People in Leshan are wonderfully friendly. If you speak so much as two words of Chinese, they’ll open up to you, ask questions, make conversation. At such times, every little bit of language training helps. I’ve realized how much communication in a new language involves picking out recognizable words, cobbling them together with context, and coming up with a best guess as to their meaning. I’m learning what to expect and how to understand Chinese that isn’t delivered to me in nice, clearly enunciated, slowly uttered packages.
But there’s another learning curve at work here. Communication is a two-way street. As an English teacher, I’ve become far more proficient at deciphering my students’ English than I was three months ago. What I consider normal now, I probably wouldn’t have understood then. Of course, I had some training at understanding accented English before moving to China because there are so many people in the United States who are learning English as a second language. This level of exposure to nonnative speakers isn’t available in China. Television shows quite regularly feature non-Chinese actors that always seem to speak flawless Mandarin. Here in the heartland of China, people just don’t get much practice with foreigners. My wife Molly and I turn heads as we walk down the street.
As a learner, all of this can be difficult at times. I’ve found that I’ll say something almost perfectly and get no recognition because I said it with the wrong rhythm. While the Chinese are very willing to speak to me, they haven’t heard a lot of hesitant, learner-accented Chinese of the sort that I produce when I’m trying to construct a sentence. However, conversations with people who have learned to understand a foreign accent revive my belief that I am, in fact, progressing.