Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Something happened to my Mandarin!

Have you seen it too?

Over the last couple of weeks, I've noticed something has changed in my Mandarin.  I'm focusing here on the difference between (mentally) translating, and (intellectually) understanding.

I would love to be able to tell you that I woke up one morning and discovered I was perfectly fluent - but that's not true. And I don't know exactly when it happened, but given the level of the material & discussion partners I've been working with lately, I can see signs of it now.

Basically, I'm understanding without understanding. Bruce Lee would have been proud of this statement ("The art of fighting, without fighting"), but it makes sense if you think about it ...

I'm sure you know what it's like in your Mandarin world too ... when someone says 你好 (nǐ​hǎo​) to you, you probably don't have translate nǐ​hǎo​='Hello' (thinks: "Ah, they're saying hello to me. What friendly people."). You just know they mean 'hello' and you respond to that.

OK, so in recent months I've mainly been listening to elementary-level podcasts (ChinesePod equivalent), and I could understand most of what I heard. The conversation was at a slow enough level that I could pretty much translate sentences, word-by-word, and understand it all as I went along.

But my language partners have been speaking a bit faster to me, and I've been listening to intermediate-level podcasts, and although it's too fast for me to be able to mentally translate  word-by-word, I still find that I'm reaching the end of the conversation with a rough idea of what I'm hearing.

Of course, there are plenty of cases where I can understand (without translating) most of the sentence, but because I don't get the main word, I don't fully know what the sentence actually means. But I still get enough to know that I'm on the right track.

So I'm responding to this by trying to shut down my conscious mind, and just listen (without trying to translate). And although it's still managing to evade me, I have noticed I am definitely operating at a higher level.

Something has definitely happened.

Have you experiened something similar? Do you remember the first time you understood what someone was saying to you even though you didn't seem to hear the words they were using? Or is this something you're still waiting for? Please leave a comment - I'd love to hear from you. 


  1. This is quite familiar to me, as a heritage learner. I'm still far from being able to produce everything I can understand, which very often leads me getting into situations where I don't have the words to express what I want to say.

    Would you say you are having the same change in written Mandarin? My reading comprehension is painfully slow.

  2. Hi Greg!
    Congratulations! That's a real mental milestone!

    I grew up not speaking my parents language, (still don't) so I'm pretty sure, upon reflection, that I didn't go though a 'translating' phase; I always just go with my best guess. My folks laugh and correct me when I respond incorrectly, which is not that often.

    I try to teach the guessing skill to my students, which they resent me for. It's counter intuitive, but now you know: translating is a different and more difficult skill than understanding.

    One bad habit I have is that when I'm not terribly interested in the topic (or the person) I often find myself nodding and agreeing and participating in a conversation when I actually have no idea what... she... is saying. Not translating, not guessing, not listening, basically... but nodding and agreeing like an idiot. I'm pretty sure my students do the same to me...

  3. Zhefei:
    You raise an interesting point about what impact this understanding-without-translating might have on my speaking. Since this is a new phase, there has been no impact. But I'll keep an eye out for it.

    And in terms of reading, this definitely applies. I mentioned in a previous post that of the 1500 characters I have learned, some of them I'm forgetting, but others I'm easily able to recognise without thought. This allows me to correspond comfortably purely in Chinese at a basic level.

    How do you teach the guessing game? For me it just feels like I'm at the right level where it has started happening naturally. You think this can be accelerated?

    Amusing comment about the nodding. I found that if I speak to native English speakers, they almost never challenge me on the nodding. Of course they assume I can understand them! When when discussing with a language partner, they might say something, I nod, they ask if I know what they mean, I say yes, and they ask me to explain what I understood ... then I have to admit that actually I wasn't following! (blush)

  4. I think I'm going through the same phase right now. I even noted it, as you did, while listening to different levels of ChinesePod and wondering at how I'm now 'getting it'.

    Learning a language is all about the creation of new wiring in the brain. In the beginning, all you can do is remember but it's nearly impossible to use that memory part of the brain for the purpose of understanding and communication. Eventually the words get wired up to the part of the brain that feels and understands.

  5. This has happened to me recently as well. In my third year Mandarin class at University, our teacher has now decided to give class in 95% Mandarin. Thus, we had to adapt otherwise not understand class at all. It catapulted my listening skills.

    Also, we now have a speaking period as well, and I was amazed at how much I could speak and understand other students. Every day after the speaking class I'm so proud of myself.

