In the tradition of reading above my level, I got the Chinese version of The Restaurant at the end of the Universe // Douglas Adams from the library and, so far, I’m up to page two.
Not sure why I’m doing this, I have some of the Sherlock Holmes kids series in Cantonese to get through, but for some reason they’re not sticking, so here I am, pushing the rock up Mt Sci-fi.
Previously, I attempted So long and thanks for all the fish in Portuguese, and it’s already clear that, language-wise, I’m about to start having the same problems.
Problem 1 – idioms
This is also an issue I have with the kids books in Cantonese…they use a lot of idioms, some easy to guess, others impossible. Like in English, if a character says they’re a bit under the weather, you probably won’t know what it means unless you’re fluent. Same problem here, only worse, as Cantonese idioms are more localised and non-existent in western culture.
An example, the four characters highlighted in green below:
The best way I’ve found to get through it, is to skip them. Skip the whole sentence and aim for an understanding of the paragraph as a whole. If the idiom turns out to be foundational then go back and look it up.
Problem 2 – logic
In my experience, when you’re a non-native speaker of a language…anything up to high intermediate, possibly higher…you have to rely on logic and context to understand what people are saying.
Example, if you go to a restaurant, you can logically assume what the waiter is saying, which means you can limit your internal referencing to the ‘restaurant -waiter’ situational vocabulary section.
But if the waiter goes off topic…you’re in trouble.
This has happened to me numerous times…with waiters, security guards, cashiers, random uncles…they ask me something either redundant or completely tangential to our conversation, and I can’t respond to them cos my brain has limited itself to that specific situation.
If they’re a waiter, they must be asking something about food or service…but what if they’re telling me something obvious like ‘do you want milk in your tea?’ when I’ve just ordered ‘milk tea.’ Or they’ve noticed something I’m wearing and want to know where I got it from?
Maybe it’s the stress of the situation, but when I’m in public with people waiting in line behind me, I usually panic a little…the words coming at me from the other person stop registering, especially if it’s something that deviates from the usual questions. Maybe it’s just me. My listening skills aren’t the best…I often mishear what the news reporters say on TV…and any time I’m being tested, I struggle. It’s hard to explain. My brain just folds in on itself and distracts me while the words I’m trying to focus on have already flown off…
In The Restaurant at the end of the Universe, logic is a big problem.
The plot and characters are comically absurd, the metaphors and images are stretched out, tangents are everywhere…if you don’t remember this at all times, you’ll quickly struggle.
Here’s an example, on the first page:
It’s basically saying that some aliens believe the universe is the snot from a deity’s nose…at least that’s what I think it says…and the next line continues the theory, describing these aliens’ fear of a giant white handkerchief descending from the sky, and how they are the only race to invent deodorant before the wheel.
It’s ludicrous stuff, and if you read it with a logical brain, you’re going to get lost…but you can’t help reading with a logical brain as, unless you’re advanced or native level, that’s the part of your brain that activates when speaking or reading a foreign language.
Problem 3: Infinite vocab
If you’ve ever watched polyglot channels on YouTube, you’ll notice that when they’re speaking a new foreign language, they seem to be using a lot of the same words repeatedly. I notice it in Cantonese too, on the rare occasions I’ve met other foreigners here who speak the language…it’s much easier to understand them because they’re using the first 500-1,000 words. Always, sometimes, because, have to etc. They do this because, despite some of their claims, they’re still beginners. Their vocab is limited, they can’t do circumlocution yet, they’re unable to express the actual thoughts that are in their heads…e.g. Tenet was better than I expected, but a little hard to follow whenever the characters tried to explain the plot becomes Tenet is good, but very complicated or Tenet is okay la, but very confusing…basically, they’re either simplifying to the level of a soundbite or regurgitating patterns they’ve learnt. Not to say they can’t speak the language at all, but there’s a difference between getting a foothold and being comfortably fluent. I know this cos I’m comfortably trapped between the two of them right now.
