When you’re stuck at that ‘not quite’ phase with your language

I simply had to share this video–the title is “How English sounds to non-English speakers”.  The experience of trying to follow the dialogue perfectly captured the deliciously frustrating feeling that all language learners get when we feel like we should have the skillz to be able to understand native speakers speaking everyday language, but it’s just not happening.  During these moments, the goal of understanding spontaneous conversation seems so very…… far…… away…….. yet…… somehow… tantalizingly within reach?   You find yourself wanting to laugh along with jokes, even though you don’t really understand what’s happening……. suddenly, the mood of the room changes and you’re wondering why everyone is upset, and you’re still clueless…. wait….pineapple sparklers?…. what just happened?

“What to do?” to progress from this point is where many language learners get stuck.  More grammar? More vocabulary? More listening?   Ask ten people how to get through this stage and you’ll get ten answers, but I think we can all relate to this feeling.

Having said that, I should note the fact that there is nothing quite like the euphoria that comes when this phase begins to fade, and you finally get to ‘surface’ into feeling like an ‘intermediate’ speaker of the language; things start to come together, and you feel like you can begin to connect with people and expand the topics you can talk about…. you still end up moments that feel like this video, but the scope starts to narrow, and you’re chasing after specific vocabulary, and cultural reference points.

Brilliant idea for a video!

video source:  http://www.brianandkarl.com/

Did you exchange a walk-on part in the war to be a phoenix’s tail?

I was talking to someone about learning proverbs/idioms/expressions in other languages the other day, and the person’s principal comment was that they wanted to study modern metaphors and culture, as opposed to stuffy old literary references, etc.

I understood what they meant, especially when you look at it from a perspective of the modern media culture that is so pervasive in the West; however, the neat thing about Chinese is just how often these kinds of devices are still used in modern language–and how universally understood they are.  I still find it surprising just how often Chinese people use these kinds of proverbs/expressions as a kind of metaphoric shorthand for summing up a situation (as a learner, it can actually be frustrating because if you don’t know the reference because you can be perfectly in tune with a conversation and then suddenly become unsure of yourself because someone has dropped a four-syllable idiomatic reference to make their point).

 Chinese Idiom: Rather be a chicken’s head than a phoenix’s tail (宁做鸡头,不做凤尾) — Things Beyond Z

Seeing the latest post on Things Beyond Z, Rather be a chicken’s head than a phoenix’s tail (宁做鸡头,不做凤尾) ,  I started thinking about other ways of saying that expression in English beyond “big fish in a small pond”, when a line from Pink Floyd came to mind:

“Did you exchange a walk on part in the war for a lead role in a cage?”


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Use Google to find TV commercials in the language you’re studying!

Like many folks these days, I don’t have cable– the media that I do watch comes from borrowing from my public library or streaming online content to my TV. As a result, I don’t see as many commercials anymore.

Having said that, seeing this Japanese commercial took me back to memories of just how much cinematic awesomeness is often packed into commercials in Japan— they’re so catchy and play with words in a fun way; when I was a student, I learned a TON of Japanese from watching commercials and talking about them with Japanese people.  If you think about it though, companies spend an extraordinary amount of money to design messaging that grabs your attention and sticks in your head.  As a language learner, sometimes this kind of stuff is gold.

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Typing/Keyboarding practice


When I completed the written section of the French DELF exam a few years ago, one of the things that struck me was how rarely I even did that much handwriting in one sitting, even in English (i.e. an in-class written essay).  My hand/wrist ended up feeling sore, and I left thinking that the next time I prepared to write the test, I should take some time beforehand to simply practice writing by hand more often.  Around the same time, I heard a story about Hunter S. Thompson who, early in his career, sat down and re-typed one of the great American novels, The Great Gatsby; supposedly, he did it because he wanted to experience what it would be like to have the words of a classic novel flow through his fingertips….

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Raising Bilingual Children: what’s your strategy?

After posting about bilingual households, I came across a post about strategies for raising a bilingual child that really resonated with me.  I liked the dad’s honesty about how he originally had plans of being able to talk about his effortlessly bilingual son who could possibly have been starting to learn a third language at some point.  When my son was born I had the very same thought, and I definitely remember relatives fully expecting me to pour all of my language skills into my son’s little noggin. It’s hard to argue with the idea of teaching a child to speak more than one language; however, as someone who grew up in a monolingual household, I was left to ponder the not-so-small question of “how do you actually go about doing that?”.

