In this post I offer some data, a little rant, and then three stories all meant to encourage us lǎowài-s 老外 not to give up on listening comprehension.
I’m often asked, “Is it harder for you to learn Chinese or for a Chinese person to learn English?” Short answer: I don’t know. It’s tough to say because it involves a lot of opinions and complicated factors. But here’s a fact that cannot be ignored about Chinese:
- There are only 409 possible syllables in Mandarin (see my Pinyin Chart for where I got that number), not including different tones.
Now let’s compare that with English. Chris Barker searched a British English dictionary and found 15,831 different syllables (and he admits that number isn’t 100% accurate). But that’s only unique syllables used in the dictionary. So there are lot’s of other syllables are possible in English (like “foob”) which don’t get counted because there are no words that use them (yet). Just to clarify: “too” and “two” and “to” would still just count as one syllable in that list because it’s about pronunciation not writing.
Not Chinese. 409 syllables. That’s it. That’s all that are allowed. (Which is why it’s so easy to rhyme in Chinese.)
So who cares? Well, I do. It means that listening comprehension is really hard for me because so many words sound the same in Chinese because they only have 409 “building blocks” to make them. Yes we’ve got words like “too / two / to” and “pair / pare / pear” in English, but the homonym minefield seems to be way more difficult in Chinese. That’s why context (and multi-syllable words count as context) is so important when listening to Chinese. If you have little to no context, accurate listening comprehension becomes virtually impossible.
So here’s the encouraging thing: if you don’t have enough context to understand something, just give up! Don’t be too hard on yourself for not understanding words that fly at you “out of the blue”. Don’t fall for the trap and feel like, “I should have understood that.” No you shouldn’t have. The Chinese people themselves can’t always do it! Let me give you some examples I’ve witnessed.
Story 1: Cash Trap
My English students often ask “How do you say (some Chinese word) in English?” Talk about zero context. They’re sitting there speaking English to each other and BOOM! Chinese syllables flying at my out of the blue. Many times I can figure out the context because we probably have a topic that day in class that gives me a clue. Not so the other day when the topic was “Beggars.”
A student raised his hand and said, “How do you say xianjin in English?” You may notice I’ve omitted the tones from his question. That’s because I wasn’t exactly sure what they were because they came at me so fast. But it didn’t matter. The students around him all chimed in with a unanimous “cash.” He thanked them and the class when on. A few seconds later he raised his hand and said, “Not cash. I mean xianjing.”
The class erupted into confusion. Some students were confirming that indeed “cash” was the word he wanted. Some were saying “trap”. Some were criticizing his Mandarin and not answering his question. And some were asking their neighbors what was going on.
Here are the two words in question:
He really did mean “trap,” and wanted to talk about some sort of trick that beggars use to get money. The class, however, when they heard his (rather unclear and fast) Mandarin utterance assumed he must have wanted to say something about the cash beggars get.
Those two words aren’t even minimal pairs, but because the vocab was out of the blue, and the students didn’t have enough context, they guessed wrong.
Story 2: Soon to be Happy
I was listening to two Chinese girls talking about their recent lives. One confided in us that she’d been depressed lately but that she was hoping her mood would improve soon.
The other girl listened and then nodded in support saying only two syllables: “kuàile.”
“Yes,” the first girl continued, “I want to be happy.”
“No, I meant ‘soon’ things will get better,” the second girl said.
Here’s the confusion:
So that’s the old “Second 4th tone in a row is lower than the first one so it might sound like it’s a 5th tone” trap. It tricked a Chinese girl without enough context. So it can certainly get me.
Story 3: Violent Profits
A student was telling me about her father’s business She wanted to tell me something that had happened with one of his business partners but didn’t know how to say bào lì in English. I suggested “violent” and she said, “No! Not that bào lì.” I didn’t know what to say then and the conversation came to a halt.
Here’s the problem:
I didn’t know the second definition of “bào lì” at the time. But I was actually right: bào lì really does mean violent. It just also means something else.
So here’s the bottom line: it can be very frustrating when you don’t understand Chinese words because they often sound like a bunch of other words. But don’t blame yourself. The Chinese people themselves can’t always do it, so of course we won’t be able to. Don’t fall for the cash… I mean trap of thinking you should always be able to understand everything, even if you’re at a pretty high level with the language.
Just get more context, clarification, or if worst comes to worst, you can use that time-honored tradition of letting them write the hanzi in the air with their finger. Then take a picture of the air-shape with your smart phone and check the dictionary for it. I’m sure, by now, that’s a feature that Plecco offers, right?