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They don’t understand my Chinese, what’s wrong?

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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?

学汉语的过程中,一件让我非常郁闷的事就是,我说的中文经常"不起作用"。我已经说过很多次了,我再说一次,得到的回应却是,别人在那干瞪眼!


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

你说的中文没人懂,有以下几个原因:


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.

1. 你说错了。极有可能,尤其是音调不准确。


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.

2. 你的音质与中文不符。好吧,这点真的不可思议,但我听一些中国人讲,外国人的声音太低沉了。


3. They don't want to understand you. This has happened a lot too.

3. 他们不想了解你。这种情况时常发生。


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.

可能是中国人在我开口说中文之前就认定我不会说中文了,而且他们认定,我要开口说的话会说英语或俄语。


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.

也可能是,我们已经用中文交流了,当我实际上想问别的事情的时候,听的人却认为我要讨价还价而果断说"不"。


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.

另一种可能是,听的人不喜欢我。我去过网球俱乐部做调查,我可以从他们的表情和凝视断定他们不欢迎外国人。当我问早上几点开门营业,他们会说"没有"。


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.

4. 他们不会说中文。每个外国人都说13亿中国人都说汉语。错!在中国,只有约一半的中国人会说汉语。即使会,他们也不想说。两个中国人在一起,他们通常会讲同一方言,或双方可以理解的语言。比起汉语,他们更喜欢讲方言。


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

所以,你们看到了,也许不是你错,你的汉语没那么"烂"。

2016-06-21

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