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dakonglong
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Hi All, my latest article is below. Hopefully it helps anyone thinking of doing an immersive language program.

 

https://www.selfstudymandarin.com/the-value-of-immersion/

 

The value of immersion

 

We have all heard it before—the secret to learning any language is immersion! Is that really true? I will share my own experiences with immersion below.

 

My one-month experience with immersion

 

Around the time I was HSK-4 level, I decided that I wanted to take my Chinese studies more seriously. I took a sabbatical from work, moved to Taipei, and enrolled in a one-month immersive language program. The program was supposed to be four students per class, but I ended up being the only student. This meant that I was effectively enrolled in five 4-hour 1:1 lessons per week, for a total of about 80 hours of study over the four-week duration of the program.

 

Perhaps more interestingly, I found out on the first day that my teacher did not speak English (she was fluent in Japanese and Mandarin, but she could not speak or understand any English). This meant that our only common language was Chinese.

 

Most of our lessons were free-form conversation, essentially four hours of Chinese discussion on various topics. Sometimes we would do book exercises or listening practice, but that was fairly casual and often involved lengthy explanations and clarifications in Chinese.

 

The benefits of immersion

 

What were the benefits of this experience?

 

  • Prior to my time in Taiwan, I was very hesitant to speak in Chinese for fear of making a mistake. I would compose a sentence in my head in English, translate it to Chinese, and then express it verbally. During our first few lessons, I stuck to this pattern, and after about an hour, I thought my brain would explode from over-exertion. Everything I said had to go from English to Chinese, then my teacher’s responses had to go from Chinese back to English. If I didn’t understand a word she had used, then I had to translate “What did you mean by X?” from English to Chinese in a seemingly never-ending back-and-forth exchange between the two languages. I simply did not have the energy to do this for four hours straight. Eventually, though, something shifted and I found myself thinking in Chinese. There was no longer any English, it was just Chinese. It wasn’t very good Chinese, but my brain seemed to decide that it wasn’t worth the effort to translate directly in an attempt to be accurate. Instead, my brain took a shortcut. That shortcut meant that I would embarrass myself by saying stupid and incorrect things more often, but I just didn’t have the energy to worry about it. This made speaking a much less stressful and more natural experience. Being forced to think in Chinese was the single greatest benefit I took away from this experience.
  • My teacher’s and my inability to speak a common language aside from Chinese greatly improved my communication skills. Ironically, I don’t think it improved my Chinese, per se. For example, we both became extremely proficient at conveying complex ideas with simple language and indirect or non-verbal communication. If I didn’t know the term for comfortable temperature, I would say something like “不热不冷” (not hot, not cold). However, some precision is lost in this process, so I probably would have better understood how to use more complex structures like the particle if it was explained to me in English vs HSK-4 level Chinese. Learning to communicate complex thoughts with simple language and indirect or non-verbal communication was another important takeaway.

 

The disadvantages of immersion

 

What were the downsides?

 

  • Even once I learned to think in Chinese and my processing of the language became more efficient, I still reached a point nearly every day where my brain would just shut down. At that point, I would run out of energy and I could not understand Chinese anymore. This took longer and longer to happen as the classes went on and I built stamina, but it made the lessons effectively useless after I reached that point each day. I also had no energy left to do self-study after my classes, which significantly slowed down the speed with which I could absorb new material. Immersion is an extremely taxing learning method, and once you hit your limit, it’s hard to see any benefits from it. Therefore, it should be used in moderation until you have built up stamina.
  • At the HSK-4 level, I knew only about 1,200 words, but over the course of my immersion program, I studied for 80 hours with my tutor. That meant that there was an incredible amount of repetition in our discussions and topics, and at a certain point, there was simply nothing else new I could say with my limited vocabulary. I think I would have gotten twice the value out of the experience if I had come in with an HSK-5 level instead of HSK-4 level vocabulary. The value you get out of an immersive experience depends on the knowledge you have coming into it. If you don’t have enough raw material to fuel meaningful conversations, it can limit your learning.
  • I could have learned more actual material in four hours of studying on my own than I did in the classroom, but that wasn’t really the point. For example, I could have learned more words and grammar points if I was left alone in a room with a book for four hours. As an introvert, this is probably because self-study is more of my personal learning style, but it’s still true. While I received some incredible benefits from my immersion, maximizing the speed at which I learned new material was not one of them.

