Thursday, February 19, 2009

The (language) competition is ON

Yesterday when I was having lunch, a western guy and a Chinese man came in and sat down some tables away from me. I couldn’t hear exactly what they were saying, but one thing did I grasp, and that was that the western guy spoke PERFECT Chinese. I was so impressed I could barely eat. I almost considered going up to him and just telling him how inspiring it was to listen to him. Then I realized that If I did, I would (more or less) come across like some sort of ‘Chinese language groupie.’ So, instead of continuing eavesdropping, I straightened my back, plugged in my computer, and got on with my own stuff.

I find westerner who can speak Chinese well very impressive/inspiring, because you know that they must have spent a loooot of time learning it, and that they (unless they are some sort of language geniuses) must have at least gone through SOME of the ups and downs of learning Chinese that I am currently going through.

Unfortunately, there are also an annoying group of Chinese speaking laowais, who not only love showing off their skills, but who are also ‘competing’ with other Chinese learners.

My friend Anna (who speaks Chinese quite well, but who is quite humble about her skills) bumped into one of those guys in a bar. She was standing in the bar, and said something in Chinese to the bargirl. The western guy standing next to her picked up on what she said and asked her (in Chinese) if she could speak Chinese.

-Yeah, I am studying, Anna answered (in English)

-So where are you from? (In Chinese?)

-Finland (In English). And you?

-England (in Chinese).

Anna was starting to feel a bit weird. Why was this English guy chatting her up, IN CHINESE at a bar? However, the guy just kept doing his ‘thing,’ and went on by telling Anna (in Chinese) about his studies in economics, and how he was in China to ‘do business’ (aren’t they all?).

Once he finished he gave her a questioning look.

-Am I speaking too fast? Is my language too hard for you? Do you understand everything I am saying? He said, in a very slow, condescending way (still in Chinese).

-I understand. Sounds great, and good luck with your business, (way too polite) Anna replied, obviously fed up with his one-way-conversation.

-But really, do you understand the word 经济 (jing ji –economics)?


-So what does it mean?


-Wow, I am impressed! Most foreign Chinese speakers don’t understand hard words like ‘economics.’ You must really understand Chinese. Why don’t you speak a little so that I can listen to you?

-Eh… no… I’d rather not…like, my Chinese is not that good.

Triumphant smile from him before he proceeded by telling her about his business in China, about how he had learned Chinese and nowadays relied on it completely… After 5 minutes of monologue he suddenly asked: do you want to go out sometime?

-NO! said Anna. And left.

When Anna shared this story with me I was laughing out loud. Seriously, what sort of person does something like that? Sure, you are happy that you can speak Chinese, but come on… there’s a time and a place for everything, and I don’t believe that trying to chat up a fellow loawai, IN CHINESE, is going to make you lucky. Also, I personally have a bit of a problem with people that are so eager to show off their skills that they don’t even wait for the right moment. (Maybe that’s because I am so humble about my own Chinese –I would never dream of trying to chat to another foreigner in Chinese if we could both speak English and if no other Chinese/non-English speakers were around).

I have noticed that there can be a bit of a ‘competition’ between fellow Chinese studying laowais, especially at a place like the university where everybody are learning. People want to know ‘how good you are/how your pronunciation is/how many characters you can read and write’ and compare themselves. It’s easy to get sucked into it all and start comparing yourself to others, however, I try not to since I am not learning to get a high score, but rather, learning for life.

Also, I find the whole ‘comparing yourself with fellow laowais’ kind of useless. For starters, I feel that laowai-Chinese and Chinese-Chinese isn’t the same thing (it is like some months ago when the Koreans in my class made a joke in Chinese and only the other Koreans and the teacher laughed. Me and my Japanese classmates looked at each other, completely confused as we didn’t get it. “Don’t worry,” the Korean student then said. “Remember that we speak Chinese with a Korean accent! Only Koreans understand!” And then we all laughed), and secondly, at this point of learning the language, I still feel that my pronunciation gets worse when I speak to non-native Chinese speakers (like my classmates). I don’t know why exactly, but it is the same when I speak English. I believe that I sound much better when I speak English to native English speakers than I do when I speak English to… let’s say Finns or Germans. I think I subconsciously concentrate a bit more, and also aim for sounding less ‘Swedish’ and more ‘English’ than as usual.

