After an indescibably long time I am now able to carry out a simple conversation in Chinese and deal with most things.

However I am experiencing what I call “lockup”. You ask someone something and they appear to stand there dumb founded. I guess it is about 5 to 10%. It even happens on the telephone. Considering that the other 90% understand me - my Chinese cannot be that bad.

Am I too abrupt? Should I introduce questions with something like 麻煩你 (ma fan ni) ?

this happens. i find that immediate repitition with increasing volume breaks through the barrier quite quickly. :slight_smile:

my least favorite offshoot of this is when most usually in a restaurant i ask/order something and they answer to my wife, hello?

i would always say qing wen, ma fan ni etc before launching random questions on people.

Always start out with something non-important to let them realise you can speak Chinese and let them get ready to start listening.


You could always say (in Mandarin), “Excuse me, can you speak Mandarin?” That way you beat them to it!!! And it is not necessarily a stupid question either.

I agree that there are a small number of people who can’t seem to process foreigners speaking Mandarin. I’ve heard about this complaint from other foreigners many times though and I tend to think in most cases you are probably not making sense. Keep in mind that often when foreigners blurt out something incomprehensible, lots of people will politely nod their head and guess from context what you want. Here are a few suggestions:

  1. Definitely begin questions and requests with Qing3wen4 and Ma2fan2

  2. Slow down, look directly at the person, and make sure you are speaking loud enough. Make sure you are not yelling though and ask your friends to tell you if you sound “friendly” enough. It’s easy to sound brusque and aoverly aggressive otherwise.

  3. Rehearse what you are going to say ahead of time. For example, if you know what you are going to order ahead of time practice saying the items before you start.

  4. Keep a notebook of common requests such as “Do you accept mobile phone payments here?”. Pay close attention to how native speakers frame those requests. If they do it differently then you normally do, imitate them. This is a sign that you are doing something wrong.

I think 3 and 4 are the keys a long with a good dose of humility. I find that the problem usually is with me, not with the native speakers.

[quote=“Bu Lai En”]Always start out with something non-important to let them realise you can speak Chinese and let them get ready to start listening.


Good one Brian, I do that too.

Definitely sometimes true, but I honestly believe from long experience that there are people who are just so flustered/annoyed to be talking to a foreigner that they just don’t grab what you’re saying. these people are not even nodding their head or guessing anything, or making any kind of gesture to indicate they don’t understand. you can identify them be either a shocked or a highly jaded expression. they may have assumed that you were speaking in some foreign language to them. just my opinion about it. in my case anyway i’m pretty sure i’m making sense :slight_smile:

Another thing is that more than a few people in Taiwan don’t actually speak Mandarin, or at least don’t speak it well. I have trouble understanding Mandarin spoken in an accent I am not used to, and no doubt so do some people in Taiwan.

I haven’t experienced this problem in Taiwan, but in China it seems quite common. It has absolutely nothing to do with not making sense. Often after speaking to someone for one or two minutes, asking and answering several questions they will ask if you can speak Mandarin. And they will still be not quite convinced when you answer yes in perfect Mandarin. It seems crazy but it’s true!

I do agree with you though that it is important to phrase your questions correctly or to use the same phrases that a local would use.

I would agree it never happened in Taiwan - But often in China (Shanghai) where I now live - and the “do you speak Mandarin” idea is valid - the electrician (well the guy who did the electrical work) did not speak Mandarin - and I speak no Shanghainese.

Sorry, I can’t be of practical help beyond what has already been written.

I would like to offer a bit of perspective though; in the UK I knew a lot of foreign students from a wide variety of countries. Quite a few of them mentioned the same phenomenon to me; they’d be speaking English to someone and that person just couldn’t or wouldn’t understand. I don’t think that peoples’ ears in general are attuned to comprehending unusual, though slight, variations in the language they hear everyday. Of course if you as the listener are expecting to hear that or if you are used to hearing a wider variety of spoken English, then it’s no problem. I also recollect it happening, occasionally and to a lesser extent, between people from different regions in Britain.

Sometimes regional variations in accent and dialect can be played up for comedy value; such was the case with the T.V. comedy show ‘Rab. C. Nesbitt’, made in Scotland for a Scottish T.V. channel, but later broadcast throughout the U.K. Its eponymous lead character’s speech was so incomprehensible to some English viewers that there were calls for subtitling.

I’ve had the experience that sometimes, when I meet Chinese who are not on the same “wave length” or whatever, they won’t be able to understand me, and I’ll have terrible problems understanding them even if we talk about the simplest topics. I remember one situation very well, back at Tianda in Tianjin, where I met a Chinese guy, well-educated, used to dealing with foreigners, used to foreigners who could speak Chinese, a friend of my Canadian roommate. Somehow, it just didn’t click, I’m sure he liked me as little as I liked him (no particular reason, just a gut feeling). Trying to talk to him would be a pain, I’d have to ask him to repeat about every sentence he said, and he wouldn’t be able to understand even simple things I said like where I come from, how long I’d been learning Chinese etc. (mind you at that time, I had a boyfriend I would exclusively speak Chinese with).

I made that experience a couple of times, back in Mainland as well as here in Taiwan. Maybe it’s pure imagination that it has something to do with “wave length” or mutual understanding. It just obviously didn’t have anything to do with Chinese level or local accents or educational background or the disability of people to believe that there actually are foreigners who can speak Chinese. Has anybody else experienced that?

