ve come to accept: my Chinese listening skills still still have a long way to go, but eavesdropping isn’t a good test.

Here’s why eavesdropping is too hard in China:

1. They’re probably not speaking Mandarin.

I’ve noticed that Chinese people prefer to speak their local language over Mandarin whenever possible. Even up North, where a lot of the fāngyán-s 方言 are close to Mandarin, there are different tones, or words, or other things that make listening difficult to impossible.

2. You don’t know what they’re talking about.

They could be talking about a májiàng 麻将 marathon and all the specific tiles they got while lamenting the ones they wished they’d gotten. They could be talking about the hanzified names of their favorite Olympians, all of whom you know and could even guess if you knew the context. But since you don’t, then don’t bother even trying.

2.5 The conversation could change topics immediately.

And then, even if you had figured out what they were talking about, it’s now back to square one just because someone transitioned from “Beijing Duck” to that “creepy guy in the parking lot.”

3. Inside Jokes.

If they’re not strangers (and even if they are), then the people you’re eavesdropping on have more in common with each other than you do with them. If they’re colleagues, they might be talking about work at the nutcracker factory or the latest internal memo about clocking-in procedures. And if they’re good friends it’s even worse.

Imagine someone trying to eavesdrop on a conversation between you and your best friend about that one time at Disneyland when Jonno had that inflatable Oscar Mayer wiener that he shoved into the mouth of that animatronic crocodile on the Peter Pan ride. “Hahaha! And Bobby was like, ‘Ticktock this!’ Hahaha! That was awesome.” Sometimes you really had to be there.

All that’s to say:

4. Native speakers can easily ditch non-native speakers

Never underestimate your ability to leave a non-native listener in the dust when you’re talking to a third person who is a native speaker. Conversely, native speakers of Chinese can lose us any time they really want to. Imagine Superman (or that kid in The Incredibles) jogging along with a normal person and then suddenly throwing it into high gear. That seems to be what native speakers can do to non-native listeners at any moment (and not always intentionally).

I’m not just talking about talking faster (although that’s part of it). They can use a synonym, slang, or idiom, or worst of all a chéngyǔ 成语 that we’ve never heard of and immediately change the course of the conversation. Sometimes words that we actually know have meanings we don’t know about. And then there’s the whole context issue again. We don’t have the kind of background in the language that someone has who’s grown up here, gone through the whole education system, watched all those TV shows, listened to all that music, and seen all that news over the years.

On the one hand, it’s comforting to know I’ve probably got a way to communicate a secret message to a native speaker of English in front of a non-native speaker if I need to. But on the other hand, all messages between native speakers of Chinese have the potential to be baffling. Especially if…

…and here’s the point:

5. They’re not talking to you.

If someone really needs to communicate a life-or-death message to you, regardless of your listening level, they’ll probably find a way. But without the context, avoidance of inside jokes, and simplification of vocabulary, etc., I’m afraid odds are against understanding.

So by all means, try to tōutīng 偷听 as much as possible (within reason). Just don’t beat yourself up if it’s not working.

17 Replies to “Eavesdropping is Too Hard”

  1. Somewhat different but related: I’ve spent way too much time thinking about “overhearing” or “unintentional eavesdropping” if you will.

    The observation is simple: it is DAMN hard to understand overheard conversations, and i think there’s a deep native/non-native language component to it. My (native mandarin-speaking) wife lived 15 years in the US; got two master’s degrees and worked at a people-facing job (presentations and the whole bit). Even today she still needs to be paying attention to English conversations to understand them, whereas I seem to absorb everything in English around me whether I want to or not. And despite all the difficulties you noted above — which are all true — I still usually understand.

    Wish I could say half as much about my Mandarin eavesdropping skills…

  2. Syz, that still has to be a product of exposure, though no? I know what you’re saying — that’s why the fluent English-speaking touts in Hong Kong are so much more annoying to me than the touts on the mainland, because I can’t totally ignore them — but I have to believe that it’s still a matter of time spent. Even though you’re wife was in the US for 15 years, she probably spent a lot of time at least thinking in Chinese, where as the equivalent 15-year old native speaker would be thinking in English the entire time. And I don’t know about you, but I wasn’t all that good at paying attention to multiple things when I was a teenager, either.

    Or maybe it’s just wishful thinking on my part to think that my Chinese will someday get to that level of effortlessness 🙂

  3. John, sure, I agree it’s fluency, but (and this is a conversation I often have with a friend of mine who almost any rational observer would say is a very fluent non-native speaker of Mandarin) there is a depth to native fluency that seems to get deeper and deeper no matter how far you plumb it. I think the ability to follow the conversations of people you’re not even listening to is an example of that depth.