Any Chinese-learner out there who understand what I mean?


Allen Young said...

sofa? haha, Your friend is a really humble person, but maybe this kind of competition can stimulate your enthusiasm of studying. When you learn a foreign language, it is hard to avoid speaking in your own accent. Chinese always use some Chinglish in their English study. Two years ago, I worked in a callcentre of a Chinese bank, I found there were a lot of accent in non-native English speakers. And I have heard a joke, in which Chinese people speak English with their own dialect.

Jonna Wibelius said...

sofa?? what sofa??? not following...

Anonymous said...

Sofa is something Chinese people say when they are the first to comment on a post.

I find foreigners who try to show off their language skills quite annoying. Ok, you're good, great. So what?

Yes competition can be a good way to stimulate your enthusiasm but it's not stimulating when the other person is condescending.

(: Isa :) said...

I wish my school offered Chinese. I've watched a lot of chinese shows and dramas and it would be nice if "wo" wasnt the only word I could understand! :D

Jonna Wibelius said...

Kanmuri -thanks for clearing that out. I had no idea!! :)

I think competition works for some people, while it's not doing anything for others.. and with others I mean 'me.' I have never felt any urge to compete when it comes to language, or any other, skills.. I guess I am (generally speaking) not that much into people who are constantly trying to show off. I prefer to compete with myself.

baoyuanzhe said...

I like it when I hear a foreigner who can speak Chinese really well, it gives me hope maybe I can achieve that one day, and drives me to want to study harder (whether I study harder is a different matter altogether :P). Also, at the moment I feel sometimes I speak Chinese with English characteristics, often thinking how a sentence would be formed in English then trying to say it in Chinese, which works some of the time if your words and grammar are there and in the correct order, but sometimes it ends as a complete failure. I'm still trying to detach myself from English when speaking/listening to Chinese, but it's a difficult thing to do sometimes.

Anonymous said...

Competition works well for me. I can't stand to know someone is better than me...

@Micheal Williams: the best way to become better at a language is to think in that language when you speak it. If you always have to translate, speaking takes mor time and I feel like it affects your accent. It surely did mine. Even if the process is slow, thinking in the language you're speaking is always a winner.

Anonymous said...

Well, Jonna, as usual you sum up a lot of common experiences really well! I think most of us Chinese learners can relate to everything you describe.

I'm happy that you are able to resist getting sucked into the competition. No doubt this attitude will actually help you concentrate on improving yourself, in your own time and fashion, because you won't be distracted by thinking about how other people are doing.

It's a bit different for me, because my learning trajectory has been much longer than most people's (read: I'm a really slow learner! :)) and also more fragmented. So even if I did feel tempted to compare myself with others, it would be pretty hard to do.

Yesterday I was riding in a cab and the taxi driver asked me about my previous trip to China, which was 12 years ago. (At that time I taught English at a university in Beijing. Now I teach English and Latin to little kids.) He said to me, "It's a real shame you didn't stay in China longer last time. Back then very few foreigners could speak Chinese well." (Implication: now they're a dime a dozen.)

I sort of got what the taxi driver was saying. I mean, in the years between my last trip and this current one, when I was back home in the States reading about people making a name for themselves in China -- reading Peter Hessler's beautiful "River Town" and his columns in The New Yorker, and Rachel DeWoskin's hilarious book about her experiences as a soap opera star, I used to wonder if the train was leaving the station without me. (Which would be kind of ironic, since I've been fascinated by China for as long as I can remember, much longer than almost anyone else I know. When I was tiny, before I could read or write in English, I used to copy down Chinese signs and notices on the street. [This was in San Francisco, so there were a lot of them.] I didn't know what they meant, and it never occurred to me that I could learn. I thought knowing Chinese was the exclusive privilege of Chinese people. I was too young and silly to realize foreign languages could be acquired. I still remember the day I discovered that one could learn another language by studying it. I was so excited!)

But on the other hand, isn't it a good thing that so many foreigners can speak such good Chinese now? I mean, it's a language, right? People should be able to learn it if they want to. It's wonderful that so many are doing so, and doing it successfully.

When I really think about it, I feel bad that it is taking me so long to get to that point myself, but I still can't feel bad that others are there before me. If, when I finally am REALLY good, I'm just one of a huge crowd, well, the more the merrier, right?