 

Is immersion really the secret to learning Chinese?

 

In my experience, the value of immersion is not in helping you acquire the building blocks of the language, but in synthesizing those building blocks into practical communication skills. Without immersion, it is very difficult to become fluent, but immersion is just one of the many types of practice that fluency requires.

 

For me, 80% self-study and 20% immersion (Chinese-only conversation practice) is probably the optimal ratio. For you it may be different. Just remember that immersion is not a silver bullet—it is one tool of many that are necessary to be successful in learning Chinese.

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I think what you describe is not a fully immersive experience. Full immersion is when you need to do tasks in the real world with explanations and communication. Your experience is classroom immersion which is more artificial, theoretical and very tiring. Did your teacher take you out of the classroom to use the language with locals? Reinforcement by real world experience is a massive aid. For example, getting your mobile phone fixed, buying a new plan, choosing a new phone.

 

I have learnt Cantonese from mostly immersion. Simply going to work, having the language spoken to me, needing to talk to people and problem solve in the language is challenging but memorable. Hearing words and phrases repeatedly gives one the sense of the language.

 

I agree some extra studying is highly beneficial because even if you have the feel of using the words, studying will give you that extra insight of the word/phrase in context.

 

For myself now and Mandarin, I feel very much limited by lack of language my daily  environment. This also decreases my motivation and tenacity for working on the language. I admire those who continue to learn without the environmental stimulus.

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On 2/7/2022 at 11:35 PM, Flickserve said:

I think what you describe is not a fully immersive experience.

 

This is definitely a fair point.

 

For the article I chose to focus on the classroom aspect because that's the part of the experience I derived the most value from, personally.

 

In addition to the program itself, I also spent that month living on my own in Taiwan; renting an apartment, conversing with the staff in my building, buying groceries, riding the subway, ordering in restaurants, watching Chinese TV, etc... and I actually found that quite a bit less intense than the classroom experience. It was more of a "slow burn" if that makes sense. I was constantly surrounded by Chinese, but I was also mostly free to ignore it if I wanted to. In the classroom, that wasn't an option. The language was hammered into my brain for 4hrs per day whether I was prepared for it or not.

 

I also spent a couple of months living in China when I knew almost no Chinese, and I was able to get around fine during that period with a smartphone, hand gestures and "你好“. So I think that fully Chinese environment is pretty much what you make of it.

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On 2/8/2022 at 8:21 AM, dakonglong said:

Prior to my time in Taiwan, I was very hesitant to speak in Chinese for fear of making a mistake. I would compose a sentence in my head in English, translate it to Chinese, and then express it verbally. During our first few lessons, I stuck to this pattern, and after about an hour, I thought my brain would explode from over-exertion. Everything I said had to go from English to Chinese, then my teacher’s responses had to go from Chinese back to English. If I didn’t understand a word she had used, then I had to translate “What did you mean by X?” from English to Chinese in a seemingly never-ending back-and-forth exchange between the two languages. I simply did not have the energy to do this for four hours straight. Eventually, though, something shifted and I found myself thinking in Chinese. There was no longer any English, it was just Chinese. It wasn’t very good Chinese, but my brain seemed to decide that it wasn’t worth the effort to translate directly in an attempt to be accurate. Instead, my brain took a shortcut. That shortcut meant that I would embarrass myself by saying stupid and incorrect things more often, but I just didn’t have the energy to worry about it. This made speaking a much less stressful and more natural experience. Being forced to think in Chinese was the single greatest benefit I took away from this experience.


I'm curious about this thinking in English to speak Chinese. Why did you do it? How is that even possible during a conversation?

Was it really the fear of mistakes that drove you to forming an English sentence first and then thinking about which grammar to use how to translate each individual word, Instead of just stringing the words together?

 

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I'm curious about this thinking in English to speak Chinese. Why did you do it? How is that even possible during a conversation?

 

I'm a little surprised at your surprise!  This is a very common habit among language learners who find conversation difficult in a foreign language.  Did you not go through a stage like that yourself?

 

One reason I like learning spoken language through dialogues is that they can help you develop automatic responses without translating everything to and from the native language.  If you can go back and forth in the other language with someone without translating back and forth in your head, you are on the road to greater fluency.  If not, you have a big barrier in your way, as dakonglong described.

