Thursday, May 10, 2007

Listening to Chinese: An observation

I hope this observation isn't so obvious as to be uninteresting:

There are two ways to listen to a Chinese sentence. Both have their value, but they are completely different experiences.

  1. Listening to a sentence without knowing what the sentence means.
    In this case, if the vocab and/or speed of delivery is challenging (and it usually is for me), the best I can hope for is to pick out a few words here and there, deducing if not the meaning, at least the gist. It's an intellectual, almost investigative activity.
  2. Listening to the sentence after finding out what sentence means.
    There is a completely different head on my shoulders now. I'm matching the sounds with the Chinese words that I know they correspond to, and really hearing the meaning in much the same way as I do in my mother tongue. The intellect has been short-circuited (actually that's not hard in my case).
One point about 2 is that it's extremely ephemeral. It's like trying to see 3D images by looking out of focus at those printed images (you know the ones, right?) - you can manage it for a fleeting instant, but then the moment is gone. Or like that point in meditation when you start to become aware that you're extremely aware - but inevitably blow the whole feeling away by analysing it.

Another point about 2 is that it's not at all the same as just letting the sentence wash over you. There is a kind of attention there (in fact if you switch off and just let the sounds wash over you, the moment is gone) but it is not an intellectual type of concentration.

One last thing to say, by way of describing this kind of not-quite-concentrating state, is that to me it feels like I am listening to each phrase of the sentence superimposed on its meaning (in English perhaps, though maybe it's mentalese). This has the effect of bringing the phrases to life and injecting them with real meaning.

I suppose the importance of doing 1 (i.e. not rushing off to read the meaning of a sentence before listening to it) is to learn how to bring these two ways of listening together - to transform one into the other on the fly.

Of course what's particularly stupid is that when I arrive at this realization, what do I do? Do I spend more time in the zone? No! I rush off to blog about it. What a git. I don't deserve to learn this language.


Chris said...

Yup I can identify with those.

It is the moments when the meaning comes through without focused concentration.... sweet but not always easy to achieve.

Chinese is my first, second language (I had to write that and don't give a fig that it doesn't make sense ;)). Did you have any similar experiences with other languages?? or was it masked by little bits of comprehension that you had picked up from films, bit from school, and other media (something many Westerners don't have with Mandarin).

Brendan Lawlor said...

Good to see you back Chris.

I'm not sure that I've studied any other languages in quite the same way as I'm studying Chinese, so I can never remember coming to these conclusions, or experiencing these listening modes explicitly before.

I learned French in school, but of course only really learned it when I went to live there. At that point it was well ingrained and not at all as foreign to my ear as Mandarin was at the start.

I began to learn German through Linguaphone (about 14 years ago) and eventually went to live there too. My study was all very on-again, off-again (I eventually signed up to the Goethe Institut in Dublin) and very slow as a consequence. Again, by the time I was exposed to a lot of German (or Schwaebisch, as the case may be) it wasn't the 'barking dog' experience that my wife encountered.

Finally, for Italian, I learned this in the most effective way possible - I married an Italian. Oddly, I started learning Italian from scratch when I moved to Paris with my wife (then girlfriend) - in other words while I was relearning French. They are so similar in structure and grammar that I found that helpful, and again it wasn't a completely blank slate.

I think the reason I noticed this listening mode was mostly got to do the intensity with which I'm approaching the learning process this time round, and the ease of replay of phrases using Chinesepod. You don't get that click-ability with CDs. So with CP you can just listen and listen and listen to the same phrase like a mantra until it either sinks in, or your wife walks into the kitchen at 11:00pm and wonders did she hallucinate her marriage or did she leave a husband lying somewhere around the house.

jp 吉平 said...

I always try to act like I'm letting the sentence wash over me, trying to look cool.

Out in the wild, you're usually stuck with type one, unless you figure something out and get someone to repeat it.

I'm a pretty advanced speaker of Spanish and French, and I've found that I can understand 90% of what people are saying to me as long as they're a) right in front of me, b) I'm looking at their mouth, c) there are no distracting noises.

This explains a lot; why I have a paralyzing fear of talking on the phone, why my parents (not native english speakers) can leave CNN on in the background and not get irritated.....

In any case, my friend, you are not a git, and learning language, any language, is our birthright as human beings.