by Emily Smith
Last summer I was fairly determined to leave the UK. Taking advantage of that gloriously low effort skill of speaking one’s own native language, I headed to Nanchang, Jianxi in China where I taught English to high school and university students.
I learnt a lot, but one thing I really didn’t learn was how to speak Mandarin.
Students had to grasp that I really wouldn’t give them anything by way of translation in their own language. Instead they had to find ways to figure out what I meant, whether by looking it up on their smart phone, asking a friend, trying out another English word, or drawing a picture.
This pushed me to communicate in new ways, and I became quite accustomed to drawing and acting, playing the crazy enthusiastic foreign girl, in order to try and work round the language barrier.
Being forced to speak and to listen in different ways made me more aware of how we speak to fellow native speakers. This wouldn’t work with my Chinese pupils. I became acutely conscious of the arcane lexical choices, bizarre idioms, and complicated grammatical constructions that we so easily and unconsciously fall back on.
Sometimes I felt slightly like a living thesaurus: for every word or phrase I’d try to use, I frequently had to jump to several alternatives in order to get a point across.
The experience also made me very aware of what is involved in listening to another English speaker. I realised I was constantly guessing, with more or less evidence, at what someone was talking about.
For instance, conscious of poor English it was easy to adjust how I interpreted their attempts at speaking in accordance with the sort of answer I would expect them to give to whatever question I had asked. Yet sometimes I would realise halfway through an answer that my students had in fact misunderstood my question, and my interpretation was entirely wrong.
The reason it would take so long for me to realise was that we intuitively expect certain answer types, and we fit the evidence to our expectation. Listening is an act of finding a best-fit interpretation, taking into account our background knowledge and assumptions about the sort of things that people are likely to say.
In doing so we apply a sort of principle of charity, assuming that the person we are speaking to is saying something reasonable. We look for the most plausible explanation when a response does not fall within the scope of what we expect English speakers to say.
This is something we do to some extent in all our conversations, yet it is exacerbated where we cross a language barrier and are pushed to be more flexible in making sense of our dialogue partner.
And however flexible and concessive I felt that I was being, it was humbling to constantly be reminded how much more flexible these students had to be in conversing with someone with no grasp at all of their native language and whose way of speaking and thinking diverged considerably from their own.