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On 2/9/2022 at 2:21 PM, Moshen said:

I'm a little surprised at your surprise!  This is a very common habit among language learners who find conversation difficult in a foreign language.  Did you not go through a stage like that yourself?

 

I have read people write about it online but I have never heard anyone talk about it and I don't remember going through it myself. That's why I'm curious about the phenomenon.

 

English was first second language and I was thought it at school since I was seven so that's far too long to remember. But I don't remember a problem like this even with Swedish (began at school at twelve) or Japanese (began on my own at 17) or Chinese (began at 32). A tutor recently complemented me that I don't sound like I'm translating anymore (clearly I did sound like it before). But I would attribute this more to grammar from other languages influencing my speech more before and my "word seek time" becoming faster. At some point I tended to butcher my Chinese with the Japanese word order and I thought the 把 particle was a great way to allow me to just put the verb last.

 

I have also always been very bad at simultaneously translating between any two languages or switching between them. Ask me what a "flower" is in Finnish, Swedish, Japanese, or Chinese, and I can't tell you on the spot. If I'm speaking Chinese and suddenly need to change to Japanese or English, or even my native Finnish, I'll be completely tongue tied and at loss for words for a moment. It feels like switching the language you're speaking requires you to switch your whole brain in a different position, so translating like that sounds very counter intuitive. The more you learn the bigger the switch seems to become too.

 

Not having enough active vocabulary is the problem I constantly have though. I often run into a wall when I'm explaining something and suddenly realize that I don't have a clue how to say the next thing in my head. I usually don't realize my lack of vocabulary beforehand and I always literally run into a wall mid-sentence and scramble to find a way to explain around the unknown word. Consciously translating what I want to say from another language is something I didn't think would actually happen after the very elementary stages where you don't have any words to use yet and I've thought it to be something that just naturally falls off once you get some momentum.

 

I wonder if there is a difference between people learning their first second language versus second or third second language learners. They say the first one is the most difficult. Maybe not translating is a knack you need to figure out once and then it becomes a second nature.

 


Edit: Interesting loosely related article on switching between languages: https://digest.bps.org.uk/2007/05/15/tongue-tied-when-bilinguals-switch-languages-involuntarily/
 

Edit2: Thinking about this a bit more, this seems to be completely separate from code-switching, which I do all the time with my wife mixing and matching Finnish and Japanese, and it seems to be somewhat related to who you're talking with. Some time ago I talked with a Chinese tutor who spoke great Japanese. We had a couple of lessons completely in Chinese and then there was a suggestion to switch to Japanese for a bit. It took me a while before I got my Japanese going without popping Chinese in all the time, and then it completely screwed up my Chinese for a few minutes before I could get back to it! I also often have trouble starting to speak English to people if I've only spoken Japanese or Chinese with them before.

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I have also always been very bad at simultaneously translating between any two languages or switching between them. Ask me what a "flower" is in Finnish, Swedish, Japanese, or Chinese, and I can't tell you on the spot.

 

That is interesting.  I have a niece who is cognitively impaired but good at languages and can converse in English, Hebrew, Spanish and Russian BUT can't translate from one to the other.  My sister told me that when they traveled to Spain, my niece could carry on very well in Spanish but couldn't tell the non-Spanish speakers in the group what they were saying.  I thought that was a function of her cognitive impairment, but from what you said probably it's something else.

 

Quote

I wonder if there is a difference between people learning their first second language versus second or third second language learners. They say the first one is the most difficult. Maybe not translating is a knack you need to figure out once and then it becomes a second nature.

 

Maybe, maybe!  I will think about that.  I can do it in all the languages I've learned where I can be conversational at all.  Unless, of course, there are big stakes involved.  I once had to sit in a police station in Spain and help a Guardia Civil guy fill out a police report about having our tires slashed while driving in Barcelona.  I had to speak only in Spanish and he had no English whatsoever.  I had a lot more hesitation than usual then because I didn't want to have him write down something false. 

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On 2/9/2022 at 7:03 PM, Moshen said:

That is interesting.  I have a niece who is cognitively impaired but good at languages and can converse in English, Hebrew, Spanish and Russian BUT can't translate from one to the other.  My sister told me that when they traveled to Spain, my niece could carry on very well in Spanish but couldn't tell the non-Spanish speakers in the group what they were saying.  I thought that was a function of her cognitive impairment, but from what you said probably it's something else.


