Listening vs. Speaking

I have returned to Beijing with our UT MBA students and so once again I find myself trying to practice some Chinese.  It has taken me a while to catch on to something that I hadn’t overtly thought of previously.  With all of the other languages that I have studied (Portuguese, Spanish, Italian, Catalan, and German) there is a phase where I could understand more than I could say.  This was especially true when I tried to learn some Italian.  There are so many cognates between Spanish and Portuguese that also help in understanding Italian.  From the very first day, I could understand a good portion of what people were saying.  Even with words that I had not studied at all, many times there was a good chance that the Italian equivalent was predictable.  So, a good part of the vocabulary was learned by association with similar cognate words.

In the case of Chinese (and to a lesser extend Japanese), however, things are reversed. In some ways I feel that I can almost speak at a higher level than what I can understand.  That’s a new experience for me and again it is related to vocabulary. Learning vocabulary in Chinese is such a different experience and a large part of it, I believe, is related to the fact that there are very few cognates.  If you don’t know how to say a word in Chinese, there just isn’t much to go on. When speaking you can work around the word you do not know, but when listening there is almost no hope for understanding a new word.  That is so unlike the romance languages where context often helps out enough to figure out the unknown words.

So I find myself trying to find a new strategy for learning vocabulary.  Educators generally say that input (language that you hear) becomes intake (language that you begin to understand) when context provides you with enough background.  I’m not convinced that context alone is enough when learning a “non-cognate” language.  Vocabulary in cognate languages happens almost without even noticing that you are learning new words.  Now, however, I need to exert a conscience effort to focus on vocabulary.  In the meantime, speaking is almost easier than listening comprehension.



5 Responses to “Listening vs. Speaking”

  1. Braden Says:

    Finally, someone else has noticed this! Thanks for doing a clear write up on it. tchau tchau

  2. Aleksey Says:

    That’s why we maybe shouldn’t start speaking before 100% of the input becomes the intake? What d’you think about TV method? The live example on

  3. jp 吉平 Says:

    The same is true for me; I could speak Mandarin way above my level of listening comprehension, but with all of the European languages I studied, as well as Tagalog, my listening comp was way better than my speaking.

    I know that it’s the cognate effect, but I also wonder if cultural generosity has something to do with it… Italians, French people, and most of all Spanish speakers tend to be much more patient toward me (and by extension, language learners in general) whereas Mandarin speakers in the PRC often gave up on me, didn’t rephrase, didn’t explain… in short, were not culturally generous to the L2 learner.

    I spent 2 years in Mainland China and only 6 days in Taiwan, but after that short time I feel like the Taiwanese culture was much kinder, more culturally generous to the L2 learner; more helpful, more understanding. Also I noticed that my friends that were kick-ass fluent in Mandarin were either married to a Chinese person, or they had studied in Taiwan.

    Since I’m not looking to get married, I’m looking into going to Taiwan to continue my Mandarin studies…

  4. Tommy Says:

    In Japan, there is a tendency to rely on unspoken, situational context (they say “reading the air”) which, along with the large number of homonyms, creates confusion on a daily basis among Japanese.

    Sometimes it is just しょうがない (shouganai, like “unavoidable”) as they say, but I think that this kind of confusion is a problem that should be addressed not via “foreign” language studies, but rather through “fundamental” language education (although the reverse is more common).

    The question, then, is how to become both a good speaker who can communicate clearly in multiple languages and in various contexts, and a good listener who can understand even those who fail to communicate clearly, hopefully assuming that this failure to transmit is not related to the value of the content of their transmission.

  5. Orlando Says:

    What a great phrase “reading the air”, I totally know what you are saying with that. Japanese are so cool.

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