Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Avoiding Misunderstandings

As someone who has to deal in my second language on a daily basis, I still occasionally get instances where my accent and non-standard pronunciation causes misunderstandings. Occasionally, I also run into misunderstandings when I speak correctly.

Since I don’t look Chinese, most people try to make allowances for the fact that Chinese is not my native languages. This means, amongst other things, that if they believe that I’ve said the wrong word due to getting my tones mixed up (the most common pronunciation error that foreigners make), they mentally substitute the “correct” word for me.Usually this is fine, but occasionally the word that people assume is “wrong”  is actually the word I originally intended to say - but people mishear it because they're expecting to hear something different.

For my first year in China, I taught English in a city called Sùzhōu in Anhui province. While I lived there, the first time I bought my ticket home from travelling, the ticket seller tried to sell me a ticket to Sūzhōu in Jiangsu province – which is a far prettier and more famous city, which just happens to have a very similar name. Even when my pronunciation was correct (and I took pains to make sure that I got the pronunciation of those two cities down pat), I suppose they thought that since no foreigner in their right mind would want to go to Sùzhōu, I must be mispronouncing Sūzhōu instead.

Sùzhōu  in Anhui Province 
Sūzhōu  in Jiangsu Province

I also run into similar problems when I tell people that I’ve been taking Korean lessons in China. In Chinese, the words for the Korean and Chinese languages are once again separated only by a tone. And, of course, most people, when they hear you say that you’re going to ‘Hanyu class”, assume that you are going to study the language of their own country, rather than that of another.

The way I avoid this kind of misunderstanding is by giving extra context to my utterances. I quickly learnt to specify that I was heading to Anhui province whenever I bought a train ticket home, and when I talk about my Korean studies, I will often say that I’m studying “Hánguóyǔ”, rather than the more easily confused, but more common “Hányǔ”. Even if it means that my language usage deviates slightly from the norm, I find it’s worth it just to make myself more easily understood.

When speaking a foreign language, it usually is a good idea to be aware of your accent and how it might make it difficult for others to understand you, and try to add at least some redundancy to statements that might be easily confused, or which others might not expect you to say. This is especially useful in homophone-rich languages like Chinese, where minor changes in tone can completely change, or even reverse, the meaning of your sentence, but is still useful no matter what language you’re studying.

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