Cognitive impairment huh? Thanks! 😂
I think simultaneous translation is a skill, not a given if you speak two languages. I think if they're not mentally impaired, any bilingual can translate between the two languages, but to do that accurately and quickly is a completely different ball game. I once read a professional translator say that if he had been translating for example between English and French and he next has conference in Germany, he would start acclimating some time before by switching his entertainment to German. I too feel my Japanese going on the back burner after concentrating on Chinese quite intensely for a year now.

 

 

On 2/9/2022 at 7:03 PM, Moshen said:
Quote

I wonder if there is a difference between people learning their first second language versus second or third second language learners. They say the first one is the most difficult. Maybe not translating is a knack you need to figure out once and then it becomes a second nature.

 

Maybe, maybe!  I will think about that.  I can do it in all the languages I've learned where I can be conversational at all. 


That article about the language switch in the brain was quite interesting. I wonder if it is something that you need to develop with your first second language and not having it yet might make many first L2 learners struggle to stop translating. Then, once you have it already, it should be easier to extend it.

It it is like this, then just saying "don't translate" would bad advice. You would need exposure and effort to develop it first, and then, once it's developed enough, it would start to work naturally. Think that would explain the experience @dakonglong described.

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On 2/9/2022 at 10:42 AM, alantin said:

It it is like this, then just saying "don't translate" would bad advice. You would need exposure and effort to develop it first, and then, once it's developed enough, it would start to work naturally. Think that would explain the experience @dakonglong described.

 

That makes sense to me. Chinese is the first language I have seriously studied, and I would say I spent the better part of a year or two simply translating everything in my head. It wasn't until my time in Taiwan that I actually starting to think in Chinese. Also, like you said, I couldn't just tell myself "don't translate". That was the only way I could process the language until I shifted to thinking in Chinese, which was a pretty difficult milestone for me to achieve.


Now I'm curious whether that shift would happen earlier or perhaps immediately if I picked up a third language. 

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@dakonglong is this translating in your head like telling someone your phone number in your L2 if you've ever only needed to memorize it in your L1?
I just realized that I can't read it out in any other language but Finnish without actually thinking the numbers out first in Finnish and then translating them to the second language few at a time.

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@alantin That sounds like a similar phenomenon.

 

Basically, when I had to say anything, I would first think it in English, than translate it word-for-word to Chinese; for example: "I like apples": "我", "喜欢", "苹果". If anything was more complicated than that, or the phrasing was different from English, I just got stuck. For example, I would have tried to translate "get in the car" as "...", "里面“, ”车“ where "..." is some word for "get" that I couldn't figure out, and I would probably would have eventually settled on “去里面车” instead of "上车吧“.

 

As to how you can do this while speaking, it's exhausting and inefficient. It also leads to slow response times, uncomfortably long pauses and weird noises and facial expressions that seem to happen automatically when I'm thinking hard.

 

Now I just go straight from the thought in my brain to the Chinese and skip the English, but it took my literally years to achieve that.

 

I had just assumed that everyone goes through the same process.

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I have nothing helpful to contribute here but had to say that @alantin's posts resonated so much with me, especially the phone number thing! It never occurred to me that this would be an unusual phenomenon and just thought that every language learner thinks and works like this. Basically when I learn a new language, I guess I immediately or very early on just start moving within the "space" (vocabulary, grammar and idioms) of the new language, no matter how narrow it is, and rather than going via L1 if that makes any sense. This conversation has been so interesting to follow, thanks to everyone involved for bringing this up!

This is the aphantiasia thing all over again - off to google I go lol.

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On 2/12/2022 at 5:26 AM, Jellyfish said:

It never occurred to me that this would be an unusual phenomenon and just thought that every language learner thinks and works like this. Basically when I learn a new language, I guess I immediately or very early on just start moving within the "space" (vocabulary, grammar and idioms) of the new language, no matter how narrow it is, and rather than going via L1 if that makes any sense.


It makes perfect sense!

