Language Outsider (iii)

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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Language Outsider (ii)

Sometimes I like to think of human conversation as a game. Liken it to whichever game metaphor is handy—sports, video games, psychological games—or even better just speak of it as if conversation were a game in its own class. And the game gets really interesting when it’s played as a large group. Take mealtime chatter as an example. You have several people, any of whom might bring up a topic of conversation. Maybe something they were thinking about, or something they did, or something they saw. So the topic’s on the table, and then they develop it and grow it for the others with their words. There may or may not be a climax to it, maybe they were just mentioning something to get the ball rolling, but eventually somebody else will step in.

That person will carry the last person’s thought further, in whichever direction they’d like, until they’ve finished or are interrupted, whereupon someone else takes over. The dynamics of the exchanges get complicated fast, and the nature of the conversation can be varied. Maybe it’s an argument, a debate, simple banter, general bullshit, jokes, stories, whatever; each has its own style of play and its own strategy. Sometimes single threads of conversation weave in different directions throughout the night and sometimes the conversation is broken and restarted many times, or the main narrative splits up among the players and merges again later. There are so many different things to talk about, and so many different ways to talk about them! There are some people who dominate conversations, some people who are great at relevant interjections, some people who direct the talk on the sly, some people who are conversational wallflowers and some people who simply 空気を読むことができません! All sorts.

I generally think about dinner conversation in terms of laughter, with the more successful games leaving you with that nice warm feeling of general mirth afterwards. Haha, a conversational after-mirth if you will. And I know I can hold my own, not one-hundred percent of the time, but enough so that it’s always exciting to me. And sometimes I find myself thinking on that meta level, of when I contributed to the game by throwing in my words or throwing someone else’s words into a different light or bringing in something new and relevant. But that’s just in English, Chinese is a very different story.

Here at my internship, I eat out with my colleagues every afternoon, generally five to ten people on any given day. Now, one-on-one I can be gregarious as anything, but when you’ve got that many people playing the game, the field is extremely different, and I find myself opening my mouth a lot less. I’m not a language outsider, I can understand maybe 85% of what they say, with the 15% being some vocabulary I might not be familiar with on a basic level (let’s say they were talking about mortgages or some specific regional tea or, ugh, Chinese medicine) and which thus makes contributing all the more difficult. But even if I minimize the linguistic disadvantage, the cultural disadvantage is substantial.

Tomorrow I’ll describe more of what I mean, 明天见!

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Language Outsider (i)

Sunday night I went out with some friends to ç°‹è¡— for dinner. ç°‹è¡— is a great place, essentially a long street of restaurants, lots of 火锅,串儿等等. Red lanterns hanging all over the place, people waiting and talking outside, just tons of atmosphere. The restaurant we went to was great, it was really packed so we didn’t get to partake in any 重庆火锅, but the restaurant still had some great food. Crayfish, eel, frog, chicken (spicy!), beef, dofu, carp, etc. おいしいですね! And lots of 干杯!

Anyway, one of my Aussie friends brought along a Chinese friend, a Tsinghua student, which got me thinking about lopsided language dynamics. Out of six he was the only one who wouldn’t be comfortable with conversational English. He mentioned my 口音 wasn’t a problem to understand (Midlands accent!), but the Australian, southern, and non-native English accents were pretty much 听不懂. He spoke hardly more than a word of English the whole night.

Groups like this generally tend to gravitate towards English. Even though I try to accommodate the non-English speaker with Chinese as often as possible because it is great practice, the pull of the group’s lingua franca is pretty powerful. I always try to check that at the very least someone else is engaging the language outsider. Inevitably I end up feeling pretty bad for them. Language, or lack thereof, can be pretty alienating, and I always feel like I’m not being as polite as I should be. Worse, I imagine that the language outsider might leave the night feeling a little down, which is unfortunate. It is pretty incredible how fundamental communication, and therefore language, is to the human condition. I’ve been in the language outsider seat before, and it’s definitely not the most enjoyable experience.


