Don’t Blame Native Speakers for Not Understanding You

Photo by Martin Pu00e9chy on

I recently came across a video parodying a phenomenon allegedly encountered by many Japanese learners. The sketch (see below) involves a group of five friends about to order food at a restaurant in Japan. All but one of the friends speaks fluent Japanese. The sole non-Japanese speaker also happens to be the only member of the group whose appearance can ‘pass’ for Japanese.

Based on her looks, the waitress mistakenly assumes the non-Japanese speaker is Japanese and approaches her to take the order. The rest of the group take turns to explain that their friend can’t speak the language and attempt to order the meal. Each friend speaks Japanese flawlessly yet the waitress fails to understand them and repeatedly turns to the non-Japanese speaker for help. The scene reaches a climax when one of the friends reveals he grew up in Japan and that Japanese is actually his first language. Still, the waitress steadfastly refuses to accept someone who looks foreign can speak Japanese.

The sketch is amusing but it is worth questioning the extent to which the cultural tendency being parodied actually exists. Do Japanese people really refuse to accept that people they deem to look foreign can speak the language, regardless of how fluent they are? Reading the comments underneath the video many learners claim they have ecountered the same reaction from locals when speaking ‘perfect’ Japanese. Others are sceptical, some even saying they have the opposite problem: Japanese people assume they are fluent just because they can pronounce a few basic phrases well.

A fascinating follow up video filmed Japanese pedestrians’ reactions to the sketch. The participants were all quite baffled and seemed completely unaware of the alleged cultural trait being parodied. After watching the video they responded that if a foreigner spoke Japanese to them fluently they would naturally respond in Japanese without hesitation.

Not knowing much about Japanese culture and speaking no Japanese I’m not in a position to comment on the extent to which the video is true to life. But I have my suspicions that the sketch’s premice and wide appeal is based at least in part on some common misconceptions that also afflict Mandarin learners.

A Chinese friend once told me a story about a man she knew who lived in China for several years during which time he made a serious attempt to learn Mandarin. He was very confident speaking Chinese and did so at every opportunity. Unfortunately, the most frequent response he received back from native speakers was: “Sorry, no English.” After receiving one too many such replies he decided to give up.

I have never experienced anything quite as brutal as that. But as an intermediate learner there are still occasional moments when, despite feeling that I could not have expressed myself more clearly, native friends struggle to understand something I’ve said. Even more annoyingly they sometimes respond: “我能明白你大概的意思”(er…I think I kind of get what you’re trying to say.”

I remember one incident during a video call with a friend. I wanted to tell her that I was going to record our conversation so I could listen back to myself speaking Chinese. I said: “我会录我们的对话” (literally: I will record our conversation.) My friend paused for a moment as if struggling to understand. I was overcome with frustration: how on earth can a sentence so simple and pronounced so clearly, with perfect tones, be difficult to comprehend? She explained that Chinese people wouldn’t say it like that. A more natural way of expressing it is: “我会把我们的对话录下来.”

When these situations arise the natural instinct of many learners is to blame the native speaker. You’ve just made a huge effort to communicate your message clearly, paying attention to make sure every tone is correct and no grammar errors were committed. Why are they being so awkward?

Yet the reality is that in the majority of cases they aren’t being awkward at all. The problem is rather that you’ve expressed yourself awkwardly, using constructions influenced by English which native speakers wouldn’t use. Though you may not have violated any specific rule of grammar the way you’ve expressed an idea is nevertheless unnatural and Chinese people find it genuinely challenging to understand what you mean.

As I suspect is the case with many Japanese learners who see their lived experience depicted in the parody video above, some students of Mandarin are unaware that the fault lies not with native speakers but with their language skills. Some learners believe their Chinese is perfect because when they are in class they speak fast and are understood. But teachers are honed experts at decoding the meaning behind awkwardly formed sentences and bad tones. When these students encounter folk who aren’t used to hearing foreigner Chinese and can’t understand it, some believe they are being awkward or even discriminating against them based on their foreign appearance.

Another reason learners may be unaware of their shortcomings is that in social conversations native speakers often don’t reveal when they haven’t fully understood us. Many prefer to pretend or asume they’ve understood and continue chatting, either out of politeness or lack of energy. Some tolerance of ambiguity is necessary for interactions to run smoothly, especially at a lower level. It’s not fun for a conversation to be interrupted each time one party hasn’t completely understood the other. But too much tolerance can make intermediate students oblivious to how difficult their Mandarin is for others to comprehend.

There are some simple solutions which I have found helpful in improving my clarity of expression. The first step is to stop blaming native speakers and accept that your Chinese is the problem. Next, seek more input through listening and reading. As I’ve written elsewhere, becoming accustomed to Mandarin sentence patterns so that you can automatically produce them yourself rather than translating from your mother tongue requires hundreds of hours of exposure to the language. Finally, instruct your tutor and friends to be direct and honest with you when they haven’t completely understood you or when you have expressed yourself badly.

At first you might be surprised at how often misunderstandings you weren’t aware of actually occur. But by recieving consistent, honest feedback you can start paying attention to specific issues in your spoken Chinese which cause barriers to comprehension.

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