Some Recent Thoughts On Fluency

I copied this post over from the old Primlo blog on 16 July 2019.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how to traverse the gap that separates the upper-intermediate speakers’ correct but still clearly foreign Chinese from that of the truly advanced. In particular, I constantly find myself being able to convey what I want to say and yet wondering what the natural way to say it would be. John over at Chinesequest wrote a post a while back where he described the problem as such:

I’m like many students at MTC and other language schools. I know a lot of words. I can understand a very large portion of what I hear around me every day. I attend graduate-level lectures in my field and keep up just fine. I read academic books and journal articles with very little problem. Same deal with newspapers and magazines. You might call me “advanced”, aside from the fact that I just don’t feel advanced, and I certainly don’t sound advanced when I talk. I tend to use a lot of circumlocutions, and I say things in a way that just seems weird to native speakers. They understand what I mean, but it certainly isn’t the way they’d say it.

Here’s an recent example from my personal experience: in many Chinese restaurants, they will bring the rice after all the other dishes. I like to eat rice with my food, so I always ask the waitress or waiter something like “Could you bring the rice as well?”. I know how to say all the words in this sentence in Chinese and I can combine them into sentences that they will understand. What I want to know, however, is how a native speaker would say this. Would they say “米饭也可以给我们吗”? Perhaps with a “把”? Or “米饭也可以上吗”? Or just “米饭呢”? Maybe all are fine. I just don’t know for certain. [1]

What I’m essentially talking about is the difference between being correct and sounding natural. Incidentally, the best way to ask a native speaker what they would say is not to ask “Is X the way to ask for Y?” or “Can I say X in this situation?” because they will be tempted to say “You can say that” when it’s not actually how they would say it. I’ve found the best way to be to describe the situation I was in and asking “How would you say X in that situation”.

During the early beginnings of working on Primlo, we tried writing sentences in English and translating them to Chinese. The results were never satisfying to me and I think this is exactly why: it’s possible to say the same sentence in another language but it probably won’t be what a native speaker would say in the same situation. The other day, I said the sentence “北京是宇宙的中心” to Lei and she laughed and said: “That’s such a Western thing to say.” This sentence is neither nonsensical nor ungrammatical, every Chinese native speaker will understand what I want to say. Yet it’s not what they would say to make the point that I was trying to make.

Another problem we face when writing packs is that it’s impossible to think of all things I might want to say in a particular location or situation such as ordering food. I would never have thought of the rice ordering problem I described above, had I not encountered it myself. What makes this worse is that it’s often these kinds of somewhat uncommon sentences where my Sprachgefühl fails me. It would be cool to add a “How do I say this right” feature to Primlo. The chat function (which is still disabled in the current version of Primlo) was conceived exactly for this purpose. I’ve been thinking lately that maybe a better version be to offer people a way to submit a description of the situation in which they weren’t sure what to say. Afterwards, write a sentence as response and add this sentence to an existing or new pack.

[1] I asked Lei, she said she would say “米饭可以现在上吗” or “米饭也可以上吗”.