Friday, October 17, 2008

Tomato head

My new look

A new, and kind of vain, problem this Friday morning...

The better my Chinese gets, the more self-conscious do I get about it. It's kind of weird.. I have never been like this?! I have always had confidence when it comes to foreign languages. I studied Spanish for 3 years in school and took every opportunity I could get to speak to Spanish people that I later met abroad (something I wish I would have kept up... nowadays my Spanish is merely a vague memory of something I 'used to be able to speak'). I went to Australia and took on a journalism degree in English, and although my English at that time was only so-so, I never felt shy or conscious when I spoke. When I first came to China and started studying some Chinese I was happy to use every single little phrase I learned is school (even the cheesy ones... I remember always saying 'Zhen de ma?' in a highly pitched voice every time a vendor told me the price of something he was selling...) But now?! Now when I actually know some stuff, I feel soooooo conscious when I use it. And, this has resulted in a highly annoying problem: I have started to blush! Like, all the time.

I blush in class when my teacher asks me something, I blush at the gym when one of the trainers starts talking to me, and I blush at restaurants when I order food. Several people have pointed it out to me:

-Hey, now your face is all red again! It happens all the time!!! said one of my Korean classmates last week.

Grande. Awesome. Thanks.

Today I am supposed to give a presentation to my class, (I am going to talk about the stingy founder of IKEA, Ingvar Kamprad, and tell the success story of his life) and I can only imagine what I am going to look like...: a talking tomato. *sigh* Any ideas of how to stop blushing?! ANYONE?!!!

I guess I should mention that despite me being self-conscious about my Chinese pronunciation and sentence structure, I still take any given opportunity to chat... I know that I can only get better if I practice more. So lately I have been super active. Every single shop assistant that I have met for the last week has had to chat with me for at least 5 minutes. The poor (?) trainers at the gym have had to listen to my presentation (practicing, OK?!!!) and then yesterday a Chinese guy came up to me at the gym when I was running on the treadmill: you study at Su Da? (in Chinese)
-Yes... do you?
-Not anymore, I have already graduated.. But I was there last semester. I recognize you.
-Oh?! I don't think we have met? I mean.. you didn't study at the international school?
-No, but I remember seeing you. It was in March!!
-In March?!?!??!!
-Yeah!!! That's why I thought you look so familiar when I saw you here today!

In MARCH?! Holy camoly. Well at least that tells you something: not that many giant-looking, blond girls at Su Da?!?! (I could be a university trademark?! KIDDING!)

Anyways, since he voluntarily came up he became my victim of speaking for of the day. He looked kind of shocked as I rambled on, but well, that's what u get when u come up to a person who is trying to learn the language. I could feel that my face was burning hot while we talked, but since I had been running I figured it could always blame it on that.

Anyways. I should prepare my presentation. Maybe I should wear something red to match my tomato-head? Well let's see.

Speaking of blushing -I have never seen an Asian person blush?! I've heard that many Asians flush/glow when drinking, (but come on, who doesn't? Especially after one too many...) but what about when they get embarrassed?


zhou said...

we do blush when we get least me..
e.. i know some chinese men like girls when they blush..

Mark's Blog said...


I laugh when I get embarrassed, I guess many Chinese do the same.

As for blush, it's also part of the reaction.

But I am bit against the idea of speaking to someone in daily life just for the sake of speaking. It will ineviatably lead to embarrassment and frustration. The native speaker will adjust his way of speaking and words he uses in these circumstances, the feedback you get from these conversations just could not fit well into the usual conversations conducted between Chinese.

Of course, practice always makes perfect. But I reckon it is going to be much better if you let the Chinese start the topic and discussion first, observe them and then try to join their discussion, speaking in their way.

Further more, I think written Chinese is more important than spoken Chinese. An interesting thing is that when Chinese learn English, many focus on grammar and writing, even when they speak, their spoken English sounds more like written English;However, when Westerner learn Chinese, the focus is on speaking. I guess this reflects presumptions in both cultures about their own selves and it is a huge communication barrier. It's bit interesting to listen to these great speeches from the West and read great essays from China.

sarah said...

