They Don’t Understand My Chinese, What’s Wrong?

One of the frustrating things about learning Chinese is the high frequency of incidents where my Chinese just “doesn’t work.” I may be saying something I’ve said a thousand times, and the next time I say it, I just get blank stares and loud blinking in response. Why?

There are several reasons why your Chinese might not be working:

  1. You’re saying it wrong. This is likely, especially if the tones aren’t exactly right. I’ve said things before, and realized right when I finished that I said one tone wrong. While I’m preparing to say it right, I notice the listener has no clue what I’m talking about. Say one tone wrong, and sometimes you might have had better luck speaking Portuguese. I said it again, with the right tone, and she immediately understood what I meant. The tones are important. I wish it weren’t like that, but it is.
  2. Your voice quality is wrong for Chinese. Ok, this is a weird one, but I have heard from several Chinese people that foreigners’ voices (this especially applies to men) are too deep. They also seem to be talking about the idea of “resonance.” The Chinese people, in general, seem to think this is “bù hǎotīng 不好听” (not nice sounding), and possibly more difficult to understand. If you listen to Chinese people (even men) their voices are a lot higher pitched and thinner, in general, compared to English speakers. (Traditional Chinese singing is also much higher and “screechier” to our ears.) So, one way to combat this is to talk in a higher pitched voice, and try to reduce the resonance of your voice (make it thinner). I’ve found this makes my Chinese sound more…um…well, Chinese and may even make it easier to for them to understand.
  3. They don’t want to understand you. This has happened a lot too.
    • Maybe the Chinese listener has decided before I opened my mouth that I don’t speak Chinese and has decided that whatever I’m about to say is English or Russian.
    • Or, perhaps we’ve had a partial conversation in Chinese already and the listener has decided that I’m about to ask for a discount and is ready to say “no” when I actually ask if there are any other kinds. The listener answers the prepared “no” because he’s already decided what I’m going to say and just shut off his listening.
    • Or, as happened yesterday, the listener may not like me. I went to investigate a tennis club and I could tell immediately from the expressions and stopping and staring that foreigners (or maybe just non-friends of the current members) were not welcome. When I asked (as I have a thousand times) what time they open in the morning, the answer was “méiyǒu 没有.” That doesn’t make sense. Did he not understand me? So they don’t open in the morning? How are people playing right now? I asked what time in the afternoon they opened. “méiyǒu 没有.” Ah, ok. I get it. I’m leaving.
  4. They don’t speak Mandarin. Everyone always says Mandarin is spoken by 1.3 billion people in China. Wrong. Only about half of the Chinese people in China can speak Mandarin (see this article). It is also worth noting, that even if they can speak Mandarin, they don’t want to. If two Chinese people are together and they both speak the same regional dialect, or a mutually intelligible one, they will always, and I do mean always, prefer to speak that dialect to Mandarin.

So, as you can see, it may not be your fault that your Chinese is “broken.” That can be strangely comforting, but also frustrating.

Comments

  1. There’s one phrase which seems to trip me up and I’ve discovered that I’m not the only one. My Chinese is pretty poor, without a doubt, but usually in a restaurant or shop setting I do OK. However, whenever I try and ask for green tea in a restaurant they simply don’t understand. I say “I would like to drink green tea” as I’ve heard said so clearly in any Chinese class I’ve ever listened to, I even do the action of sipping tea, but they simply have no clue what I’m trying to say. I’ve heard the same from at least two other non-native Chinese speakers. I now know that my tones are correct but still they don’t get it. I’d be very interested if you have any insight into this one.

  2. Jonathan,

    Interesting problem. If you’re sure the tones are exactly right, it could be a problem with the “ü” umlaut (also written as “v”). Green tea is obviously “lǜ chá” which has the umlaut in it.

    You may be saying it right, but since I haven’t gotten all my pronunciation stuff posted here yet, I’ll just mention a few quick things about that:

    1) the “ü” sound is pronounced by saying “ee” (as in “bee”) at the same time you’re making your lips into an “oo” shape (as in “too”). The result will be that you’ll feel like you’re saying “ee” and “oo” at the same time.

    2) If you can’t do that, trying just saying “lì chá” because, to the Chinese ear, the “ü” is closer to “ee” than it is to “oo.”

    The other possibility is they just don’t have any green tea and can’t…quite…bring…themselves to admit it…

    Let me know what works.

  3. Hi Albert,

    Thank you, I’ll give that a go when I get back to China. I thought my ü pronunciation was OK but I’ll try the ‘li’ tip, that sounds sensible. What I find most strange is that even when I’m motioning to drink, they don’t get it. Oh yes, and this has happened on many occasions where they definitely do have lǜ chá.

    I’ll tell you if the ‘li’ idea works though. Thanks again.

