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Saturday, February 09, 2008

Do you know why people don't understand you

After said something about the possible reasons of why you don't understand other people, it's time to say the other way: why people don't understand you.

Successful communications take two ways. For a Mandarin Chinese learner, it's not uncommon that they tried so hard to say something, and that something didn't get across to the other end at all. I have witnessed countless times when this happened. It's very discouraging to any learners indeed.

Most people will naturally point it out that it's the pronunciation that fails the learners. Especially Mandarin, a radically different language, has so many different sounds, and so tonal. However, from my observation, this is the last thing between you and your listeners. There are other things far more important. Here are my three points listed in order of importance:

1) Language structure and habit
2) How to use the vocab you know to say something you don't know
3) Your accent (pronunciation)

Most people get tumbled on the first point when they think it's everything but. For instance, one person wanted to order water in a restaurant. He learned that water is "shui" with the third tone. So he told the waitress: "shui3." And the waitress looked all confused and didn't understand what he wanted. It's not that he said anything wrong. It's that he didn't know when Chinese people order water they wouldn't only say "shui3" as a westerner would do in a western restaurant. Chinese people tend to say a bit more like: "yi ping kuang quan shui", or "yi bei shui", or "yi bei re shui", or something shui.

The second point baffled so many people. One common complain is that "I don't have enough vocab." Probably nobody will ever have enough vocab even for native speakers. The trick is that as a second language speaker one needs to change some speaking patterns that he is so used to as a first language speaker. If you don't know how to say "Don't hurry.", you can say "We have time" (wo men you shi jian.) instead. For those diligent students, they will look up a dictionary and find hurry as "gan jin 赶紧", or "cang cu 仓促", etc. But then they tend to fall in the first catch of neglecting structure or habit and say something like: bu cang cu. And that will not get your meaning across.

The last part that may hinder people understand you is your accent (pronunciation). If you have taken care of the first and second points, you are fine most of the time. If you know "don't hurry" is "bie zhao ji 别着急", you can assure that people will understand you even you say the phrase in a quite different accent. A person from Qing Dao will say "bie zhao ji" quite differently from a person from Luo Yang. And you, just add some flavor to hundreds of different accents that Chinese people already have, get a quite nice and distinctive Spanish accent, German accent, or English accent. No big deal.

Now it's time to think what is the real thing that stands between you and a smooth communication.