Keeping up with native speed

I have spent the last 2 and a half weeks traveling in China with a group of our MBA students here at the McCombs School of Business at UT, Austin.  We’ve had a great trip (hence the photo of the terracotta warriors in Xi’an).

Language wise, I have “enjoyed” the frustration of communicating with Chinese at native speed.  As an elementary-level speaker of Chinese, it always amazes me how native speakers seem to be speaking 100 miles an hour.  We sometimes forget this as language teachers, and the reminder is always humbling.

It is something that I knew before, but have been reminded again and again on this trip.  So, here is my basic philosophy on listening comprehension:

-Don’t worry about understanding every word that people say.

-Keep on listening and you will get the general overall meaning of what they are talking about.

-Little by little the garbled stream of speech starts to make sense.

-First you will go through a phase of understanding the general meaning even when you cannot identify the specific words being said.

-Little by little, you start to hear individual words and phrases too.

To me listening comprehension is one of those areas that you cannot go around, you’ve got to hit it head on, full speed, and in natural everyday situations.  Here are a couple of examples.

1.  I was ordering food at KFC and the girl (who muttered phrases with the same lightning fast slurred speech of any teenager at any KFC in the world) basically asked if I wanted to eat my meal to stay or to go (zheli chi or daizou).  I didn’t actually “hear” the exact words, but I got the flow enough to tell her that I wanted to eat the meal there.  After answering her, my mind kind of replayed the phrases in my head and I was able to reconstruct her original sentence. Bingo, I got that one right!

2.  I was talking to someone who found out that my name is Orlando and asked if I was from Orlando, Florida.  I don’t think I have ever heard the name Orlando Florida in Chinese before, I can’t even repeat it now, but there was enough context to the situation that I was able to appreciate her attempt at humor, and were were able to continue on with the conversation.

So to all of you beginning and elementary language learners out there, start listening fast, because they are going to talk to you fast!

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