On a side-note: I frequent a bagel shop for lunch. I think most of the staff know that I can speak Chinese, obviously except for the Laobanniang. Last week, I met a friend there, an Asian guy, and she started asking him questions about me in Chinese until he told her that my Chinese was quite okay. When I got there yesterday and ordered in my usual mix of English and Chinese, she was all excited: Wow, you’ve made such a progress in your Chinese (since last week??? :? )


Two possible definitions:

  1. Maybe “lock-up” is just plain shock.

Well, that is what my Wife told me it was after I tried speaking with a gentleman about our computer problems. He saw a white face with a giant snoz and then he heard Mandarin. It’s like ghosts and that UFO nonsense: few people have seen them with their own eyes. He was caught completely off guard.

  1. They may think your body has been possessed by the spirit of one of their ancestors and it is trying to speak to them. (I’m not kidding. Really, I’m not.)

If you’ve lived here long enough, you know superstition is VERY powerful, heck, it’s habitually practiced and believed. Given this, if you speak or do some action (watch your chopsticks!), any superstition - no matter how long or how deep it has been hidden, or even how silly - may take the occassion to wake up from its sleep and implant its annoying self in the brain of someone your talking with.

This has been my experience.

Just some thoughts…


Well “ma fang ni” and “qing wen” seem to work equally well - never had a problem since I start to us them

I once had a fifteen minute conversation, entirely in Mandarin, with a friend of mine at a party. At the end of the conversation, he said: “I’m really sorry I don’t speak English; it is so difficult to communicate when we can’t understand each other.” I was laughing my ass off, because I knew that he was so drunk that he didn’t realize that we had been communicating entirely in Mandarin. His comment revealed the fact that, deep down, he still can’t grasp the idea that a foreigner could speak and hear Mandarin well enough to hold a fifteen minute coversation with him. I still tease him about it to this day, as he knows (when he is sober) that I conduct business all day in Mandarin, and am very much at ease using it to communicate.

Wix wrote:

Much more effective in Taiwanese. Li hiao gong goh gee boh?.
Can hardly speak a word of Taiwanese but I love the shock value of adding the odd correct word at just the right time.


Well more than 6 months have past, and the problem (lockup) is gone. I do not know why.

Now almost 100% of Chinese (Taiwan and Shanghai) understand me imeadiately - Is it something about confidence or demeanor?

Strangers often speak to me in Chinese first - and seem to expect me to understand - I wonder what changed - is there some invisible tattoo on my head that only Chinese can see? My hair is brown and my eyes are green. I am obviously waiguoren.

Perhaps I’ll be mocked for this :slight_smile: but my personal theory is that when you move to another country it takes a while to settle into the ‘rhythm’ of the country - to walk, talk, and act, if not ‘like’ the locals, at least enough to integrate smoothly enough into the culture to be accepted. I know I have always felt oddly out of sync for the first six months or so moving countries (to HK, back to Australia, to Taiwan) even when I spoke the language. That’s why tourists usually stand out so much - the way they dress, talk and act is often out of sync with everyone else. Once you’re dressing vaguely like a local, learned a bit of the language (if you hadn’t already), feel familiar and comfortable with the sights and sounds around you (and in my case, can cross the road without having a panic attack) it kind of falls into place. Just a theory :slight_smile:

I agree with you there daasgrrl, case in point - earlier this week I was just browsing in a shoe store, hadn’t said a word and the shop assistant blurted out and asked me if I was ‘hunxue’ (mixed race)…

I have brown hair and green eyes, totally ‘waiguo’ so I’m at a total loss as to what I did to make her ask, beyond your suggestion that I was (somehow) acting like a local!

Also in the past week another Taiwanese asked me if I was Chinese!! But I had been talking to him in Chinese, so maybe he thought it was a polite way of asking where I’m from…

Yes, this has happened to me in Taiwan a few times in the last 10 years, but it is pretty rare. I’m sometimes mistaken for a native speaker on the phone, so I’m sure it’s not anything wrong with my Chinese. I agree, it’s probably just shock. If an ostrich walked up to me and asked in English what time the buses stopped, I’d probably just stare at it dumbfounded too. :slight_smile: Speaking of which, the first time I went to the Taipei zoo (about 8 years ago), I found myself standing at the ostrich area, reflecting on how truly strange looking they really are, when suddenly I noticed some of the kids staring at me instead of at the ostriches. Oh, what, I look weirder than them? Thanks a lot, kid! :smiley: Happened to me again just last week at the zebra area.

In Datong, Shan1xi1 once, as I was crossing the area in front of the train station, I noticed an adult male, 30-ish, staring at me, and he actually had his mouth open. I thought that was just something from cartoons. I had never really seen a jaw drop. I looked back at him, (you know how most people will become self-conscious at that point, and look away?), but he continued staring, agape. Just for fun I dropped my jaw open and mimicked him (I know, I shouldn’t have), and he suddenly realized what he was doing and turned rather sheepish. I gave him a friendly smile and wink, and walked on.

Then there was the Yang2shuo4 farmer-type who thought I was Chinese. Turns out he figured anyone short with dark hair who spoke Chinese must be Chinese, ha ha! :smiley: