The most spontaneous Chinese I’ve spoken was to a Laowai

By Confused Laowai | Date: March 13th, 2011 | Category: Language

I don’t know how to feel about it. Yesterday, I met friend of my older brother who has been staying in Taiwan for 9 years. He coincidentally was in a band in Taiwan. I wrote about them last year. Here is the video again.

We were a rock gig in my home town and started talking Chinese to each other. Although it was loud, I understood most of what he had to say and he understood me likewise. However, I felt a lot more comfortable talking to him than any Chinese person I’ve met. Of course in class, during my undergrad studies, I talked to the 老师, but outside of class I’m still really scared to test my spoken skills with native Chinese speakers.

The irony of it all is just so apparent, I’m kicking myself here. But I know why. I know why I feel more comfortable talking to laowai in Chinese. He has more limited vocabulary, knows what to emphasize and what to produce to make sure he is understood not only to me, but as someone who went through the same process in learning Chinese, he realizes what I’m going through.

Again, there is also the feeling of being judged on your speaking skills by native Chinese, that I feel is always present. I feel like I have to prove something. But speaking to laowai, we both know, we haven’t mastered the language. So it’s more relaxed. There’s an element of humility and respect present.

I have to emphasize however: my exposure in speaking Chinese outside of class is very limited. I’m planning a trip to China in June/July. Maybe then I’ll have more experience and this viewpoint might likely change.

Do you feel your confidence and speaking abilities change depending on the person? What about age differences? That could also be a big difference, and even relevant interests. Please leave a comment!

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  • Andrew Bristle (沈睿均)

    I was so afraid to talk to native speakers before I went to China! Well, even in China it was a little stressful. I only started to get comfortable in the semester after I got back. There’s a group of Chinese foreign exchange students and Americans learning Chinese who meet every week at my school. I got a lot of great practice there, so I feel more confident now.

    I think I’m more comfortable speaking to adults in Chinese, because they speak a bit more formally and with less slang. People my age can be a bit difficult to understand sometimes.

    The hardest part of having a conversation with a native speaker is convincing them that you can understand their responses! I don’t know how many times I’ve struck up a conversation in Chinese only to be persistently answered in English. haha

    Also, I am so jealous that you’re going back to China. I don’t know when I’ll be able to go back… You’ll get some great practice for sure.

  • NielDLR

    Thanks for the awesome comment Andrew!

    I haven’t noticed the slang difference yet, so that is something I’ll
    definitely look out for too. And yes, the English responses, haha,
    that is another battle. Did they ever give in in the end? Or did you
    just keep on talking in Chinese and the other person in English?

  • NielDLR

    Thanks for the comment Sara,

    interesting point you made about laowai who have better Chinese
    fluency. For me I find it the opposite. I guess it depends on the kind
    of laowai as well. If it is some proud loser who thinks you are a
    stupid for not having as perfect Chinese as he/she does, then it gets
    intimidating and annoying really quick. So I kind of understand where
    you are coming from. For me, the guy from Taiwan, was relaxed and was
    already a friend when we started talking. He was just eager to talk in
    Chinese. So I didn’t mind his enthusiasm. I reckon it would be
    different speaking to laowai in China though.

  • Woman

    Judged??? LOL!!! Funny!!! No. I don’t feel as if I am being judged… I just love how I sit back, listen, and have people speak in Chinese thinking I don’t understand then add in my two cents then watch their faces light up… that is the priceless part of it all!!!

    Confidence… not too much. I speak when I can, but find most people prefer me to speak in English as I am the foreigner and they want to practice.

    Age difference… the little kids are the best when you get them in your classroom and you let them teach you one word if they’ve been good. The middle aged folks are a little more… how do I put this? Think if you understand a little, you understand it all so just babble on… which is interesting at times!!!!

