The Gregory Jay Blog

3 things that took my Chinese level from merely fluent to near native

I majored in Chinese at Leeds University and like most students there I thought my Chinese was pretty good, it was only getting to China that made me realise how far I had to go. "No one speaks Mandarin, you need to learn to understand the way people really speak." "You can say that but no one speaks like that" are phrases you will hear constantly here about almost everything you learned in your textbooks. Imagine only ever hearing the Queen's English and then moving to Glasgow.

I chose to come to Tianjin for two reasons, 1 it was the place Huo Yuan Jia came from and 2 very few people here speak English, especially compared to Beijing or Shanghai where you can get around using only English if you have to. Which meant I would be forced to use my Chinese and (hopefully) progress faster! Within a few years I did gain a decent level of fluency and could converse in Chinese about anything and everything. However, there are three experiences that I credit with taking my Chinese from merely fluent to a near-native level.

Listening Class

I had a variety of different Chinese classes here and each one no doubt played a part in my improving Chinese. I learned ancient Chinese, reciting poetry, oral, reading and grammar classes to name only a few but the one class that really gave me a leap in proficiency was a listening class I had in the last year of my degree at Nankai Universtiy.

We sat in rows, each place seperated by a screen, within our little cubicles was a pair of headphones and a mic. The teacher at the front would play us some 'real' Chinese, not something made for language students but a radio show with sound effects, an interview done in heavy wind or a conversation with people from different regions with thick accents interupting each other. The topics were specific and in detail, a farmer discussing the diseases his pigs had, someone complaining about his experience trying to have his scooter repaired etc. Gone were the basic introductions and people at the market buying fruit in perfect slow Chinese.

The teacher would play the audio for a couple of minutes and ask us what it was about - this was the easy part. By that time I had been in China at least three years and had been listening and speaking Chinese for 8 hours everyday. For the Koreans in my class this was fairly difficult though, they got by on the fact that they could already read and write Chinese charactser as they are also used in Korea and so written exams were easy but very few of them had any speaking or listening skills. Understanding what was being said was a comprehension skill and one that didn't soley test listening.

Next the teacher would rewind (Yes these were on tape) and replay the first sentence. She would ask us to repeat the sentence into the microphone. It was at this time that you realised your true listening level. I almost always knew what they were saying but could never repeat it word for word.

I wasn't actually hearing everything, I was hearing some of the main words or most recognisible words and my brain was filling the rest in. She would rewind and play it again and again often playing one word or phrase at a time until we could repeat it. Even if we didn't know the word we just had to make the sound that the speaker was making. This one exercise improved my listening beyond measure and after a term of doing this I noticed I could almost always reapeat a full sentence that was said to me. It allowed me to ask the question what does ..... mean filling in the blank with the exact word or phrase that was used.

My fluency level jumped.

The Working Enviroment

I strongly believe that language level increases with necessity. Moving to a new country people quickly become able to order food and drink and ask where somewhere is because its necessary for them to be able to do this. This also explains why many foreigners here in China never get past this basic level of fluency, once they are able to use the language well enough to get by they no longer have a necessity to get better.

One way then to continue progressing is to find an enviroment that will make necessary a higher language level than you currently have and put yourself in that enviroment as often as possible. A situation where you need to talk to children, monks, avid readers or wine lovers are each going to require of you a new set of vocabulary and a new way to express yourself resulting in better Chinese.

I noticed this when I started working in Beijing. I had just graduated and moved from Tianjin to work in a biotech company in the center of Beijing. I was usually the only foreigner in the office and although I could speak Chinese fluently by then, the way we talked in class wasn't the same as the way people talked in the office enviroment. There was a seriousness and specificity that wasn't required in the classroom - people asked me because they needed to know precisely and quickly so they could get on with their work.

Apart from the change in the way I needed to use the language there was also a new set of vocabulary that came along with this new enviroment. I had never learned the word 'to expense" or 'micotoxin' at school but I now had a new necessity not only to understand these new word but to be able to use them.

My fluency level jumped again.

Having a kid

Every step of the journey of being a father has brought with it a language level boost. Before he was born I had to talk to doctors about placenters and amniotic fluid and a whole bunch of medical terminology (much of which I didn't know in English.) After he was born I had to learn the names of the vaccines and common diseases that kids contract. As he started to talk I learned cultural common knowledge of songs and fairy tales told to kids, the cute words to call feet or cheeks (like tootsies or chops.)

All of this new vocabulary not only allows one to express oneself better in any situation and to understand what is being said in a more varied enviroments but the added cultural understanding becomes so valuable in order to actually think as a native person thinks. To follow along their logic and to understand the influences and biases they have gives one the abillity to understand the language at a deeper level rather than just a translation of some vocabulary words.

Greg is a true Sinophile, fluent in Chinese and proficient in Tibetan he is a homeschooling Dad that also consults on the side. You'll often find him cigar in mouth, book in hand, waiting for someone to finish their work or for the coffee to brew.