    J

  4. When we say “mei you” we mean literally “that doesn’t exist.” You probably said something like 你们这边啥时候开门? Thus 没有 is “there is no 开门 for YOU.” I.e., they do open, but there is no “opening” for you. You see, it’s kind of a language-joke. Just not a funny one.

  5. mister moy,

    Yes I agree that 1) the main message was “go way” and 2) it wasn’t very funny.

    Personally, I can’t imagine doing that to someone if I were the shopkeeper and someone asked what time I open. I would certainly answer the question with a number. Then, the conversation could move on to membership, etc. But, in the end, he got what he wanted: I did go away.

  6. A good list, and I think I have encountered all of these. I am sure it is mostly my fault that I am not understood, but I also think I get my fair share of #3, with a lot of 没有ing.

  7. Albert,

    I am actually 少数民族 and western-looking enough that many people think I am foreign, so I have experienced this from both sides.

    Being honest, here are some reasons why I have ignored foreigners:

    -In areas with a lot of foreigners or tourists, if I start answering questions, I can get swarmed and have a lot of my time wasted.
    -When there is one lost foreigner, I don’t want to draw everyone’s attention that is already on him to me.
    -I am not a Chinese teacher. This is especially true if I am working or out on a date or with friends. If I stop to help a foreigner, everyone else has to stop and watch me. It makes me feel like I am on the spot, can be awkward and embarassing.

    If you really need help, though, you should not be afraid to ask for it. If someone is being difficult or acting like they don’t understand you, you should tell them directly to stop it, do their god damn job and listen to you.

    And by the way I speak English and a few other foreign languages quite well only because I was willing to talk to and help many foreigners when I was younger. So when people ignore you it really is their loss.

  8. Hi. I think the reasons you listed are absolutely right. But i think another answer to your problem might be that you’re not indicating enough. I mean sometimes in chinese we need to something first which are related to what you want to talk about and that can actually help local chinese people understand a lot better. Take an example when ordering green tea?

    A
    Waiter: ni yao shen me?
    Customer: lv cha.
    waiter: shen me?

    B
    Waiter: ni yao shen me?
    Customer: wo yao yi bei lv cha.

    Here at first, we have to admit that chinese people are not used to non-chinese speaking people’s accent. So that it helps if you add some words that can help them understand. Like here in example A if the customer just says lv cha. It will be too direct and the waiter cannot respond very well. And in example B if you say wa yao yi bei lv cha and believe me, that should make much more sense to them.

    By the way, I’m a chinese myself and i am now in a western country. So i understand china can be a frustrating country to you in many ways. Even I also feel the same. But what I think is that china is a big country and there are all kinds of people there. Anyway hope you all get along well soon in china. Best wishes.

  9. Many Chinese, especially southerners, use 没有in ways that seem to make no sense. Two recently overheard examples:

    (1) “! 肚子饿吗?” “You hungry, Ma?”
    没有!” “No way!”, or maybe “I haven’t even thought about eating, yet!”

    (2)”走吧!” “Let’s go!”
    没有” “Not yet”, or “I’m not ready yet.”

    I didn’t understand that last one, but the speaker was kind enough to translate it into English for me.

    Without knowing the context of your conversation with the tennis club guy, it’s impossible to know what he meant. He didn’t necessarily dislike you, though. I suspect he meant “没有开放”, “We’re not open to the public”, or “Members Only”.

  10. Mandarin, Cantonese and Min, among other tongues, are “dialects” of Chinese only in the sense that French and Spanish are dialects of Latin. We think of the Chinese tongues as “dialects” of a single language because China is one nation, while the Romance tongues are separate “languages” because Europe is divided. Also, each of the Chinese languages has its own dialects and sub-dialects, just as the European languages do. (Think of the Cockney and West Texan sub-dialects of the American and British English dialects.)

    The English word “Mandarin” ambiguously refers not only to the mother tongue of most Chinese, but also to the particular dialect of that language which the Chinese call the “Common Speech” (普通话). This Common Speech is what is taught in most Chinese language courses and was the subject of the Xinhua article referred to in the blog. It is a made-up language created by scholars and dictionary writers – the same sort of people who claim that “ain’t” isn’t English. The Common Speech is supposedly based on the sub-dialect of the Mandarin language which is spoken by educated people in Beijing.

    If people who speak the same Chinese language and the same dialect get together (Zhu Hai Cantonese, for example), they may well prefer their native language to the Common Speech. This is no more surprising than Frenchmen speaking French rather than the “International Language”, English. There are exceptions, however. I know a couple who speak the Shanghai version of Min, but they use the Common Speech at home because they want their child to learn it.

    People who speak the same Chinese language, but a different dialect (the Hong Kong and Tai Shan dialects of Cantonese, for example) may resort to the Common Speech because their dialects are so different. (Can you imagine an Argentinean and a Galician from Northwestern Spain choosing to converse in English?)