My wife and I were confident from the beginning that we wanted to raise our son to be bilingual.  We quickly settled into a pattern of her speaking to him in Mandarin, and me speaking to him in English.  Surely, we thought, he would ‘naturally’ pick up both languages and would soon be speaking both languages with fluid ease.

As it turns out, my son had some opinions of his own:) It quickly became apparent that he wasn’t quite that excited about speaking Chinese. Mom would speak to him in Mandarin, but he would respond to in English– if she pretended not to understand, he quickly figured out that he could come to me and say “tell mommy that …….” or some other ploy to get me to interpret for him.

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Language learning, like a marriage, takes work: Chinglish within bilingual Couples

I just read an interesting article/interview about someone who is doing a study about semantic language use within couples coming from mixed-language (Mandarin/other) backgrounds. Does this sound like you? If so, Susanna Wickes is hoping that you’ll take a minute to complete her online survey (in either English or Chinese).  [The article ran in the Beijinger as: Scholarly Chinglish: Scottish Masters Student Studies the Semantics of Interracial Couples]

From what I’ve seen, most couples gradually shift into one language; the unfortunate reality (at least in my thinking) is that language is usually English. Chinese people as a whole have studied more of the fundamentals of English at school so, even though many don’t feel fully satisfied with their language abilities, the language barometer will more often end up shifting the equilibrium toward English.  I don’t want to speak in absolutes— I’m sure this trend is definitely better for couples living in China, but I think it’s a fair observation to say that fewer bilingual households end up primarily speaking Chinese at home.


Reading the article actually brought up some fun memories for me; when my wife and I got together, we very quickly settled into a comfortable pidgin-mix of both languages that made us feel like I was speaking amazing Mandarin and she was speaking amazing English. The only trouble was that my expat friends (we were living in China at the time) couldn’t always understand her English; similarly, I was still feeling the daily sting of having Chinese friends and coworkers around me not understand me once the conversation moved beyond superficial pleasantries, and my pronunciation wasn’t really that clear.

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Chinese Idiom: The iron tree blooms (铁树开花)

I’ve been trying to rescue this Jade plant after someone else gave up on it; it probably suffered from some root rot, and looked like it was a goner.   Just when I was about to throw in the towel, an unlikely sprout came out of the end of a branch, so I repotted it and pruned back most of the dead branches.   There was actually a pair of sprouts, but I clipped the other one off to see if I could start afresh in a different pot with some clippings from another plant. We’ll see how it works out!

Anyway, Cornelius posted another keeper of an idiom-image yesterday and the picture of the iron tree blooming made me think of my fledgling jade plant…. I hope it completes the comeback!



Thanks to Lydia Lin for the suggestion. 铁树开花 [鐵樹開花] tiě shù kāi huā tie3 shu4 kai1 hua1 the iron tree blooms a highly improbable or extremely rare occurrence ≅ “once in a blue moon” ⇒ S…

Source: Chinese Idiom: The iron tree blooms (铁树开花)


Chinese idiom: To kill a chicken in front of a monkey(杀鸡给猴看)

Things Beyond Z strikes again— Cornelius, this is brilliant!

He included links in the post to several pages with explanations, but this is indeed an ‘honest-to-god’ true Chinese idiom that is commonly used in modern speech (it’s used to highlight a situation where someone punishes/admonishes one person as a warning to someone else— i.e. “careful, or you’re next!”).

杀鸡给猴看 [殺雞給猴看] shā jī gěi hóu kàn sha1 ji1 gei3 hou2 kan4 to kill a chicken in front of a monkey Thanks again to Raymond (Wordsummit) for the suggesting this one.

Source: Chinese idiom: To kill a chicken in front of a monkey(杀鸡给猴看)

Whiteboard karaoke (spoken word)

Are you trying to improve your Chinese handwriting skills? I’m curious–what has worked for you?

Like many westerners studying Mandarin/Putonghua/Chinese, for the longest time I was guilty of continually saying “later, later” when it came to the idea of really pushing my reading/writing fluency to come in line with my listening and speaking skills.  I passed the advanced spoken HSK several years ago, but could never seem to crack HSK 6, which demanded a level of reading proficiency that I simply didn’t have– bottom line: As much as I ‘wanted it’, I didn’t seem willing to put in the effort necessary to cross the divide.

Sure, reading/writing Chinese is hard (David Moser still has the best essay on this topic), but it’s not impossible; you just have to do the work!    Over the last few years, I have made a concerted effort to try and correct that imbalance.

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