Language Outsider (iii)

Andrei Marks · June 12, 2008

Cultural and linguistic disadvantages in group conversation.

Linguistic hurdles include: simply not being able to understand or misunderstanding what is being talked about; not being able to catch on to the overall narrative of the conversation because your mind gets hung up on the details; or the opposite situation, grasping the gist of the ideas, but missing out on the details; lack of knowledge of technical terms or idiom or slang. These are all on the listening end, and the speaking side of it can be even more daunting, like an inability to express one’s ideas because of lack of mastery of grammatical structures or vocabulary, or an inability to express oneself fluidly in the proper rhythm of a native speaker.

These and more compound to create the largest stumbling linguistic block at all, subtlety. Going back to humor, there are certainly many forms of it ranging along the spectrum beginning at brash and dirty and ending at witty and intellectual, and in most (intelligent) conversation it tends to gravitate towards the latter. Which makes subtlety a tool of no small importance, not just in the application of it, but in the recognition of it. Thankfully my level of Mandarin ability gives me enough spring to bound over a lot fo these hurdles, but I wouldn’t even need all of the fingers on a single hand to count the number of times I might catch a glimpse of subtlety or bring it into play over the course of hour long banter.

But subtlety needs more than a good grasp of the language, you have to cross chasms of cultural peculiarities as well. Taking my daily lunches as an example, when the topic of conversation turns to America, or the experience of studying abroad, or my travels, or even just myself, then I can hold my own. I’m fairly well versed in those things, haha. But as soon as the center gravitates away from me, and we’re talking about say…preparing to take their road test, discussing a Burmese power plant contract, the costs of buying an apartment in different areas, then I get lost fast. Sometimes those cultural disadvantages lead in a downward spiral towards linguistic disadvantages.

Fortunately, the Chinese love to talk about their culture and love to exchange parallels and contrasts between Chinese and American culture, but sometimes I don’t want to base everything I talk about on those things. One of the things I regret is having dropped my habit of reading Chinese news religiously. Current events are always great. I stay away from the touchy stuff though…haha, all the stuff I’m most interested in hearing about! I just need more time to practice with the subtle knife.

Too bad I’m already starting to drift away from Mandarin towards serious Japanese study. I don’t want my Mandarin to backslide again! I’ll have to refocus over the summer.


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