Thursday, April 01, 2010

Inappropriate laughter

Yet another reason why I don't learn Chinese....

Well, I just noticed it had been nearly eleven months since I last had an entry in this series, and I wouldn't want my readers to go thinking that I'd started secretly taking Mandarin lessons.

Another of the reasons why I've struggled to find any motivation to study the language here seriously (and this is something, I know, that has dissuaded many other foreigners from the attempt too, or at least made their efforts seem much, much harder) is that China is one of the most discouraging environments in the world for trying to learn the local language. I've mentioned before a certain unhelpfulness that seems to be unfortunately characteristic of the Chinese in dealing with foreigners who are attempting to speak their language - that they will make no allowance for your linguistic defects, either in attempting to understand you or in attempting to make their own speech simpler for you to understand. (Exceptions prove the rule: I heard tell once of a Beijing rock musician who cut a swathe through the ranks of young female Mandarin students here - largely by virtue of the fact that he could flatter their language ability by managing to understand them and by making himself understandable to them.)

The related point I wanted to make today is that the Chinese people are not, in general, very encouraging towards the bumbling foreigner's efforts to speak their language. Whether it is the taxi driver hectoring you to repeat your destination to him six times until you get the tones right, or the storekeeper staring at you blankly because you clumsily said 'sell' rather than 'buy' (same sound, different tone!), or a class of university students giggling uncontrollably at your attempt to wish them a Happy New Year..... yes, it's just very, very, very discouraging. Obtuse incomprehension or open derision everywhere you go.

I have on a number of occasions explained this (as nicely as I can) to groups of students when they've asked me why I don't study Chinese. I have pointed out that Chinese people very commonly laugh at foreigners whenever they try to speak Chinese. ("Oh no, we're sure that isn't true.") I've explained how dispiriting this is for someone who's doing their best to learn, struggling with a language that is especially alien and difficult for them. ("Oh yes, we can see that.") And I've explained that laughing at people like this is in fact considered very rude in 'Western' culture. ("Oh yes, we understand that. How terrible!") And then I've told them that if I try to speak some Chinese for them, they must promise not to laugh. ("Oh, of course. We would never do something like that.")

Then I trot out one of the few phrases or sentences I can say reasonably well. And they all laugh at me.

Every single time.


T-Man said...

Very Funny! Interestingly, if you reverse this scenario and act in this way towards the Chinese when they speak English they apparently lose face in a big way... so they should really have some sympathy to the mandarin learner.

justrecently said...

It depends. If Chinese people speak some English - and want to learn more by practising it -, I share your impression that they'll try to discourage your practise of their language. But in smaller cities and towns, I've seen many opportunities, and frequently the need, to speak Chinese.

Froog said...

Not quite my point here, JR. I've talked elsewhere about the differing need to speak Chinese in different circumstances, and about the problem (in Beijing, especially) of having reduced opportunities to practice Chinese because so many people want to speak English with you.

What I'm saying here is that there is something in the culture that prompts laughter as a response to many situations that most 'Westerners' would consider inappropriate, and one of the most common of these instances is when a foreigner is unexpectedly trying to speak Chinese. Encountering apparent mockery of your efforts so frequently can be severely discouraging. (Note I say "apparent mockery". I don't think they are actually making fun of us, most of the time; it's just some weird safety valve whenever they feel socially embarrassed by something.)

Froog said...

Further to my point above to Just Recently, the circumstances in which this 'automatic laughter' of the Chinese(apparently a release of social tension when they don't quite understand or don't know what to say) is most galling is when you share some bad news with them. If you tell a Chinese friend/colleague/student something like "My mother just died" or "My brother's in a coma" or "I think I've got cancer", you can absolutely guarantee that they will giggle at you.