    Even people who speak the same dialect and sub-dialect of a Chinese language do not “always” use it in preference to the Common Speech. The more highly educated the person, the greater the likelihood that he or she will prefer the Common Speech to a local dialect. This is no different than West Texans choosing to use “standard American” because they think it makes them sound more intelligent (or at least more educated).

    In short, the Chinese might not use the Common Speech as often as we European-Americans would like, but at least they have one to use. We don’t.

  11. When I try to speak Chinese and get blank stares, it’s usually because I was speaking “Engl-ese” – English phrasing with Chinese words. I sound like the Chinese equivalent of the English sub-titles in a Kung-fu movie. The listener may have understood every word I said, but just couldn’t figure out what the heck I meant.

    To illustrate, if I fall off a boat I’ll automatically cry “Help!”, but a Chinese would yell “救命” [jiu4ming4, save life]. Suppose that, on my way into the water, I remember I’m in China. I pull out my handy pocket dictionary and discover that “help” is “帮忙” [bang1mang2], so I shout that term out at the top of my lungs. If a Chinese man sees me fall into the water, he’s going to know what I want whether he understands my words or not. If he’s looking the other way, however, he might understand my words but not get my drift (so to speak). He only knows I want help doing something. If he’s especially literal-minded, when he turns around and sees me in the water, he might momentarily wonder why I want him to help me drown.

    A Chinese teacher once asked me to make a sentence using 坐车 [zuo4che1, ride a bus]. I said “坐车要付钱” [fu4qian2, pay money], which literally means “You have to pay to ride a bus.” The teacher looked puzzled for a moment, then with an “ah-ha” expression on his face said, “坐车不是付钱, 是买票.” [We don’t use “付钱” for riding a bus, we use “买票” (mai3piao4, buy a ticket).] At the time, busses in Beijing had no fare boxes, only conductors who sold tickets. In the teacher’s mind, therefore, the expression 付钱didn’t quite match up with the idea of riding a bus. Coupled with my American accent, this was enough to make him wonder if he’d heard me right. (By the way, now that the busses no longer have conductors, I think the preferred expression is “投币” [tou2bi4, throw money in the box].)

    Another time I asked several people on the street if there was a Bank of China branch nearby. (附近有中行没有?, fu4jin4 you3 zhong1hang2 mei2you?) After seven or eight negative replies I learned that there was one on the next street over, and I wondered why so many people had said “没有.” I finally realized I had made two mistakes. First, despite what the dictionary says, 附近 does not mean the same thing to a Chinese who rides a bike as “nearby” does to an American who drives a car. Second, and more to the point, I was speaking Engl-ese. In English, asking if something is near is a polite way to ask for directions. Not so in Chinese. In effect, I was asking only whether a bank branch existed within spitting distance (a strange question, perhaps, but what can you expect from a foreigner). The people had answered the question I asked, not the question I thought I was asking.

    I still remember the first time a Chinese girl asked me in English to come over to her place and play. I understood every word, and I’m sure I got that “deer in the headlights” look on my face. A friend had to explain to me that she didn’t mean what I thought – she was speaking Chinglish (有中国特色的英语). Since then I’ve been able to sympathize with the poor Chinese who have to puzzle out my Engl-ese.

  12. Hey wow very interesting n impressive posts. Are all u guys westerners? Seem to grasp the Chinese language really well.
    Anyway Im a chinese gal but not from China.
    Any hope of keeping in touch n making friends?
    Im interested in visiting China some day actually,,,
    n also good to noe that at least I can have some English speaking friends there as my Chinese is not very good in terms of speaking n writing it…
    Anyone in China can email me at bestlife008-quest@yahoo.com.sg
    Hope to hear from u soon…

  13. First, this is a great site!

    Second, I have had this experience. I went to China (Shanghai) with my wife, who was then my fiance. We stayed with her parents for three months. Prior to this trip I had been studying Chinese for two years at University. I thought my Chinese was quite good, and was looking forward to the opportunity to ‘try it out’.

    Boy was I disappointed! No-one, and I mean NO-ONE understood a word I said. Not only that, I couldn’t understand them either! When saying words containing ‘sh’, their ‘sh’ would come out as ‘s’. The first thing my wife’s mother said to me (after we came through customs) was “你三点下飞机吗?” (Nǐ sān dian xià feījī ma?) – this was not what I heard. I heard (to my horror): “你什么时候上班?” (Nǐ shénme shíhou shàngbān?).

    It wasn’t until we came back from a week-long trip to Beijing that I started to understand them. While I was in Beijing I could actually understand some people, which restored some of the confidence that was shattered on our arrival in Shanghai.

