You Don’t Understand Everything In Your Native Language. Stop Trying To Do So In Chinese

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One of my most misguided thought patterns when learning Chinese involved the belief that my ultimate goal must be to understand everything.

This was the case at the start when I couldn’t understand anything. But it became even more of a problem through the intermediate plateau as my goals became more ambitious. When I came across words or phrases I didn’t understand, the thought would pop into my head: “when will I finally reach a point where I can basically understand everything?”

Judging by comments I see online from other ambitious learners this seems to be a common frustration. In this blog I’ll explain why I think it’s based on flawed thinking which if left uncorrected can have detrimental effects on your learning. I’ll also suggest how you can reframe your goals towards a more productive mindset. 

Can You Really Understand Everything?

The desire to “understand basically everything” typically stems from observations about our capabilities in our native language(s). The learner, often an educated native speaker of English, perceives that when they listen to English content they understand everything, regardless of the topic being discussed or presented. They aim to be able to do the same in Chinese and are frustrated when they can’t.

But to what extent is the perception that we can understand everything in our native language true? In fact if we pay attention we’ll discover that numerous factors frequently prevent us from fully understanding content in our native language. 

One common barrier to comprehension is dialects and accents from unfamiliar regions. This is especially problematic for older people who may fail to understand younger dialects and slang which has permeated popular culture but which they’ve not had exposure to. 

Conversely, educated people under 40 might have trouble with literary phrases which are no longer in common usage but which many educated older people would know. I recall on one occasion a family member of the baby boomer generation was shocked that I’d never heard the phrase to turn turtle which means to capsize. 

Some people react defensively when I point out that being an educated native speaker doesn’t make them infallible. They insist that aside from dialects spoken by farmers on remote Scottish islands and technical jargon used in “niche topics” they can in fact understand pretty much everything. But what separates a niche topic from one which everyone is expected to understand?

The problem lies in the fact that different people are interested in different topics and there are very few topics that every native speaker is interested in or expected to understand. Take the most popular sport in the world, football. Few people would describe it as niche. Yet despite its popularity, many English speakers have difficulty picturing what’s going on when working their way through a typical match report in the Guardian.

If you don’t follow football try it yourself with the following mock test I created (scroll down for the correct answers):

“Despite Pep sending out an XI containing 10 players who will touch down in Qatar, Brentford proved unbending opponents. Their main ploys were to hit City on the break or in the air and the latter was how Thomas Frank’s men scored first…” 

Question 1: Explain in your own words what Brentford’s tactics were for this football match? 

Question 2. What do you know about the nature of the first goal?

The Change The Channel Effect

I suspect the delusion that we understand everything in our native language is caused by a trick of the mind which I will call the ‘change the channel effect’

Imagine you’re sitting in front of the TV. You switch it on and there’s a live baseball match on channel 1. You don’t follow baseball so you immediately switch to channel 2. On channel 2 two elderly women are deep in conversation about different stitches in knitting. You immediately switch to channel 3. You switch channels three more times before landing on channel 6 which is showing your favourite drama. You finally settle down to watch it. 

If you stop to ask yourself why you switched channels the first few times you might respond: “because the programmes were boring.” It might not occur to you that if you’d stopped to watch the baseball or knitting a good proportion of the key vocabulary would have gone straight over your head. Instead your brain swiftly anticipates the boring and arduous prospect of watching content it doesn’t fully understand (and isn’t motivated to learn) before sending a message to your hand to immediately change the channel. 

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Thus we spend the majority of our leisure time consuming content we’ve selected precisely because we can understand it with ease and find it compelling. Thanks to the internet we don’t even need to change the channel ourselves to avoid the incomprehensible. The content we see online has already been selected and curated for us by algorithms which predict which shows are likely to engage us and filter out those which aren’t. 

Of course we sometimes choose to expand and multiply our spheres of interest by learning about unfamiliar topics. But given the choice between watching a sport you’re already familiar with and learning the rules and vocabulary of one which your’e not, most adults most of the time will opt for the former. 

Whether it’s the books on our shelf, the friends we choose to spend time with or the Netflix shows we subscribe to, each of us lives in a unique linguistic bubble revolving around our interests and fields of specialism. The content that surrounds us is conveniently arranged to minimise time spent around incomprehensible language, giving rise to the illusory sense that we understand everything.

Creating Your Chinese Bubble

When we allow that illusion to influence our language learning goals, major frustrations ensue. We end up holding ourselves to a higher standard in Mandarin than in our native language. We tell ourselves we should understand the baseball in Chinese (even though we’re not interested) and that the reason we can’t is because we’re not at a high enough level yet. We forget that in our native language we would most likely just change the channel. 

This delusion leaves us perennially frustrated and traps us in the belief that we’re never good enough. We don’t observe ourselves making any progress because we have no focus and are floating aimlessly toward a destination that doesn’t exist. Learners whose goal is to know everything typically never regard themselves as fluent, even after a decade of intensive study. 

Instead, through interviewing the most successful learners I learned to adopt a more productive approach, one which resembles the way we operate in our native language.

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First you construct a miniature Chinese bubble for yourself and become highly proficient operating within its limits. This means getting extremely good at understanding and talking about a handful of topics of relevance to your life. You continue living within your bubble while gradually expanding its confines, adding more spheres of interest until eventually it contains enough variety that it inflates to the size of an entire world with seemingly endless possibilities for stimulation.

Each time you become highly proficient understanding and speaking about one topic, adding another becomes easier as many of the grammatical structures repeat themselves across topics.

Of course there will still be vast swathes of language outside your spheres of interest which you don’t understand and can’t talk about, just as there will always be gaps in your native language. You will frequently encounter words you don’t understand and ideas you can’t express at which point you have a straight choice: add them to your repertoire or change the channel.

Embracing this strategy and rejecting the idea that I should understand everything enabled me to become a fluent Mandarin speaker. Were it not for that shift in mindset I would have remained directionless and lost. I would certainly not have gained the confidence to conduct work meetings, record podcasts and appear in YouTube videos speaking Mandarin Chinese.

I encourage more learners to do the same.

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Q1: Brentford aimed to capitalise on counter-attacks, swiftly moving forward when City’s defensive structure was vulnerable. This is the meaning of “on the break”. 

Q2: The first goal was scored by Brentford through a header from a lofted ball or cross. This is the meaning of “in the air.”

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