Allen Young said...

Just as Kanmuri said, we always called the people who are the first to comment on a post 沙发. And the following comment is 板凳. We called the web page host just like you 楼主. The sources of inspiration maybe come from floor system, we regard a post as a building. The word “山寨版” suddenly occured in my mind. This is a new word in Chinese just come out last year. It soon became a hot network popular vocabulary. It first was used to describe a pirated mobile phone, and then extended to serve as a kind of imitation. This word embodies meaning of He first was used to describe a pirated mobile phone, and then extended to serve as a kind of subterranean and counterfeit. When somebody show off his Chinese in front of you, you may ask him what is 山寨版 means in Chinese. hahaha

Jonna Wibelius said...

Allen -hahaha, that's quite interesting. Never heard of any of this before. Thanks for telling me!! :)

Flyingfish -I hear you. Last summer when I was in Finland I met a Finnish woman who is married to a Chinese man. She came to China some 15 years ago and studied Chinese here then. When she was telling me about her experiences she said something quite interesting, she said: 'I think that in the future, it will become easier for foreigners to learn Chinese. It's like with many things. For the people that first learn it, it is hard and time consuming. But then, when more and more people want to learn, someone thinks of new ways that makes it easier and quicker.'

And in many ways I think she is right. Back when she learned she had to do much more handwriting than we do now, the teachers were more strict, there were no 'Chinese podcasts', and so on...I think it is great that more people are learning Chinese, however, I wonder how many people that go 'all the way' and get completely fluent, and how many that study for 1-2 years and then give up. It's quite a time consuming thing to study Chinese. And if u stop -u quickly forget, especially all the characters!

Anonymous said...

It's much worse for me because I look Chinese, so occasionally I meet a westerner who insists on speaking in Chinese. So here we are, two people whose native tongue is ENGLISH, speaking in a language we're BOTH not that good at, making the discussion very difficult to follow.

I would say though, that if say, one was from Germany and another from Italy, it IS possible that Chinese might be the common language if neither spoke decent English.

Rambler said...

One of the other teachers for the group of schools I work for has been in China for about 2.5 years. Our Chinese friends say he sounds like a local. When given the opportunity he'll brag about his Chinese, but just for a moment. Normally the only time I ever hear him use it is when he's explaining the rules to a drinking game to our Chinese friends that don't know as much English.

Because of my schedule I can't take the college classes like he does, but I've one of my friends tutors me, so I have some hope for the future.

Kosmo said...

On the bright side, at least this guy showed Anna what a jerk he was before she wasted much time on him.

Jonna Wibelius said...

Woai -I thought u were fluent in Chi. Anyways, yeah, that has happened to me too. I once studied together with an American girl who was so KEEN to practice her Chinese that she refused to speak English to me... even when our, non-English-speaking-classmates weren't around. In the end it all became ridiculous, because we both lacked in terms of vocab to be able to have any deeper conversation. Also, her pronunciation wasn't spot on (and neither is mine!!) so it was kind of hard for us to understand each other.

The Taipan said...

Last year I went with some laowai friends to see LA Galaxy play Asia Allstars at the Shanghai Stadium. We were surrounded by Chinese, except for two laowais on the row in front of us. These douches kept speaking Chinese to each other loudly, clearly bragging. Tools:)


I thought the guy was just trying to continue to speak Chinese because he was in China, and it may just be the only opportunity he has to exercise it well. When in Rome...speak Roman?

In the U.S. the English as a Second language teachers say that the difference between the Chinese students learning English and the Mexican students learning English, is that the Chinese/Asian do understand it but, are too shy/humble to speak it. The Mexican/Latin students are too ambitious about speaking it, that they do it before the understand it.

Steph said...

It seems to me that if you practice with people who aren't native speakers you will be likely to pick up some bad habits...

I think I am at the other extreme from the bar guy, where I am so shy to use my Chinese that people don't even realize that I can speak. But because of that, I miss out on a lot of learning experiences. So I don't know which is better.

Jonna Wibelius said...

Steph -yeah, I feel the same way.. I have an indonesian friend and when we speak we mix between Eng/Chi... we make so many mistakes when we speak to each other that it is just ridiculous... sometimes we correct each other but obviously there are times when we have no idea of how to really say things... so I don't know if it benefits us in the long run to chat in Chi to each other.