The last two weeks I have been taking a Traditional Chinese Medicine elective and our teacher (native Chinese) was constantly blushing. Every time she mis-spelled or mis-pronounced something in English, her whole face turned bright pink! So yes, Asians do blush when embarassed too. At least this one did.

Marcie said...

Your blog is awesome!!!

I've been here in China for a month and I have no idea if Asian people blush, but they do giggle a lot when they are embarassed.

emil said...

I dont know, maybe you simply need to speak to people about things that matter to you, things that you are fund of. In that way you can actually focus more on the topic than how you pronunciation is?

Wow Mark, how can you say written chinese is more important than spoken chinese? I know that chinese hanzi have a long history and that everyone in China can read it, but for a normal foreigner is hanzi not the most important thing in daily life. You should also remeber that the West is more than just one country.

Jonna Wibelius said...

Mark -like Emil, I am surprised by your statement. I would never, ever believe/say/think that being able to read hanzi is more important than being able to speak. Communicating is, after all, an oral thing... writing comes second. I don't even think that writing characters is that important. If I can read hanzi and speak, I am more than happy.

Also, written Chinese and spoken Chinese is quite different. All of my teachers have pointed out that it's most important for us to know the spoken versions (eg. 因为。。所以 instead of 由于。。。因而) than the written.

Also, I don't really understand how you can be against 'speaking to someone in daily life just for the sake of speaking'... I don't have enough time (or patience!) to go out there and seek a specific person to discuss a specific topic. When being at a quite primary level of learning a language I believe u should take any given opportunity to practice your speech.

I don't really think the people that I speak to change their speech... I rather feel that Chinese are like: 'this is how I speak, take it or leave it' and then I can just do my best to understand. That's another reason why it is good to speak to strangers that don't know you/your level.. unlike our teachers at uni, who speaks a little bit slower than they would normally do, and who used a vocab that they know we know, a 'stranger' just speaks... regardless of what you know/don't know.

wancestyle said...

Idally, one day I will be fluent in Chinese writing. For the moment, being able to speak it decently is already a HUGE achievement for me. After all, we interact mainly by oral communication, unless we want to spend most of our life behind this damn screen :)

Anonymous said...

I found it interesting you were blushing.

Maybe it's a sign of how important it is to you.

Do you think you've crossed some kind of invisible line from when before it was fun and enjoyable, to now being more serious? Or perhaps you have reached a kind of barrier, where you arent learning as quickly as before, frustration?

In my class I am one of the more fluent speakers, and I blush from time to time if I cant say something I mean to say.

Next week I also have to give a speech. I made up a story on how I've been married 7 times and talk a bit about each one.

Bah...I've written too much. If you've made it this far, thanks for reading and thanks for your blog :)



zhou said...

i agree with's a big culture difference, the chinese always consider writting more important than speaking. We can hardly name any famouse speeches in chinese history but we can easily introduce to u tons of written masterpieces. Even some chinese dont like talkative ppl. The general chinese tend to act more or less "客气" when speaking to strangers, so many times i feel the ppl i chat with via internet or email are different from when i talk to them face to face.
Yes, when learning English the chinese students focus sooo much on writting that we say they learned "dumb English".

Anonymous said...

Hmm, folks, Mark brought up an interesting point by saying that written Chinese is more important than spoken one. I am Chinese myself. I don't agree with such a statement per se, but there is some truth to it. First, in most Asian countries, when students learn a foreign language, they put way more emphasis on grammar and the written form than the spoken one. This is cultural, and yes it's strange and not practical for a language learner. But as long as the so-called educational value of pan Asian countries doesn't change, this attitude won't change. That's why oftentimes American professors are surprised to meet a new Chinese student arriving at an American college who has scored almost perfect on TOEFL or GRE but can't carry a simple conversation in English. Now in Mark's defense, in America, written English is more important than the spoken one when native speakers judge a foreigner's intelligence and professionalism. There have been numerous studies (linguistics) over the years that show that Americans are very tolerant of non-native speakers' accent as long as they can understand them, but not so with their grammar errors. Studies have found that obvious grammar errors just turned people off and made people think the writer isn't educated or worth listening to.