    After we had been there for two months, I found that people understood me, and I could understand them. For me it was all to do with making sure I opened my mouth and moved my tongue about correctly. I didn’t realise how important tongue position is until it was explained to me by a Chinese teacher. If you find that people don’t understand your Chinese, ask a native speaker to think about their tongue positions when saying “trouble” words, and have them explain the details to you.

    On a side note, I heard a lot of Germans speak Chinese (a short class I took was composed of mainly Germans), and I found it interesting to hear their pronunciation.

    Great site!

  14. A couple of observations about conversational
    Chinese:
    Context is everything and is much more important
    than being hung up on incorrect tones. The use of only a few words to convey a meaning will always
    be a difficulty. Express oneself in a few
    different ways if you have enough vocab.
    Chinese people often don’t worry about tones in
    fluent conversation. Learn pronunciation; I think
    that’s more important.
    There are 57 dialects in China. Even amongst
    speakers of Putonghua, there are misunderstandings. I stopped feeling bad a long time ago.
    Shanghai, with its population of over 20 million, speak Shanghaiese. You may as well be in another country.

  15. Chickenlegs,

    Thanks for the comments. Those are good suggestions.

    Although, I must point out to the other readers that there are many more than 57 dialects in China. Perhaps there are 57 general categories (I don’t know about that), but when I asked a Chinese linguist friend of mine exactly how many dialects exist in China his answer was “countless.”

  16. My poor choice of words. I should have said distinct
    ethnic groups. Of course, one could go from one valley to the next and get a distinctly different dialect.(excuse my alliteration overkill)

  17. I am chinese, born and brought up in a small village in North China that one can never find on the map.
    When I first went to GuangDong, I thought I was in a different country. All sounded Japanese to me.

    So you can see, it has nothing to do with your nationality. Only a language problem.

  18. Well said Bruce and how very true.Many people
    who speak Guandonghua just about refuse to speak
    Mandarin, as mentioned in the first post, although they are often fluent in Putonghua. i
    guess part of the large cultural and historical
    divide that no government of national unity can
    easily change. The same occurs in N and S India.

  19. I experienced this for years until I learned some techniques for getting past the 尴尬 barrier. It definitely helps when your Chinese gets better and more accurate (it also helps if you happen to be ethnically Chinese). I’ve noticed this problem lessening as more 老外 can speak Chinese, or are seen speaking Chinese on TV. When I first was learning Chinese over 20 years ago the 尴尬 barrier was much worse. So here is what I think happens in these circumstances: Westerner approaches Chinese person and begins to open mouth to speak; Chinese person thinks “Oh no, the big noser is approaching me. It’s going to speak English and I’m going to have to respond in English. Oh no, my English isn’t good enough. I’m going to be embarrassed”. Then in the nervous preparation to speak English, they don’t even hear the Chinese coming out of your mouth. You probably will notice you often get a response in English or just a blank stare. They just might not be prepared or never have spoken with a foreigner who knows Chinese. So how do you bust past the barrier? I forge ahead starting with clear simple sentences and almost always say the first sentence twice to give the listener time to acclimate and get their head around the concept. You may need to repeat the same conversation you have had one million times about “Wow, you speak Chinese!” and go through all those questions about “why?”, “how long?”, etc. These are a great way to warm up your listener for what you originally approached him or her about.

  20. Don’t feel bad about and think your Chinese sucks…

    I said one sentence to someone before, but because we were surrounded by foreigners, he assumes I wasn’t speaking Mandarin.

    After I said the same thing again, he said,(in Mandarin) I thought you couldn’t speak Mandarin…”

    I just laughed, and then we talked about Mr. T.

  21. I think another reason may be that they are simply astonished that your speaking Chinese, or that a foreigner is speaking to them, depending on where you are. I think I surprised someone today when I asked them where to find a 书店. “书店在哪儿?“ I got a repeated “哪儿” and then I said again “在哪儿”, which resulted in continuous blinking and open mouth. 老婆 says my tones were correct, and that she might just have been surprised.

  22. They have told me my voice is too high pitched…I sound like a girl when I speak Chinese… I don’t this to be the case in English. So I’m afraid thats not the problem.

  23. many people maybe just too shocked to understand anything. They don’t always expect you can speak Chinese. So unless you are speaking very clearly, and speaking someting easy to be understood, people have illustion that you are speaking a foreign language.

  24. If you are going to learn speak accurate chinese please learn from Taiwan it is the place where you can learn a good chinese by the way china’s chinese ancient is quite difficult to understand when they are talking about and also not a right pronoucation because of their ancient. I am also chinese but chinese from malaysia, and i found that only China people’s chinese are too difficult to hear when they are talking and also a bit noisy. not even me all of my friends only can understand chinese’s chinese from the other country example
    chinese from Taiwan
    chinese from malaysia
    chinese from singapore
    chinese from burnei

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