    I hope your results are better, but I doubt my Mandarin is ever going to get there :-/

  4. Would be a really interesting experiment actually, comparing that depth with monolinguals, bilinguals from birth, bilinguals that acquired their second language at different stages of childhood, multilinguals, etc.

  5. that would be a cool test. The thing is, I keep coming across ideas for cool tests and not executing. My favorite idea (and now I’m way off topic but Albert won’t kick me off, right?) is the test of reading speed for native speakers: hanzi Mandarin vs plain old English. It has the advantage of being relatively easy to execute too, whereas I think this one would be really hard (but really interesting — I imagine test subjects wearing headsets, bombarded by 14 different low-audio conversations at once, asked to respond to questions about the content of each…)

  6. Not only will I not kick you off. I don’t even know how.

    Let’s get some of these experiments going gentlemen! I’d offer to do them myself but…you know…what with all the time I’m pouring into the blog recently and all…

    (There’s an example of a phrase I can’t imagine a non-native speaker saying, that “what with all the…and all”)

  7. 😀 I’m pretty easily roped. I think the fast reading experiment would be cool, too, and as you say a lot simpler than my proposed test (which was more of a “if you happen to be a doctoral candidate with some funding and are short of ideas, how about this one?” sort of suggestion). I’m rereading the “ZEI hypothesis,” and I’m thinking it might be easier to time the user as he/she reads the entire text (so don’t limit the reader’s times) and then ask the questions. That way we can get both the actual time it took to process through the text, and then how that time correlated to comprehension. If we find that Chinese are consistently significantly faster than Westerners, but that their shorter times had no impact on comprehension, then there you go. It seems like it would be easier to do technically, too.

  8. I wouldn’t make too much of the native/non-native thing per se. Maybe it’s different in languages THAT different, but I, as a German native-speaker, have absolutely no problem eavesdropping on conversations between English native-speakers. So don’t feel too secure on the subway, is all I’m saying 😉

  9. “Many of my English major students get discouraged when they sat in front of two foreigners on the bus and couldn’t understand what they were saying to each other in English.”

    Why do you use the word “foreigners” here and who are you referring to? It’s interesting that many Westerners have been sucked into this derogatory term “foreigner” in referring to their own kind. But when you refer to Chinese people in the U.S. or wherever, you say “Chinese”. That is what they prefer, they like to be known as Chinese people because they are proud of their country. “Foreigner”, on the other hand, a term which you have used to refer to English speakers (and the Chinese usually reserve for whites) grants a person no identity and no affirmation of anything positive whatsoever…. it just means: YOU’RE NOT FROM HERE AND EVEN AFTER 20 YEARS WE’LL CONTINUE TO TREAT YOU AS THOUGH YOU’RE NOT FROM HERE.

    Please please please, it’s difficult enough educating 1 billion people that China is not the centre of the world and they’re overusing the term “foreigner”… without Westerners using the word to refer to themselves.

    I am an AUSTRALIAN, BTW, not a foreigner!!!!!!!

  10. When I was back in Finland I tried to eavesdrop when I saw some Chinese people around on the bus or in shome shop for example. But that didn’t happen that often. Now in China I usually don’t care what is being said around me because it’s just too much. But the word I can usually pick even I’m not listening is waiguoren/laowai. It’s like hearing your name from the noise 😉

    I would also take the chance to thank Albert of this wonderful blog! I’ve maybe read almost all of the posts here and I’m always looking for new entries. Extremely usefull stuff here.

  11. I second Sara’s comment above. I’ve returned to Mandarin after so many years that when I first studied it, there were no computers, no internet, and Wade-Giles was the only way to go in the US.

    Now, with my latent but always-present interest rekindled by a wife from Changsha, I really appreciate sites like this.

    BTW, love your book!

  12. Very funny stuff. When I was in 3rd year of Uni (I’d transferred from another college) I remember being on the bus, surrounded by Chinese… I was, unknowingly, eavesdropping on the pair in front of me… they were complaining, in Mandarin, that University was way harder than high school (obviously freshmen), in that 夸张 way freshmen do… When I realized just how much I could understand, I really took another look at Chinese. From that day I started up Chinese again (after studying a few years in High school).. Ended up taking an Intermediate Mandarin course the following term, landed a plum job in 深圳 after Biz school and am now writing you from 上海. Yes, I still study Chinese, and still 偷听, but I do think back with great fondness to that moment where I realized I still had a bit of 普通话in me. Who knows where I’d be were it not for that . 😉

  13. Interesting – if I see a couple Chinese people here in US, I find myself gently tilting my head towards the conversation, to see what I can pick up too 😀

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