I think we need a balance here.

Mark's Blog said...

emil ,Jonna

Maybe the problem I am talked is not what you are facing right now, actully it is one of my own interest at the moment. Maybe I nee

Because what I found is that, many Westerners(mostly native English speakers) I know, when they learn Chinese, they also believe "communicating is, after all, an oral thing" like you. This is definitely true. I agree with that.

However, my emphasis on the last post has more to do with the level of communication. In daily life situation, when the issue not is complicated, the idea being exchanged is fairly simply, oral communication is ok.

But once the issued being discussed and exchanged become complicated, or in most of the cases, serious, oral exchange is just inadequate not matter how good the speaker is with the language.

For example, if a Chinese want to learn English, he or she could listen to the American Presidential Debate; But if an American want to learn Chinese, listening to the television address of Chinese leader is definitely the worst option. I have no doubt that if a Chinese learner with a Western background practice his or her spoken Chinese hard enough, he or her could speak Mandarin far better than Deng xiaoping or Hu jintao in a short period of time.

But is that going to make him or her more efficient than these Chinese leaders when communicating with Chinese? I do not think so.Is these Chinese leaders' not-so-perfect Mandarin going to make them less Chinese, neither.

Local dialect is only one of the problem. When people from other parts of China come to big cities like Beijing and Shanghai,they speak Mandarin,Shanghai natives, when they communicate with these people, they also speak Mandarin. However, in both cases, they are speaking a languange that is in fact secondary(or even foreign) to them.

In fact, to many Chinese, there are three sect of languagues
1. Local dialect.
2. Mandarin.
3. Written Chinese.

I am a native of Shaanxi, where the local dialect is comparable closer to Mandarin, but even in this case, Mandarin is still a language I learned at school rather than at home with my parents. To put it this way

When a Chinese kid begin to learn Chinese, the primary speaking language he or she learned is the local dialect. The learning process being when this kid start speaking with his family. At the same time, written Chinese is also taught by this kid's parents. But the tricky thing here is that, altough we have pinyin to mark the pronunciation of Character, the character itself carry little information about how it should be pronunciated. So what happened to this Chinese kid is that, he/she still reads these characters out using his/her local dialect.

Therefore, before he/she is exposed to a Mandarin environment, his/her primary language is
Local dialect+Written Chinese. Local dialect is different from place to place, yet written Chinese is the same all over the country. Later on, when this kid grow up, he/she will go to school, find a job, maybe in his/her home town, maybe in big cities. If his/her hometown is in a remote region, what usually happen is that even at school, the primay language is still the local dialect, altought the written language is the same character being taught nationwide.

Therefore, what happen to this Chinese kid is that Mandarin is regularly learned and taught usually when he is older, like at middle school or big cities. Mandarin is in fact a second language in itself to this Chinese kid and many other Chinese.

When a Western or other people that is not Chinese live in cities like Shanghai, Beijing or Shenzhen. There are people from all over the country, they all speak Mandrain, between themselves and to this non-Chinese. Yet it is important to realize that to both this Chinese and non-Chinese, when they chat in Mandarin, they are using their secondary language. To the non-Chinese, his/her primay language could be English,Swedish(like Jonna), German or any other language. To the Chinese, his/her primay languange could be Shaanxi dialect(like me),Hunan dialect,Sichuan dialect or Cantonese. These Chinese dialects varies greatly amoung themselves and are barely intelligible when spoken to a Chinese from another place. Yet despite this, the written Chinese is still the primay language these Chinese from different places learned.

As for examples,
Shanghai hua(
Shanxi hua(

I can only understand the last video, which is in my own dialect. Yet if there were subtitle, I can understand them all.

So, the reality is that in China, there is a shared written language, but not spoken one. Mandarin is only learned at a later stage of life, which makes it a de facto second language to many Chinese.

Of course, at early stage of learning Chinese, this is not important, but the more you learn, the more Chinese you know, the more limitations of Mandarin(i.e. speaking Chinese) emerge. At a horizontal level, you are going to find many Chinese even could not speak that language fluently themselves. At a vertical level, many serious and complex issues simply need to be communicated in the written language instead of speaking language for both forality and reducing ambiguity reasons, altough we still need Mandrain to make the start.

