Three Ways Native Speakers React to Chinese Learners

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Two years ago I hosted a party for the language exchange group I run. My guests included a mixture of Chinese and English friends who were all keen to practice their language skills. Some brought along friends of their own who I had never met before. When my first Chinese guests arrived I showed them into the kitchen and introduced myself using the basic Mandarin that I knew. They reacted in a manner I had become accustomed to, expressing a few kind words of surprise and encouragement: “哇你的中文很好”(wow your Chinese is great).

Suddenly the doorbell rang, interrupting my moment in the spotlight. I opened the door to find a bespectacled Englishman standing in front of me. He told me he’d been invited to the party by a mutual friend so I let him in. The stranger then marched into the kitchen before introducing himself in flawless Chinese with a native Beijing twang. Unable to contain their shock, my guests’ jaws immediately dropped to the floor. The contrast between their looks of utter astonishment and the polite, modest reception I’d recieved moments earlier was stark and – to my ego – slightly bruising.

In the months and years since then I have noticed a variety of different reactions from native Chinese speakers to foreigners speaking the language. I believe these can be broadly placed into three categories or ‘phases’, which vary according to the learner’s proficiency.

Phase One: 哇你的中文很好!Your Chinese is great!

Most Mandarin learners are familiar with phase one. A perfect example is the polite response I received from my guests at the party for my modest attempt to introduce myself in Chinese. Typically learners need only say 你好 to elicit this reaction. Many Chinese people, especially those living abroad, are so unaccustomed to westerners making any effort to speak their language that uttering a single phrase can be enough to surprise them.

During this phase native speakers will often tell us how good our Chinese is. They don’t mean it literally. What they mean is that our Chinese has exceeded their expectations because they were expecting that, like everyone else, we wouldn’t know any Chinese. Most native speakers are very polite and encouraging to beginner learners which has the positive effect of spurring us on to continue studying. The downside, as I’ve written elsewhere, is that it sometimes leads to inflated egos and an unrealistic perception of one’s true level.

Phase Two: 你的中文还是OK的 Meh, your Chinese is OK

As I began to approach an intermediate level where I could start holding conversations with native speakers I noticed an interesting and counterintuitive pattern emerge. The more I progressed in my studies the more subdued the reactions of native speakers around me became. Suddenly the goalposts shifted and Chinese people began judging my Mandarin against a higher standard. It seemed that in the eyes of native speakers my Mandarin went from being great to merely OK.

Instead of the unbridled positivity I encountered earlier in my studies this new reaction was realistic and measured. The thinking behind it was along the following lines: “OK so you can speak some Chinese. But how does your level compare to other foreigners I’ve come across who can also hold a conversation? Actually, it’s pretty average. You can communicate but your use of the language is awkward and your tones are off: OK but not great. Keep going though 加油!”

Unfortunately phase two tends to last much longer than phase one as it coincides with the intermediate plateau which all Mandarin learners face. However, those who persist long enough will eventually be rewarded with entry into phase three.

Phase 3: 牛逼水平 Elite level

牛逼 is Chinese slang for awesome or highly capable. Popular online and TV personalities like 大山 and 老马 have set the bar very high when it comes to foreigners learning Mandarin, reaching a point where they sound barely distinguishable from natives. Native Chinese speakers are accustomed to watching TV programmes where elite learners compete for the crown of best Mandarin orator. The rest of us are then measured against that standard.

Learners at phase three are not only able to express themselves with ease but have also spent a significant amount of time perfecting their pronunciation and tones. This level remains a distant future goal for me. However, approaching a solid intermediate level, learners with half decent pronunciation can expect reactions somewhere in between phase 2 and phase 3.

A couple of weeks ago I went to a Chinese restaurant where, for the first time, I tried out some Mandarin on a waiter. He was initially impressed that I knew the word for steamed fish(清蒸鱼)and even more impressed that I was able to comfortably hold a longer conversation with him in Mandarin. We talked about our lives here in the UK and discussed approaches to language learning. His praise was noticably more sincere than phase one and significantly more positive than phase two but not the jaw dropping reaction my bespectacled English party guest received at phase three.

Bonus Phase

I recently outlined my three phase system to a Colombian friend who is fluent in Chinese. He informed me that there is in fact a phase four. The reaction fluent Mandarin speakers get when they reveal they can also speak Cantonese or other Chinese dialects often borders on hysterical and perhaps deserves a fourth category of its own. The late online polyglot Lao Shu was the grand master of eliciting this reaction as can be observed in the video below.

So which phase are you currently in? Let me know your experiences in the comments below.

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