Strategies for Not Knowing Mandarin Well

Trip Start Oct 05, 2009
Trip End Mar 28, 2010

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Flag of China  , Beijing,
Thursday, October 15, 2009

Now that I have been here a few more days, I've developed some strategies for not understanding Mandarin well.

0.  Look for English cues - This is almost not worth writing but if you are in a place where there are at least some English signs, this could help with your situation.  It would be quite embarrassing to miss something that you could have understood right away.  Definitely a must when navigating through the public transportation.

1.  Reply with a question - When someone says something in a way that's too difficult to understand, I ask, "So you're saying...?" and then I try to guess.  If you are wrong, they will try to say it again, but if you are right then you feel brilliant and impressed with yourself.

2.  Change the subject - This is more applicable for when you are buying something.  For example, I was looking at humidifiers and then this sales pitch started.  While the guy was probably talking about the flow rate and capacity, I realized I had no idea what he was talking about.  Instead, I posed a question which changed the subject to "What about this product?  What's different about this one"

3.  Stop and think - Sometimes it's best to just stop and think.  Perhaps I really did get more than I initially thought.  If I think harder, the word could come to me.  The trick is mainly to get them to slow down.  Otherwise, you could be flooded with words.  I use this at work a lot.

4.  Get them to keep talking about the same thing - If you get them to continue on about something by affirming or being interested.  Although it's really counter-intuitive because you feel like you are missing everything, there is a higher chance that you could recognize something in the sentence that you could lead to a more intelligent reply or to at least use (1).  I used this when I was taking a tour of a gym facility.  I could guess most of what he was saying so I just let him talk.

5.  Honesty - Ok, in the end, if it gets out of hand, and you have missed something important you do ask... "what do you really mean?  Sorry I didn't get it!" (in Chinese of course).  Then they will actually clarify.  But this is the last resort. =)

I think it's safe to say that if you are not a native speaker, then it will be impossible to know everything.  So it's a very gradually process where one has to be patient and steadily build up vocabulary.  I let a lot of words go by in conversation in hopes that I am not sounding like an idiot.  But most of the time, it's been good.

In other news, I helped a kid get a new English name.  He had one before but didn't like it.  The one I proposed was more original (Riley).  Maybe this could be a side-business. =)
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