 

Continuing that analogy, a language is like a space and once it is big enough for you, you just enter it. Also, what you can do within the space, will always be restricted by the shape and size of it and you can also borrow things from the other spaces some times, but you usually inhabit one place at a time and move from one space to another when you switch languages altogether. But you don't really need that much space to enter it. You can stuff yourself in a closet, but you just may not be able to move around in there very much!

 

In this analogy, what @dakonglong described, seems like peering into the L2 space while staying in L1 and then moving around in L1 with stuff loaned from L2.

I tried to google this translating problem, but couldn't find any research into it. Only various "10 tricks to think in another language", "what language do bilinguals think in", and "how do bilinguals translate in their head" articles that all seemed to be complete mumbo jumbo...

 

The language switch in your brain, that you need to develop before you learn how to leave your L1 space, makes more and more sense to me all the time, but I haven't found anything online to corroborate it except the article about two patients who involuntarily switched languages when their brains were stimulated.

 

 

On 2/12/2022 at 2:22 AM, dakonglong said:

For example, I would have tried to translate "get in the car" as "...", "里面“, ”车“ where "..." is some word for "get" that I couldn't figure out, and I would probably would have eventually settled on “去里面车” instead of "上车吧“.

 

Interesting that you brought up this example. I remember when I learned how to say this in Chinese. I saw it in some language teaching video where there was a guy sitting in a car and saying to someone standing outside of the car 上车. It just made perfect sense to me right away and I admired how short and efficient it was. Now reading your description I thought that yeah it doesn't seem to translate into English very directly and I probably would have struggled to say it in Chinese before I saw it somewhere else. But there IS a bit formal way of saying this in Finnish (it is not usually said aloud, only written) which is "nousta autoon" = "to rise into the car" (it is funny that we also "rise out from the car" = "nousta autosta"). It may be that it is easier to pick up different ways of saying things, if you already have different examples for reference. After knowing 上车 I don't think you would need to learn 下车 separately. It's just one of those things that come with the space.

 

 

Another thing I wondered about those "what language do bilinguals think in"... I don't think we really think in any language (at least all the time). Language is what we use to dress the thought in when we need to output it, and sure we use it to make deductions too, but if you see a child dropping a glass, you'll know it's going to brake when it touches the floor without saying to yourself "when that glass hits the floor, it is going to be smashed to pieces". You only need the language when you have to communicate that to someone else or do some complex deductions and that's when you move in one of those language spaces. Sure there is internal monologue too, but I think that's the tip of the iceberg part of thinking that you also do in those language spaces.

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Hi All, below is my new article for the week. Please let me know what you think.

 

https://www.selfstudymandarin.com/the-good-days-and-the-bad-days/

 

The good days and the bad days

 

After six years of studying Chinese, one thing that surprises me most is how atrociously bad at it I can be sometimes.

 

I just assumed that after all that time, I would be able to understand a simple children’s cartoon like 喜羊羊与灰太狼 (Pleasant Goat and Big Big Wolf) with ease. Well, I can—most of the time. Then there are the days where I can’t understand a single word of it. I stare at the screen and focus intensely on the dialogue, but the sounds wash over me like a completely unfamiliar language. But when I turn on the subtitles, I see that I do know the words. I just can’t connect them to the sounds I’m hearing no matter how hard I try.

 

This frustrates me to no end. I start to wonder why I have sunk thousands of hours into learning Chinese, but still can’t understand a show aimed at children. I wonder if maybe I’m just dumb. Surely someone else could have achieved better results with the same amount of time and effort. Then I put away the Chinese for the day.

 

The next day, I come back and load the same video. Lo and behold, I can understand it now. Maybe not perfectly, but a whole lot better than before.

 

The other side of the coin is the days when it all seems effortless. I can communicate eloquently and fluidly, and I find myself using phrases I wasn’t even aware that I knew. It feels like I have made it to the end of the road and I finally “know” Chinese.

 

I have no idea why this variability happens, but it’s common enough that I have noticed the pattern.

 

If you find yourself having a bad day, don’t give up!

 

Alternatively, if you find yourself having an amazing day, don’t start to expect that every day.

 

Your actual abilities are the average of your good and bad days. Just know that if you continue to work at it, your overall level will continue to improve.

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@dakonglong I totally relate!  I'm stuck in the doldrums myself.  My theory is it has a lot to do with expectations. 