The speaking Chinese you are learning now has its intrinsic weakness. It is adequate to use it for daily life communications, discussing relatively simpy issues, engage in informal conversations. However, once the conversations reach a higher level and things become serious, it is always the written language that really matters.

I say this as a native Chinese speaker myself and I still cannot find a comparable situation in the West. However,I do see my Western friend have this kind of language problems. Their speaking Chinese(i.e Mandrain) is great, they face no problem when we discuss things like sports, weather and habits, but once we turn to more complex and serious issues, I always prefer English. Because in that situation, if the communication is conducted in Chinese, it is written Chinese that is preferable, at least a script where we can read out and exchange later.

Or, put it simple, written Chinese is just more native to Chinese comparet to Mandarin. It is the language that Chinese start learning from childhood, together with local dialect.

If a Chinese learner focus on speaking Chinese,but could not write it at a same or a higher level. His/her ability to communicate with Chinese will be severely limit, not becasue of the writing characters, but becasue the information communicated through speaking itself is not as much and important as the written language. The volume and depth of information contained in speaking Chinese just could not match the one contained in the written Chinese. Speaking Chinese is a good way to make a start, yet it has many problems itself. To use a analogy. Speaking Chinese is like a car, written Chinese is like a air plane. If someone wants to travel from Shanghai to Beijing to attend a meeting. He/She can choose either driving or flying. So, there are three choices
1.Driving from Shanghai to Beijing
2.Drive to airport, take the flight
3.Take the flight directly

Obviously the 3rd option is not applicable. 1st option is going to take a longer period of time and is less efficient. To reach destination fast, he/she drive the car first to the airport, take the flight later.

I mean, in terms of communicating with Chinese, if the issues being discussed is simply and not that serious, speaking fluently is enough.

Mark's Blog said...

The other point is about "speaking to someone in daily life just for the sake of speaking"

I did it when I first came to NZ, I still do it now. But it is something I do but not cannot accept as right.

I mean, it is the idea itself that I feel uncomfortable with. Actully I feel guilt when I do it, because I know I have to treat the one I am speaking with as a mean instead of an end.

I feel much better when speaking with friends that shared similar interests and like to discuss common topics. That sort of discussion tend to be more in depth and my English improved naturally in the process. It is overall more efficient and comfortable, I think


Anonymous said...


"But if an American want to learn Chinese, listening to the television address of Chinese leader is definitely the worst option."

A great line, Mark. I agree. very funny, too.

As for learning English through listening to U.S. presidential debates, I am not sure how much English an ESL learner can pick up from Barack Obama if s/he wants to make sense out of Obama's sentences. It's all illogical, mathmatically impossible class warfare rhetoric that includes a lot of er, urm, well. McCain is boring. So there isn't much to learn, either, from his English. George W. Bush? Don't imitate his English unless you want to impress people as someone who need special ed.

zhou said...

Mark, ur English is really better than mine.. that's exactly what i want to say but cant express it well, although urs seems a bit too comprehensive..
Just want to add some brief history of the Chinese language system and Mandarin:
When Qin Shi Huang(秦始皇)first unite China in 221 BCE, he also managed to unite the written characters but failed to unite the oral languages due to the undeveloped communication methods(no voice recording methods and his country is so huge). People from different parts of China speak different dialects(languages) as their mother tongue but use the same written language to keep the country going. This situation lasted for the following 2000 years before voice recorder was invented.
And there was a third language: the official oral language used within government and educated elites. It was called guan hua (官话). It was usually a modified version of the local dialect spoken in the capital city at each dynasty, and at the present time it's Mandarin which is orinally the dialect spoken around Beijing.
Mandarin has a history of around 300 yrs, before that the official oral language is the dialect near Nan Jing(南京) which was the capital city in Ming dynasty.
One funny proof to this is that when the first Italian missionaries came to China, first in Macau where the Portuguese traders obtained the rights to anchor ships in 1535(the famouse Matteo Ricci利玛窦 came in 1582), they tried to study the official oral language and they used Latin alphebet to indicate the pronounciation of the language (ye,ye, that's where the original Pin yin 拼音 idea came from!). When modern chinese historian studied those latin spellings they found out it was completly different from Mandarin nowadays but quite similar to the dialect of the capital city at that time:Nanjing 南京.
Mandarin was believed to be set as the official oral language when the Machurians (满族 ppl orinally lived in northeast china东北)conquer the whole china, start Qing dynastu 清朝 and made Beijing its capital in 1683.

zhou said...