Nancy said...

Maybe he felt he needed to totally immerse himself in Chinese while in China. I know of people who only speak the language of the country they are doing business in, or living in. I think Chinese would be one of the hardest languages to learn - I admire you for living there and doing what you are doing.

Anonymous said...

It's very much like the old trick of teaching a girl to play Pool as a way of pulling her.

Not as much body contact I suppose.

Anonymous said...

The vocabulary of the described guy reminded me Chinese 101 course:

I even remember the lesson with the word "jingji" (economics) there:

All other phrases are basic vocabulary as well: "where are you from?", "do business", "speaking too fast", "too hard". It's amazing that by learning just several hundred words you can say quite a few things. Probably that guy was too excited about this fact. Anyway, bad pickup technique:-)

Jenny King said...

I'd love to learn Chinese. I learnt a few bits and pieces before I went to Beijing last year, but now I've forgotten most of them. Do they do courses in the UK? I can't really relate to speaking Chinese as no one attempted to talk in Chinese to me as I was clearly rubbish :P but I'm from Wales and some die hard welsh speakers do have a habbit of presuming you can speak the language and start talking to you in Welsh. Like your friend, I respond in english as I don't speak fluent Welsh. But then they will continue to speak to you in Welsh. I think they are waiting for you to trip up so eventually you have to say 'sorry I don't understand.' Now I tend to say 'sorry I don't speak Welsh' as soon as this happens. A lot easier! And the welsh person can't get quite so smug.

Anonymous said...

Funny guy! I'm pentalingual, as many overseas asians are in Europe, maybe we should start to brag about our language abilities in addition to our MSc/PhD degrees :)

Ilyana said...

It's the same thing here, Im from Asia- and English is my second language, when I meet my fellow Asians and say Hello to them in our local language they're like...Duh???? pretending they can't speak the language anymore..I think it's abysmal...I know, we should be proud to learn another language, but to actually pretend to forget your own language is ridiculous..

조안나 said...

Well, I haven't met many people like that in Korea, but most of my friends can't even read the alphabet, so maybe I just hang out in the wrong circles. I do get really, irrationally angry sometimes when I hear foreigners who can speak Korean really well. They've achieved what I am starting to think may never happen and it makes me so frustrated!!! Then I remind myself that my Korean is decent enough, considering that even though I live in Korea, I hardly ever get to practice, and I don't take any formal classes, just a free Saturday course for 1.5 hours..... it's still aggravating though...

Josie said...

I understand exactly what you mean about "competition" and how pronunciation can go out of the window when you're speaking a foreign language to someone of you're same nationality. I'm learning French and Japanese at the moment, in French I'm doing a school course, and Japanese I'm self-taught. In my class, there are quite a few kids who compete with each other to get good scores, but I think it's more important to learn the language for life rather than grades, like you said. Whenever I've been to France in the past, I find it easy to communicate to non-English speakers, but yet in class, I feel that my pronunciation isn't adequate! Although I'm not learning Chinese, your blog is so inspiring because you're doing exactly what I want to do after I leave college/uni.. go and live abroad!
All the best, Josie =D

Anonymous said...

Great post! I know exactly what you mean about competitive attitudes amongst foreigners studying Chinese. The weird is thing is, however, that I've never noticed it amongst learners of any other language. I don't know why Chinese seems to attract so many of these types, but my guess is that since Chinese is still a relatively new and "exotic" language, many foreigners feel like they're blazing new trails when they decide to take the language on. For a lot of these people, discovering that there are other laowais who speak better Mandarin is difficult to accept as it challenges their perceived status as a "pioneer" in China. Whatever the reason is, I've had too many experiences like that of your friend to bother with these types anymore. It's still amusing to hear new stories about them though!

afritzse said...

I'm self-studying Chinese as a hobby, also for life, I want to speak Chinese to native speakers, not really to other laowai learners.

It's extremely easy to impress laowais who know nothing about Mandarin, all it takes is just *one* word you speak or a character you write somewhere. That's because they know nothing about it or felt lost trying.

However, as soon as you get to talk to an experienced Mandarin speaker, they will judge you by their own knowledge and give you an impression of where you really stand. That kind of feedback is more rewarding as you progress through your learning.