 

As you learn, you also learn expectations of what you can do.   As you get better, your expectations race ahead even further, particularly if you've improved a lot recently. 

 

So instead of noticing all the things you know, you only notice the things you don't know.  It's like the optical illusion of seeing the faces or the candlestick. 


candlesticksilhouettes.thumb.jpg.b05661053101652d965ed88dc8e0056c.jpg

 

Picture of Faces or Candlestick?  Seeing Knowledge or Ignorance?

 

The thing about optical illusions is they affect you even if you know that's what happening.  So it's hard not to lose motivations when it happens. Sigh... after all that studying, my brain is still just a "candlestick."

 

On the other hand, taking a short break isn't the worse approach either, as long as you remember to pick up again afterwards.  (On a short break right now myself 😀)

 

Of course, there's also just plain variance in day-to-day performance.  You probably don't need a break for those, just carry on, tomorrow will be better.

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On 2/17/2022 at 8:18 PM, dakonglong said:

After six years of studying Chinese, one thing that surprises me most is how atrociously bad at it I can be sometimes.

 

I just assumed that after all that time, I would be able to understand a simple children’s cartoon like 喜羊羊与灰太狼 (Pleasant Goat and Big Big Wolf) with ease. Well, I can—most of the time. Then there are the days where I can’t understand a single word of it.

 

I've had a similar experience with that very same cartoon! It's often the first cartoon that comes up in a search for kids' TV shows. I haven't tried listening to it for at least several months, so I'm curious how well I would do these days. I just remember thinking, "Wow, I feel like I should understand this show, but I totally don't."

 

It's really hard to quantify progress. I'm on my 21st Chinese book right now (maybe around 7,000-7,500 pages of reading total), and I know my reading comprehension has improved dramatically from my 4th or 5th book (especially in terms of unknown word frequency, which is sinking down to around the one-word-per-page mark), but reading is still awkward. Some years ago in this forum, someone made the comment that while they can "passively" read their native language, their reading of the Chinese language always requires "active" effort. If you put an English phrase in front of my eyes, I automatically understand it, and I can't NOT understand it. But if you show me a page of Chinese text, I actually have to work to read it, and I can never just skim through it quickly. Sometimes, I feel a headache and fatigue coming, and I don't even want to try. When reading a book, I'll often skip the foreword, afterword, and summary/endorsements on the back cover. I'm really awful at understanding certain signs and advertising slogans. Food packaging is incomprehensible to me, especially with the cartoonish characters and list of ingredients.

 

One thing I have noticed, though, is that while "hard" content always feels hard to me, the "easy" content feels easier and easier. I struggle with a work of complex literature, but I can breeze though a post on Chinese social media (like Zhihu). I struggle to understand an academic lecture on YouTube, but now I can perfectly understand Chinese speakers who talk to me with an awareness that I'm not a native speaker (they slow down a bit, don't use overly complex words, enunciate more clearly, etc.). Beforehand, I couldn't even do that much.

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On 2/19/2022 at 6:31 AM, Woodford said:

Some years ago in this forum, someone made the comment that while they can "passively" read their native language, their reading of the Chinese language always requires "active" effort. If you put an English phrase in front of my eyes, I automatically understand it, and I can't NOT understand it. But if you show me a page of Chinese text, I actually have to work to read it, and I can never just skim through it quickly. Sometimes, I feel a headache and fatigue coming, and I don't even want to try. When reading a book, I'll often skip the foreword, afterword, and summary/endorsements on the back cover. I'm really awful at understanding certain signs and advertising slogans. Food packaging is incomprehensible to me, especially with the cartoonish characters and list of ingredients.


I think this is even more a function of what you do with the language than how much you use it in total. I feel academic texts in English sound a lot easier than food packaging, but I've seen very few of those in English and I did write my Master's thesis in English.

I remember looking at a can of something with "spam" written on it and wondering, "why on earth would they name a product after spam email". Later someone told me it's some sort of meat.

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I remember looking at a can of something with "spam" written on it and wondering, "why on earth would they name a product after spam email". Later someone told me it's some sort of meat.

 

Hah!  "Spam" as in spam email is named after the meat!  It is actually a very popular food in Hawaii, but looked down on most everywhere else in the US.  The connection is a Monty Python comedy routine: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_bW4vEo1F4E (I am not sure what language the captions are on that video!)

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