  6. Awesome Greg!! I feel like this all of the time, most of the time when I'm watching Chinese drama and my sister asks me to translate :D usually there's some things I can only know through context but it still works fine. I'm proud of you and glad that you're advancing so well!!

    Keep it up, and I'll try to get a Skype sooner or later xD


    P.S. Can I have those podcasts? They sound interesting :)

  7. Greg,
    In my classroom, the target language is the language of instruction, and I speak at a normal speed. That goes a long way.

    The second thing is that I outlaw "English bombs" where they blurt out an English translation. One day we got to a word in the text that means "brakes" (the ones that stop the car). A student asks me "what is this word?" and I grab an imaginary wheel, stomp on the imaginary brakes, and screech to a halt. He drops the English bomb, saying "breaks?" And I repeat word in Spanish the gesture. And then he smirks at me and says "breaks?" and I repeat word in Spanish and the gesture. We go through this about 10 times, every time he drops the English bomb "brakes" and every time I repeat my gesture. By this time he's rolling his eyes at me, and smirking at me like I'm an idiot.

    Ok, stop, I said. What's the word in Spanish for "brakes?" He looked at me dumbstruck and then went to search for the word again on his text. Son, I said, it's there under your finger, and I just SAID it to you ten times... how can you not know this word?

    The reason why is that he kept translating... all he cared about was the English. If you're learning Spanish, Spanish has to be your goal.

    The reason it's an English "bomb" is because it's not just the person that drops the bomb that doesn't end up learning the word... it effects everyone in earshot.

    So English bombs are outlawed in my class. For some reason, people don't believe that they understand until they have an English word. I tell them they don't need to the English word, that the 'discomfort' will pass, and that they should just nod knowingly. The English equivalent may occur to them, or it may not, but for the purposes of Spanish class it's irrelevant. Save translations for translation class!

  8. Lee: What you say makes perfect sense. After you've been learning for a while, the understanding seems to require less conscious effort - which is just as well, because of course it can't 'translate' and 'understand' at the same time. Too slow!

    Niel: That must feel really satisfying, coming out of a class which has been 95% in Chinese! It still surprises me how little emphasis formal lnaguage education puts on speaking skills - I'm glad your teacher ensures you get dedicated time for that.

    Kara: People keep telling me that I'll get more understanding out of watching Chinese dramas than Chinese movie. Do you agree?

    JP: Thanks for the detailed explanation. I can totally see your logic for outlawing "English Bombs" in your class - I'm sure it works well.

    I know for me, having learned Afrikaans at school for 12 years, but never really having spoken it much, it will really difficult when I started dating an Afrikaans woman, and had to socialise with her friends - in Afrikaans. I had zero confidence in speaking, and really stammered while searching for the right words.

    However, I started using what you call "English Bombs". When I couldn't think of the Afrikaans word, I just used the English one and kept talking. People just didn't seem to notice, and the conversation.

    That really gave me confidence to talk - and once I was confortable with that, I started using fewer bombs.

    Maybe it's just the difference between a class setting and a pure conversational setting? Dunno. Thanks again for the input.

  9. I've had similar moments of realization and understanding in a couple different languages I've studied. It always comes after hours and hours of listening to content that I'm interested in. Frequently, it comes much faster after I've done lots of "listening" where I'm not actually paying much attention. For instance, I'll sit at work for 8 hours with my headphones on, just listening to some sort of audio as "background noise" for hours and hours, and sometimes a couple words will just filter through and I'll understand them.

    Another thing that I really like is audiobooks with text. Sometimes I just listen, other times I follow along in the text. I usually try to find books for teenagers, since they're still moderately interesting but easy. Harry Potter is good for this, and widely available in many languages.

    There's one book that I've been listening to in Swedish, and I've been really disappointed that I still can't find a text copy of it. But lately I've started to notice that I can understand a lot of the story now. I'm not sure what combination of factors has led to this, but I guess my study method has worked out because I understood absolutely zero Swedish in December, and now I can somewhat understand this audiobook as I listen. Not getting everything, but some of it just "clicks".

  10. Yes I agree! Because dramas are more modern than movies are (plus way longer of course) I tend to learn a lot of words whether by context or by reading the subs (Chinese and sometimes English too). With a movie, it only lasts an hour or two so you're bound to learn very few words. Try it :)


  11. Doviende - what you describe is exactly what I'm founding. Each subsequent listen is yielding more & more meaning. harry Potter? I dream of being able to read Harry Potter in Chinese. One day ...

    Kara - well, if you've read my latest post, you'll see that I went out and bought a couple of TV series. I will let you know how that goes.