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.