Even though I live in China, it’s sometimes hard to find someone to speak Chinese with me.
I’m not talking about all the “duōshao qián” 多少钱 and “yes, I’ve eaten” exchanges. I mean someone I can really stretch my vocabulary muscles with and speak with for a long period of time about some subject other than buying/eating stuff.
One of the challenges is that I’m always aware of problem 2: many of my Chinese friends want to practice English. I don’t mean that I think my friends are only hanging out with me to use me. But I still feel bad asking them to “waste” their chance to speak to a real live foreigner and improve their command of the lingua franca, the tool for future success.
So now I’m using what I call the “Chewbacca Method” that puts us in a shuāngyíng 双赢 situation: I speak only Chinese, you speak only English. If we want to practice listening comprehension, we switch roles.
If you’ve never seen Star Wars, Chewbacca is that “walking carpet” that growls and yodels at Harrison Ford for the whole movie. Ford has (miraculously) learned to understand Chewie’s language, but can’t (or won’t) speak it himself, so he just replies in English. Chewie (for some reason) has no trouble understanding English but is (perhaps anatomically) hard pressed to utter an English phoneme himself.
This is very much what the Chewbacca method would sound like to an outside observer. Here’s a little snatch of a conversation between me and one of my Chinese friends. For some reason we were just talking about pizza (which he pronounces like the Chinese word bǐsà 比萨).[audio:chewie.mp3]
(transcript for Chinese only)
nà nǐ xiànzài qù gànmǎ?
So what are you going to do now?
nǐ zìjǐ zuò háishì nǐ chūqù chī?
Will you make your own (lunch) or go out to eat?
I’ve got a few friends now who have agreed to be in Chewie mode pretty much all the time and we love it.
I have a feeling this is especially useful if you’re at an advanced level. If you’ve found you’re default language with informants and friends really should be Chinese, but you know they still want to speak English, it’s an excellent middle road.
Oh, and if anyone has a sound clip of Han Solo and Chewbacca interracting, I’d love to add that to this post.