    If you are scared/nervous to try out your Chinese to Chinese people; remember this one little thing… shop keepers are your friends especially the ones near your home. Visit the same ones all the time, and most of the ones I know? I sit around with them from time to time chatting into the breeze having a beer with them. They are used to you, and know you are learning and trying to speak with them they have a huge amount of patience and a will to teach you as they find you interesting!!! Just remember… watch out for the “hua”s!!!!

  • NielDLR

    Wow, thanks for the cool comment. I like the way that you’re looking
    for people who want to practice their English. I think you get two
    kinds, those that never give in and just want to talk English, ’cause
    all they want to do is just practice English, but I think there are
    those that you mention, those that want to learn, but realize your
    position as well. So it becomes a mutual exchange.

    There are a few Chinese shops here in my hometown, I’ll try and make
    the effort with them.

    Confused Laowai

  • Woman

    Trust me. I never go looking for people to practice their English!!! I teach it… and in my off time??? I am pretty private and careful about who I socialise with these days… small city life in China and all!!! I like the quiet life and not my face on bill boards any more!!! It was a phase. Honest!

    I like the the everyday people that I meet, as I said shop keeps, fruit market people, the folks from my favourite restaurants and street food people… they are my favourite people to try to talk to as they only know “hi” or “hello” in English and are curious about you, and you see them often enough they get to know you for you, and enjoy your company. And they are so interesting as well!!!! I seem to run into the pushy ones that want to learn English… my favourite line is “I want to be your friend so you can teach me English.”

    I haven’t read too far into your blog yet, I am in the phase of procrastinating on my marking at the moment, so I am uncertain of where you are living, but I kindof assume in the south?

    From ten years in China, living in the small cities, travelling only to the big cities if I have too I have learnt this one important aspect of Chinese people. They respect you more if you try to speak their language. And if you butcher it? They might laugh (and that is what makes it all the more hilarious to me), but just remember. When they speak Chinglish to you… call someone a she rather than a he, and say what to us is the most oddest thing in the world??? We laugh too. And with the tones?? I’ve learnt NEVER to ask for a pen again. Cause I am tone deaf!!!!

  • NielDLR

    Hahaha, you seem to have some nice & funny stories of your time in
    China. Unfortunately, I’m not staying in China at the moment. I’m from
    South Africa and still studying here. I studied Chinese for three
    years as a degree. I’m going back soon in June/July for a planned
    three week travel session. But definitely planning on going to China
    after my studies for a year or two.

  • Woman

    Oh! One of the most amazing climates on earth from what I have studied!!! And a place on my map to go.

    Ahhh you have the “China Sickness”. You’ve been here. You’ve loved it. And can’t wait to get back here!!! Figured it was easier to just stick around for years!!!! Take care.

  • NielDLR

    Aha! So that is what they call it. I indeed have the case of “China Sickness”.
    Take care indeed.

  • Dave@ChineseHacks

    I find this rare, even when I was learning Chinese in Taiwan. That is, meeting another foreigner who is willing to speak Chinese outside of the learning environment. I always strive to use Chinese whenever possible, but most people, as soon as they get out of class just leave the Chinese behind – even in breaks during class.

    Though, I have met a few people, I think maybe two, who have been willing to speak Chinese even though both of our mother tongues was English. One was an American girl who was my classmate for a semester. Once we went for dinner after class and continued to speak Chinese through dinner, we did get some funny looks from the servers some of who even commented on it.

    I think speaking Chinese to other foreigners is a great way to practice, you can pick up new words and correct each other, so it’s definitely worthwhile and a valuable part of learning.

  • Joseph Calpin

    Do you feel your confidence and speaking abilities change depending on the person? What about age differences? That could also be a big difference, and even relevant interests.