A conclusion: like what Mark said ,to many Chinese there are three sect of languagues
1. Local dialect as most ppl's mother tongue. Dialects from southern china can be considered as different languages since they are completely different from Mandarin with different words and grammars.
2. Mandarin. The officail oral language.
3. Written Chinese. The core of the whole chinese civilisation, something uninterrupted for 3000 yrs (well, althoug we simplified it in 1950s..but most educated mainlanders can read traditional characters)

However i think it's more important for normal foreignors to master oral Mandarin and reading.

zhou said...

forget to mention that this language system applied to Japan, Korea and Vietnam too. They all used to use written chinese as the written language but speak their own language. However nowadays except Japan they all have abandoned chinese characters due to historical issues, Japan use both chinese characters and its own characters. In order not to offend Japanese/Korean/Vietnamese readers please chech wikipedia if u r interested in the details.

Jonna Wibelius said...

whoa.. those comments must win the record for being the 'longest comments ever posted' on this blog. Way to go Zhou and Mark! And thanks for the history lesson. I understand where you are coming from, and I also know what u mean about your school system taking a different approach to writing/speaking. It's the same in Korea and Japan I believe. Most student can write/read well but not speak, because they never practice it.

I am teaching a 10-year old Korean girl in English. Her parents wanted her to have a tutor despite the fact that she goes to an English school!! She was on the 'lowest level' of English in her class and her when her parents told me about her problems they were quite harsh. During my first few lessons with this girl she was a bit of a wreck. I could tell that she knew so much but had no idea how to express herself. So I skipped the books and started chatting to her about every day things instead, just to get her talking... The progress was amazing! After 3 months she moved up from the lowest to the highest level of English in her class. (and her parents love me). All she needed was a chance to just speak, not to read her books, and it did wonders to her. So to me, oral training is def the most important thing.

I understand that Chinese language is very complex, but really, I feel that what I learn at uni is 90% about reading/writing and 10% about speaking. Even in our speaking classes we often get stuck on a written issue that the teacher then uses the lesson to explain. When I was on level 3 I actually felt that my reading was much better than my oral skills, so that's when I decided to focus more on speaking to people on my spare time. A language lesson is just so different in China to where I am from. When we studied Spanish/English in school in Sweden, we spent a lot of time on TALKING and discussing things. The teacher was simply there to direct us, to correct us, and to teach us new things. In China, the teacher speaks the most, meanwhile the students mainly listen and take notes. That's why I feel that I am already getting 4 hours of grammar/writing/reading training every day, and that I feel I have to practice my speaking skills on my spare time in order to keep up. It is quite interesting because I can tell that I am one of the few ones in class who has Chinese friends. Some of my Korean classmates are amazing when it comes to writing/reading, and their vocab is great, but no one (barely the teacher) understands them when they are speaking. I would never want to be like that. I feel that focusing on both is important, especially at this primary level. If I later want to go on and dig deeper into Chinese writing, I can... but at this level, I don't feel it is necessary.

Mark, I think u think a little bit less of us foreigner if you say that: 'foreigner can use their Chinese to speak about the weather or sports'... really, it is not that shallow!! I often talk to my friend from Hunan about his childhood, about growing up on the country side.. I can also discuss global warming/ population issues with other friends.. Like, even if my speaking isn't quite there yet, u really CAN speak about a lot of different things even if you don't have the deepest knowledge of the written language.