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Next Chapter

Alright, I’ve finished Chapter 16 of my 新概念日语-1 book. Two more to go! It was a chapter on two points of grammar:

~なければ なりません。 (Must ~)

~なくても いいです。 (Don’t need to ~)

I have no idea how to analyze the first sentence structure . The second seems like a negation of the verb with the ‘~なくて’, although from what I’ve learned so far ~くて is just the い adjective’s way of listing more than one descriptive phrase. Otherwise, the ‘も いいです’ is simply ‘also is good.’ So…“not doing ~ is also okay”.

I like when explanations of grammar make sense, and so far Japanese has a lot of what I think of as idiomatic grammar rules. For instance, to take a verb, and turn it into an attempt to do said verb (i.e. to listen –> try to listen), or 试试听, you take the verb’s て root, and then use the verb 見る, or to see. So basically you’re saying “see if you can listen”. I’ve run into a couple of those, like using “to put away/to file away” for having completed an action that can’t be undone. Very interesting, because I’m pretty sure these aren’t just idiomatic phrases, but hard grammar rules.

I should really pick up a basic linguistics textbook, I haven’t read one in a while, so my ability to name all these different grammatical concepts is limited!

But I’m trying not to get to wrapped up in the explanation of the grammar. Tomorrow I’ll write about why, and about the method employed by one of my first Chinese teachers, who taught grammar purely in Chinese to to 101 level speakers, and in my opinion was pretty successful with it.

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Lawyerly Language

While I’ve been working here at my internship at the 国浩律师集团(北京), I’ve picked up a lot of legal lingo. Well, hopefully I’ve absorbed it. We’ll see how fast it runs out of my head when I’m back in the good old U.S. of A. But just chatting with the lawyers has also been a great study opportunity. Here are a few of of the top phrases I’ve learned:

Sort of “a right bastard”. Literally “smelly/disgusting bandit”. Used among friends as a joke, among strangers not the politest thing to say.

姑娘,这是你掉下来的板儿砖儿吗?(you want the retroflex on the the 板砖)
A classic pick-up line. Ideally you will pick up a tile or brick off the street (because there’s always construction going on everywhere in Chinese cities), present it to a girl and shoot off the question. Preserving grammatical structure: “Girl, this is your dropped tile ?”, equivalently: “Miss, did you drop this tile/brick?”

Niu, or “cow”, for anything that’s really good, like a good school, good car, etc. Cainiao, or “colorful bird”, for the opposite.

Zhuangding, sort of an able-bodied man. In ancient times, these would be the guys gang-pressed into the army. So now, if somebody ‘la’s, or “pulls”, a zhuangding, that means being forced to do something, like your boss throwing something down on your desk.

Sort of a ‘wow!’ Often wa-sai, sometimes ‘wo-sai’. Not sure what the wa or wo is, wo might be “I”, and the sai I think might be the ‘competition’ sai. The semantics are less important than emphasis.

Good stuff!


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Rushing Through

My normal textbook habit is to make my way through each chapter slowly, and repeat readings of the current chapter during each session.

For instance, I’m on chapter fifteen now, and the chapter consists of a dialogue, vocab, grammar, and exercises. During each session, which might last 45 minutes or so, I will read through as much as the chapter as I can, interspersing flash card drills. Generally, because of attention span and or amount of content, I won’t make it all the way through on the first go, so for the second session, or the third, fourth, fifth, etc., I will start from the beginning. But eventually I get it down pat and I breeze through the chapter in a single session, whereupon I start the next.

However, recently this has taken me forever, keeping me stuck on the same chapter for a week and a half (of one-session a day days), so now I’m just barrelling on to the next chapter, and will do the same for the one after that, and so on. There are only three more chapters in the book and I just want to be done with it and move on! So hopefully by the end of this weekend I’ll have finished!


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