How Many People Should We Talk To?

I’ve been learning Chinese for about two years now. It’s been a long two years. While I can understand a good amount of what is being said around me, there is still difficulty. Same goes for my speaking. Usually I can get my idea across to whomever I’m talking to, but there are still a lot of times that I have really weird sentence structure. Now I’ve noticed something about my learning and I’m curious to see if anyone else has noticed this in their own language learning.


I think that having the same conversation partners for a long period of time can actually slow down my progress. Of course, this all depends on if my conversation partner will correct most mistakes I make. In my experience, most of my Taiwanese friends don’t correct my Chinese unless I say something that sounds really weird, meaning I get very little feedback on my Chinese. This can create the illusion for me that what I’m saying makes sense, only to be misunderstood when I talk to a stranger.


See, when talking to the same person for a long time, they get used to how you speak. Especially with a tonal language such as Chinese, pronunciation is vital in order to be understand. A lot of my friends have gotten used to my weird grammar and pronunciation, so I can say a sentence to them and they will understand. However, when I say the exact same sentence to someone else, they have no idea what I’m saying.


I witnessed this several times when I was dating a Taiwanese girl. I’d hang out with her and her friends. We’d talk. Now I’d say something only to be given a weird look by the Taiwanese friend, but my girlfriend understood what I meant. So then my girlfriend would translate my weird Chinese into normal Chinese and then her friend would understand. If I was by myself, I’d have to find other ways of explaining my ideas in order to be understood.


This also works in terms of listening. I would be able to understand most things my girlfriend said, but when someone else on the street would talk to me, I would have no idea what they were saying. The way they talked differed from what I was used to. I had to listen to a variety of people talking in order to get used to different accents and pronunciations. If kids talked to me, I had difficulty understanding because of the way they slurred words. Same thing with elderly people, but they slurred their words in a different way. Let’s not even talk about trying to listen to a mainland Chinese accent.


Over time working at a cram school, I’ve heard a lot of my coworkers speak Chinese, students speaking Chinese, and parents speaking Chinese. All these things helped contribute to my listening. Where before when students talked in Chinese I would  be completely lost, now I know what students are saying when they decide to make fun of me (much to their chagrin).


Maybe I’m the only one with this problem. Either way, it’s good to take note of it because it might pop up in your language learning quest at some point. I can note just even in Taiwan, you’ll find a lot of people requesting for a teacher with a specific accent because they either need to train that accent or they like that accent more. So don’t be afraid to find several conversation partners. It can only help you in the end.


Has anyone else had a similar experience to this?


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