About speaking every day for the sake of speaking -I still stand behind what I wrote. This is crucial to me and I don't feel uncomfortable doing it. I might blush, but that is because I want to speak well and fast, not because I don't feel at ease. I mean, ALL of my Chinese friends have told me that my Chi is so much better now, compared to 6 months ago.. and why? well, because 6 months ago I didn't speak half as much as now! Of course it is much more fun to speak to friends, but I think it is better to practice speaking to as many people as possible, as most people have different dialects (as you pointed out)/different ways to express themselves/different speaking speed and it's good to get used to all kinds.

Little Tiger said...

What an interesting discussion!
I always much preferred reading and writing Chinese over speaking.
Now I can justify the disproportionate amount of time I spend concentrating on my writing over my speaking ;-)

Mark's Blog said...

Hi, Jonna, thank you for the reply.

I definitely do not think any less foreigners when it comes to learning Chinese. I was using that as an example to illustrate the limitation of spoken Chinese--Mandrain. I really feel sorry if it offended you, I did not mean it.

I also believe speak to as many people as possible is a good way of learning the language. Maybe I am a bit shy on this and my top priority is not the language itself right now. But I think I will for sure use your approach once I priortize spoken English as my top concern.

Anyway, I really feel happy to see your language skill progress.

I do not know if there is some sort of Crazy Chinese school in China, but using the slogan from Crazy English: Do not be shy, Just try !

As for written Chinese, I think me, zhou and many Chinese, including the stuff from your university share the view that it predominately important (90% of class). I would say that this probably reflects an understanding from native Chinese speakers about the limitation of our own spoken language.

Being fluent in Mandrain ourselves, we see its limitations more clearly, feel them darely and arrange the teaching accordingly. We know that at certain point, that is, at a native speaker level we are now in, oral communication is going to be inadequate for various reasons. Written Chinese thus come into play (tightly scripted speeches is also part of this written Chinese). The issue being addressed by this written Chinese is so serious that no mistake is allowed(even comma has to be correct), formality has to be followed. This sort of written language concerns with the context it is in, more than the topic being discussed itself. This level of written language is a ritual. The message it possess comes from not only the words, but also its underlying structure, tone and most importantly, the ritual itself. The seriousness of it is so great that even the slighest variation could convey totally different meaning. For this level of communication, there is always a standardised way of writing which requires great length of time to master, its like a formula.

In fact, that's exactly why spoken Chinese could not do the job. The seriousness of communication I mentioned before is about the context within which the topic is being addressed, rather than the topic itself.

Jonna Wibelius said...

Mark -no no...u didn't offend me... I think u shared some interesting views of the difference of written/spoken Chi. Like u pointed out -I am probably not at a level high enough to fully understand that, hopefully I'll get there at some point.

Interesting that u pointed out the commas, because that's something that kind of amazes me.. in our 'xie zuo' class a sentence is considered incorrect if u add a comma when not needed... That's some picky business. At the same time, I feel many Chinese people who are at a primary level of learning Eng are very confused when it comes to punctuation.

Mark's Blog said...

Jonna-When I was at middle school in China, my English always scored higher than my Chinese. Part of the reason was my punctuation, the other half being the writing style. Like my teacher told me back then, I wrote characters like grass.

But written Chinese has always been rigid, making it difficult to many, usually Chinese, especially Westerners. There have been many attempts of romanization of characters, yet the closest thing we can come up with is pinyin. I guess it's just because these characters and the way they are organised are just too important to Chinese to be changed.

emil said...

I agree that hanzi is important and a unifying written language for chinese people, but I still do not agree that it is more important for anyone who want to live in China.

F.ex, my written skills could be better than every chinese, but if I could not speak chinese I would not get the job I got now. Or if I want to read something which I can not understand I can use many methods like online translator or dictonary, but it is way harder if you get stuck in a conversation just because you dont understand a couple of words, when you read something you can often easily just skip the words you dont understand and still understand the meaning of the text.

Chinese people is extremely focused on their long history and inventions, and I feel that your statement upon language versus spoken chinese is also based on the proudness of the written language having a really long history. So it is historicly more important than spoken chinese, that is for sure. But taking it down to average Zhang trying to get job or succeed in doing something I would say he would have it easier knowing how to speak chinese rather than knowing how to write chinese.