Let's say, a Western student of Chinese learns about 10'000 words during his four years of study. A life learner has time to learn many more. Personally, I prefer the latter situation.

Frankie Perussault said...

That guy was just a SNOB (sine nobilite!!!) and a male narcissist!!!

Clifford Magnus Larsen said...

Miss Wibelius... what a story. Your friend handled it right. What audacity to ask her, "do you know what JINGJI means??" What a total LOSER. But that Anonymous guy said it right. That was all probably from one lesson...! Funny! I choose not to speak too much to foreigners because they can't help me if I pronounce something wrong or if my grammar is off.

But I can see this with Chinese who want to practice their English...and a foreigner who wants to practice their Chinese. I think the guy just thinks that with his suave usage of Chinese IN CHINA...the girl might NEED him for language situations... thus starting a friendship. But in reality... a turn off.

Bagman and Butler said...

I was browsing around and landed on your blog...following it may be dangerous since I've always wanted to see China. Reading blogs from someone who is there is apt to tip the scales! I'd better start saving!

Anonymous said...

I am an Overseas Chinese and I completely agree with you and it irritates me too as a Chinese to come across these types.

I appreciate non Chinese learning the language etc but this person you mention seems to be irritating regardless of how good his technical language skills are.

I would actually prefer Chinese learners to be like yourself and your friend, we don't mind learners who have broken Chinese, we will like good characters better.

Keep up the good work! You seem to be learning the culture as well.

Unknown said...

I feel embarressed to use the little spanish that i know when speaking to hispanics. So for this guy to carry on conversation the way he did was silly and really stupid. To bad he doesn't know that he looked like an ass!

Little Tiger said...

As usual I'm the last person to leave a comment (what you would call...the armchair?)

Anyway I came across this situation before when I was taking part in the 'Chinese Bridge' chinese competition last year.
I was chatting away to another contestant and after it emerged he was from another English speaking country too, I switched to English. However, he kept on talking in Chinese which really got me uncomfortable.
For some reason he took a shine to me so wherever I turned he'd be there yapping away to me in Chinese. He didn't seem to get the message that I had no interest in taking part in the charade by my mono syllabic answers. In the end I just figured he was looking for validation for how good his Chinese was, so after 20 minutes of praising his Chinese to the heavens he kind of laid off me(thank god)

@ flyingfish
I can totally identify with the thinking that Chinese was could only be learned by Chinese people. I grew up on a tiny island off the coast of Madagascar of which the population was of Asian descent. I was fascinated by the shop signs in Chinese( I suppose traditional) and remember being jealous of all the 'hongbaos' handed out at CNY! I think that is why I am so engrossed in learning Chinese: the realization that something you thought was impossible is actually very possible indeed!

Jonna Wibelius said...

Edward -exactly!!! that is JUST how I feel! When I was learning Spanish there was no competitiveness between the students at all.. regardless of what level u were on, everybody were totally laid-back about it. I think you are right about the fact that many people consider Chinese to be 'such an exotic and hard language' and therefore feel a bit 'special' if they speak it. Funny thing, really! I guess this will all change within the next few years as the amount of foreign Chinese speakers will increase.

Little Tiger -Armchair?!?! hahahahhaa....
hehe, your experience with the guy is spot on, I feel many people are so desperate to be told that 'yeah, your Chinese is really good...' I never understand why. I mean, deep down inside you already know how good u are? Why u need others to tell you?

Little Tiger said...

I think some people just need that boost of self-esteem.
I have to admit, I do like when people praise my Chinese. Although I also do get a bit embarrassed by the reaction of Chinese people when they hear me speaking Chi here in the West. Oftentimes when I'm doing some grocery shopping in a Chinese store, I do often have to bite my tongue when I hear them talk about laowais. ('Sorry love, but technically you are the laowai here!')
A girl I used to know, though, hated when in China people would praise her Chinese after she said 'ni hao'.

Myself, I get a kick by reading or watching a Chinese TV , or eavesdropping Chi people's conversations(I have no shame!) and understanding more than I used to do rather than needing people's seal of approval.

Jason said...

Yep I got it

Anonymous said...

"I prefer to compete with myself."

That sums up my feelings.

After being brought up with the notion that competition is a good thing, I've recently come to the conclusion that the opposite is actually true.