    When I studied in China I tended to look for older Chinese people to talk with. Unlike talking to some of the hip Beijing businessmen (who invariable spoke better English than I could Chinese), the elderly would only speak to me in Chinese. Granted this sometimes backfired because I had a hard time understanding small children and the extremely elderly. Second group I really enjoyed talking to was taxi drivers. Most of them speak so fast or garbled that they are difficult to understand, but I figure that they are a native speaker and non-academic so of course it will be difficult. The problem I have in speaking Chinese with other foreigners, particularly classmates, is the sense of competition or level grades. Case in point, when I studied in Taiwan as a beginner, I found it next to impossible to converse with advanced learners. They seemingly had higher expectations or would establish relationships based on language level. To me, the native speaker already has a sense of your limitations and can’t fault you for it. All of that being said, I did have a few friends that were in the advanced levels and beginner levels, but it tended to make me uncomfortable to hang out with extremely advanced students.

    (Note: I am not as nerve racked about it now since I am at least intermediate-advanced, but as a beginner I was far to intimidated.)

    @ Dave@Chinesehacks

    “I find this rare, even when I was learning Chinese in Taiwan. That is, meeting another foreigner who is willing to speak Chinese outside of the learning environment. I always strive to use Chinese whenever possible, but most people, as soon as they get out of class just leave the Chinese behind – even in breaks during class.”

    I know exactly what you mean! If it weren’t for language pledges at a few programs I went to, the students would have only spoken English. I am a student aide for an instructor in the United States, and it never fails to amaze me how students will speak English right up until the bell rings announcing the beginning of class. I think it is a matter of finding that one or, maybe if you are lucky, two students who are willing to speak outside of class. You set up a mini language pledge and dedicate yourselves to work on it. Out of the forty or so students who study here at my university, I only have one student who does so with me. : (

  • NielDLR

    Yeah, interesting observation. I think, because the we weren’t in a Chinese
    environment it was more acceptable and not seen as strange by the
    environment. It is always a bit weird to not talk in your mother tongue, if
    both have the same one, but it was a breath of fresh air.

    I think we both realized that this is a pretty cool situation to be talking
    Chinese in South Africa, no-one understands us, and we’re using a novel
    skill – and we’re not Chinese.

  • NielDLR

    Hey Joseph,

    thanks for the insightful comment.

    To answer your questions: Yes, confidence and speaking abilities do change
    depending on the person. Like I said, I’m more comfortable speaking with
    laowai, because they also know they’re making mistakes. Thus, the discourse
    moves to communication, rather than perfect grammar and tones. This is what
    I usually am afraid of in speaking to Chinese, is that they’ll have a hard
    time trying to understand me, because of their mastery of the language.
    They’ll infer other words when I get the tones wrong, or they’ll try and
    correct me whenever I make a mistake. Thus it feels a chore in a way. I just
    want to talk. Even I make mistakes, just try to get the meaning across and
    I’m willing to do that to other speakers as well. It is much more relaxed
    and that allows me to talk better.

    Interesting point you made about advanced learners. I sometimes find that as
    well. I’ve got a girlfriend who is currently a second year student at our
    same University. Sometimes I’d make random comments in Chinese, but I’d try
    my best to make sure she understands me, so I’m not some high and mighty
    Chinese learner.

    In a way, it also depends on the person. I’ve got a Chinese friend. We’ve
    been friends for a while now, but I can’t speak to her in Chinese, because
    she isn’t willing to help and encourage me. There are a lot of factors on
    why she might do it, one is that sometimes she feels that Chinese learners
    are only gonna use her for her language skills and aren’t really interested
    in her. Thus, there’s lots of other factors involved.

    I think I got lucky with meeting a great guy is who is willing to speak
    casual Chinese with me. I hope this works for other laowai as well.

  • Greg

    Niel, just go for it. You’re looking for a reason to speak with someone, almost as if you need an excuse. You don’t – just speak to someone. There are so many Chinese people looking to practise their English, you’ll easily find some patient to skype with.

    There has been a lot of debate in the comments above, but that is just making it more intellectual, and less likely. Just do it Niel! :-)

  • NielDLR

    You speak the truth man. I should just suck it up and go for it. :)

  • Greg

    Niel, “should” do this, “should” do that … still too intellectual. Just do it. Seriously :-)

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