The language-learning process [in my experience]
First you repeat basic sentence patterns, then you repeat chains of sentence patterns [the level most people reach after six months], then there’s a point where you have enough variety in your vocab to think on your feet in simple conversations. Then you stagnate, use the words you know, avoid the difficult ones, avoid any grammar that slows down your fluency, then you fall into a rut, you start having the same conversations again, you get depressed at your lack of progress, conclude that you’ll be stuck between upper beginner and lower intermediate forever, then you keep going, picking up more vocab, phrases, forcing yourself into conversations with people you’re not just meeting for the first time [this is a trap I fell into in Japanese, just repeating the same conversation a thousand times, where are you from? Why do you speak Japanese? How long have you lived here? Etc.], varying the topics more with your language exchanges, then you get more comfortable, then you meet people with an accent, people who slur, and can’t understand a word they’re saying, you get depressed again, you re-assess, you start studying again, reading more books, words you used to have trouble with start to stick, others slip away…and on and on…
The best polyglots are honest about this and will sometimes show videos of themselves struggling in a language. Others put up videos where they’re not in control of the conversation, forcing them to think on their feet in that language. If you’re an English speaker, you can see videos of non-native English polyglots doing long, improvised interviews with other polyglots, including ‘thinking pauses’ and a decent range of vocab, so there’s a good chance they’re more honest about their abilities in other languages…and Steve Kaufmann has done videos where he’s very specific about his levels in the languages he studies…he also advises not to talk to non-native speakers of your target language unless you have no choice, a point I agree with completely…you won’t get much from the experience and, even worse, you might pick up some of their mistakes…
Why do some people, native English speakers especially, misjudge their language levels?
Basically, it seems to be a problem of expectation and definition…I know “beginners” in Japan and Hong Kong who constantly say they can’t speak English well, yet can manage a conversation with me on various topics, no problem…while at the same time I see one of my British friends claim to be fluent in German when he can barely complete a sentence…to him, merely completing that sentence, or having a rudimentary dialogue with someone in a shop is proof enough…but for others, not knowing the word ‘capitulate’ or ‘fragment’ is considered a failure…
Another case…when I learnt French in high school, the GCSE exam was pretty basic, they didn’t expect you to express yourself in French, just repeat some patterned dialogues…whereas the English exam in Hong Kong is insane, almost native speaker level…
Why is there such a big difference in expectations?
Are English speakers coddled?
Could also be a misreading of the Euro Language Framework criteria…the assumption that the gaps between each group are equidistant e.g. beginner to upper beginner, upper beginner to low intermediate etc. No one wants to be told that it’ll take around three years of constant study and immersion to get to high intermediate in a language…and how the further you get, the more you expand your vocab base, the harder it’ll become to remember it all…I’ve forgotten so many words I learnt four years ago cos I haven’t talked about that topic for a long time…which is where reading comes in…
Huge tangent there, sorry…
What I’m trying to say is…when you first start speaking a foreign language you’re not expressing yourself, you’re repeating patterns, mainly cos you don’t know enough words to do otherwise and your brain isn’t attuned to that language yet.
Same thing applies to reading. You don’t know enough vocab, so it’s going to be a struggle…and if you’re an adult learner, you’ll want to skip the kids books cos they’re tedious…but the adult books will be too hard, so you have no choice but to read Peppa pig and Geronimo Stilton…
And when you’ve got to a decent level, you’ll start realising how many synonyms there are in every language…how many variations there are between historical novels and modern crime thrillers, fantasy and hard sci-fi…trying to decipher scientific words translated into Chinese…place names, character names, character nicknames…hence, infinite vocab.
One of my Cantonese exchange guys started watching Duck Tales recently, and he made a three page list of all the vocab he didn’t understand…and I’d guess his English level is around high intermediate. One of the words was ‘mental midget’, and he pointed to it and asked, is this commonly used?
Of course, we use it all the time, I said.
Yeah, this is the problem with languages, what is and isn’t commonly used by native speakers, what is modern and what is already dated e.g. mental midget.
After two pages of The Restaurant at the end of the Universe, I also have a three page list…some words I can guess but want to confirm, others I’ve never seen before…most only used in writing…
It’s a long, dictionary-filled struggle…
Of course, this is the fun part of language learning too…if you can reach a level where you’re comfortable and can express yourself, then it’s just a case of filling in gaps…but in terms of reading, I’m not there yet…
When will I get there?