This is especially so when people stop using competition in a constructive way, by improving themselves, and start using it destructively, by acting upon others to effectively remove competition.

So instead of trying to be better than others I now strive for perfection, or as near as I can possibly get. It's the ultimate motivation and without any of the negative feeling attached to competition.

Anonymous said...

What an interesting story.

I dont think it's competitiveness, just a self centred guy with a "I'm so special, I'm a white dude who can speak an Asian language, so all the chicks love me and I am a God" attitude who wants attention.

In your experience Jonna, do you think it's just the White guys who are like that, or also the White ladies too? (sorry, I dont know the term for Caucasian lady in Mandarin)

Reminds me of this customer at my old workplace in Australia.

Most of the staff were Asian- a mix of Aussie Born Chinese, Filopinos, Laotians, Indians and PRC's. Note, only one of us could speak Mandarin.

This 60 year old guy would come in about once every 5 or 6 months.
As soon as he saw any Asian, he'd walk right up to them, stop, and clearly say "Ni haooo", stand in front and expect them to start praising him on how wonderful he was that he learnt Chinese.

Most of us found him pretty annoying, because he although he knew a few words, he was still pretty ignorant and clearly thought that all Asians looked the same, spoke the same, and thought laowais were Gods.

One "positive" thing I can glean from your story is that standards have risen- the laowai's have a much higher level of Chinese now!

Take care!


Anonymous said...


Anonymous said...


K said...

"A girl I used to know, though, hated when in China people would praise her Chinese after she said 'ni hao'."

I am ambivalent about this. For a month (or two) when I first got to Shanghai I would get upset when people complimented me on my chinese, because I know I have tons of weak areas (two glaring ones being appropriate word choice and pronunciation). I was translating 你中文说得很好 as "holy shit, it can talk!"

After watching a tv show where an interviewer asks the same silly questions, like "Do you like Chinese culture" to a guy who has lived in China since before the PRC was founded and before the other man was born, and seeing him answer "Well, I guess you could say that. I did the original translations for works such as Ba Jin's "家", I got more resigned. Knowing that no amount of cultural or linguistic competence will make new Chinese people (other than on the phone) not give me the standard 'laowai' treatment kind of puts me at ease. It also made me stop working so hard at perfection, but w/e.

As a corollary to the internet related comments, if you want an easy 'in' to chinese internet culture, check out, which also has a glossary of net/BBS slang.

Unknown said...

My mother was born in China but speaks no Chinese. Then I think back to my highschool days, a school acquaintance was standing in line with me and my best friend a Chinese Vietnamese whom to this day Im friendly with! I recall how I tried to learn Chinese and couldn't manage the pronounciation of certain sounds so I gave up! Here I was and this fellow school acquaintance whom every thought spoke perfect English Aussie style and grew up in China suddenly finds herself speaking fluent Chinese to my fellow freinds. I was so proud of her and baffled at how she succeeded in being accepted as though she was one of the Chinese by my Asian friends and also as an Australian!
But I found the fact that she didn't try to compete or show off her superior knowledge of Chinese I found admirable. Then again she grew up in Hong Kong and returned to Australia at the age of 16 having left Sydney when she was 3..
SO heres to doing the best you can to speak the lingo the way the Chinese do!!

Anonymous said...

If he is used to speaking Chinese all day everyday, after a period of time, it will become natural to him to speak Chinese first.... there is nothing wrong with this. Your friend could have asked him to speak English and brought his attention that she would prefer to talk in English! There is no need to be so mean to him!!!!

Zhela said...

I'm an American-born Asian currently studying abroad in Germany. This makes me think of something I frequently come across during my time here: I am ambitious to learn German and can now speak it considerably well (on the good days ;) . ) However, when I come into social contact with larger groups of other American students (and they are always in packs together, but that's another story), it becomes virtually impossible to use German for conversation.

On one hand, I have days where I make pointed determination to use German exclusively and thoroughly exercise it. But I could be doing fantastically all day, then bam, I meet up with some English speakers, and it is all over. I've still made progress, but I can quickly feel its potency diluting as the old language floods back in. That, in turn, can actually be disappointing. It's already an upward climb learning a language, then complete re-immersion back into English is like another small push downhill.

So I can see the perspectives on both sides of your friend's encounter with equal weight, but he does still sound like a douche bag ;) .... You know what JingJi means, by any chance???