The world is open to those who listen

With examples from Chinese Mandarin

I remember some funny things from the time I started learning English in my second year at junior high school. The blue cover textbook had a lion carrying a British flag on it. First words we had to learn was “stand up” and “sit down” in compliance with what we do when teacher enters and exists the classroom. The other thing we learned that British people love tea, they say “it’s a lovely weather” even if it is raining heavily, and that they greet each other in a seemingly odd way, answering “How do you do?” by saying… “How do you do?” Add the double-decker buses and obsession with red phone booths, and you have very obscure image of the Brits as seen by a Lithuanian second grade student.

I eventually got a chance to visit that interesting nation.  When I asked questions about their habits, they all shared the same confused expression. I expected them to answer “How do you do” to my “How do you do”, but they eventually explained that this might have been used in times of Shakespeare, but not really since then. Thus, I realized, my textbook got some things wrong by around five hundred years and that you cannot really fully learn a language from a textbook.

While textbooks do provide a framework for studying, they often contain a lot of mistakes and make you learn things that people in the respective countries don’t really use. Also, many of them are written quite long time ago and are not updated (or lazily updated), so they tend not to have many useful words (like Internet) and have not so useful words instead (like tape-recorder, try to learn that in Chinese…).

Therefore, do not trust the textbooks fully, they are often too formalized and do not capture vibrancy of the actual spoken language. Listening to the language outside your classroom is a good idea – watch movies, TV shows and listen to radio. Be open to the little nuances, expression and emotions that people often use – it will make you sound more natural and feel more comfortable talking to natives. Here is a list of some of those nuances you can catch and adopt for yourself.

If you want to sound native textbook is not your friend.

1. Emotion expressions. Every language has those little words that you use when reacting to something emotionally, be it surprise, disbelief, anger, frustration. In English it would be “No way!”, “Dear God”, “What on Earth…”, “Seriously?”, “Shut up!”, “Get out of here”. The expression does not match the literal meaning of the words, just the contextual emotional response. While not in the textbooks, they are very useful. Knowing them can prevent a lot of misunderstandings, when somebody reacts to your words in “Shut up!” and “Get out of here”.

 In Chinese Mandarin there are a lot of emotional expressions and they are usually more audible, rather than having any meaning. Expression for appreciation “哇“ (wa1), expression of amazement, can be negative emotion too "唉呀“ (ai3ya1).  Expression of disbelief or even frustration „天啊“ (tian1 a; “oh heaven”). In Beijing they tend to add “å…’“ to many words that elsewhere do not have it (like instead of 沒錯 you would say 沒錯兒, and instead of 外邊 you say 外邊兒.) And if you are in Taiwan, you can drop the å…’in most cases. You should add “å•Š” (a) instead. There is a lot of “å•Š“ in Taiwan, like “是阿, 對阿, 沒關係啊“. In most cases if you use it, it will be right. It makes the language more floating and musical. Listen to these little audible emotions in Chinese, they will make you sound so much more like local and a lot less like robotic transcript from a textbook.

2. Expressions of politeness. And I am talking beyond simple “thank you” and “you are welcome”. Different cultures express their politeness in different ways. In some cultures, especially where power distance is really high, politeness is something of utmost importance. While in English you can get away with pretty simple tools like “my pleasure”, “no worries”, in Japanese, for example, there are whole changes of grammatical structures depending on politeness and social distance between the speakers. Learning it all would be a hassle if you want to learn language quicker and start using it. However, learning a few main politeness phrases can get you far

Simple example, in English “you” can be used addressing anyone, but it is not a case in many other languages. For example in Lithuanian, for any older person or whom you do not know well, one would be using plural form of “tu” (you) – “jÅ«s“. For English speakers it’s a great advantage to figure out what is the proper way in your target language and start using it right away.

One of most useful phrases in Chinese Mandarin that I found is “哪裡, 哪裡” (na3 li3). It literally translates to “where, where”. It is used when somebody compliments you, in a meaning that “oh what you are saying is so far from truth”. It is a humble phrase which does not mean you do not appreciate the compliment. It even does not mean you disagree with the compliment! It just shows you as a humble person, a true virtue in many Asian societies. So next time somebody tells you that your Chinese is very good, reply in this phrase and they will think you are even better.

 3. Polite ways to address people. Addressing by first name is quite common in English. But not all cultures are so familiar and addressing by first name can be very impolite in some countries. Figure out if you can call someone by first name, last name or is there some other suffix you need to add. Japanese language is rich in honorific suffixes, like –sama, -san, -kun, -chan, -sempai, -sensei. In Uzbek language you can add –khon to female names, and –bek, -jon to male names. These suffixes derive from older times, when they meant what clan is a person from or what is his/her social status. Now they are expressions of politeness.

 In Chinese Mandarin you can call somebody older than you “older brother” (name)å“¥ or „older sister“ (name)姐. If a person is a lot older than you can call … for male or “aunty” 阿姨“ for female. But do ask your friends first if it is appropriate or not for those people. You don’t want to make others feel older than they should, right?

4. Learn a polite way to say no. Again in English and in Western cultures it is quite acceptable to say “no” and not feel awkward. But some cultures will go long ways to avoid saying “no” directly, as it may be considered impolite. Be it “Indian headshake” or ….. there are many ways to avoid a “no”. If you learn it, for the very least you can be clear when other people are rejecting your offer. If you use it yourself, you will be “localized” quickly.

Chinese culture direct “no” is considered impolite. In case somebody is suggesting you something, you can say “謝謝不用“ (xie4xie4 bu2yong4) „Thank you, it is not necessary“. Instead saying “不要“ (bu2yao4) “I don’t want to”. In general, in most cases you should avoid saying no, use passive tense and try to say things in a way the person would understand the meaning “no” but would avoid “losing face” in awkward social situation.

 5. Local proverbs, idioms and expressions. Learn a few metaphoric phrases that people use in daily lives. It will give some insight to the local culture as well boost your image among people of the country. Some examples in English: “Make a mountain out of a molehill” – making something minor into a big problem. Or when you want to say that something is easy – “A piece of cake” or “A walk in a park”. In Lithuanian we have one rather macabre saying “Štai kur šuva pakastas” (“That’s where the dog is buried”) – meaning that this is the main reason/idea behind an event. Whose dog was that and why was it buried, remains lost to the history though.

Chinese is very rich with proverbs. So called Four-character idioms 成語 (cheng2yu3) come from Classic Chinese times, but are still commonly used today. At schools kids are taught these idioms full of cultural meaning and history. Each idiom has its own story and even in compact style can convey a lot of ideas. One of my favorites is: 揠苗助長 — Yà Miáo Zhù ZhÇŽng, which means “To Pull Up Sprouts to help them Grow”. The meaning behind it is human actions that ignore natural principals of natural development and try to gain instant success, ultimately spoiling everything. The story is about a farmer during times of Song dynasty. He was very impatient waiting for his crops to grow. He then thought of a “brilliant” idea to pull them up a bit and thus help them grow faster. However, by doing this he lost all of his crops. Many of proverbs with stories you can find on Chineseproverbstories website.

Every language is not just a translation of your own - it is a whole new world with its history and culture encoded in it. When you get this perspective and try to “dive” into this world, you will see things differently. These tricks are tools that can help you change this perspective and become more of an insider of the language. Have fun with it and remember to use it with care – it can cause a lot of misunderstandings too.

Have you got your own language fluency ticks? What languages have you tried to learn? Do you know any proverbs or fun expression? Comment below!