A couple of years ago, I was in a taxi with one of my students, Anna, in Shanghai. When I told the driver that Anna spoke some Mandarin he was quick to present her with an opportunity to practice…
When he asked what she did for a living (a topic/question we’d coincidentally reviewed and practiced the day before!), her face turned into a question mark. He repeated the question slowly and clearly, but she still couldn’t figure out what he was asking.
The main reason she was thrown off in this case was not to do with the driver’s speaking speed or accent. Instead, what made it so hard for her to understand was that he added two words to the question as Anna had learned it – “nǐ zuò shénme ɡōnɡzuò?” vs. “nǐ shì zuò shénme ɡōnɡzuò de?”.
Although shì and de didn’t change the meaning of the question, “What’s your job?”, Anna’s brain treated it as something completely new and tried to make sense of his question by analysing it word-by-word, instead of doing what we all do extremely well when we listen in our first language… We pick out keywords and use context to understand what the question is asking.
In the example above, the context was clear. The driver was asking a series of questions about Anna, and had she simply picked out the word gōngzùo (job/work), she could have guessed with a high degree of certainty what he wanted to know.
Alright, it’s time for you to watch and listen to six different people asking the question “What’s your job?” (and then another six people answering it). Can you pick out the keyword gōngzùo when each person asks the question?
As the video shows, real spoken Chinese is full of variety when it comes to word choice, pronunciation, speaking speed etc. One way to effectively prepare for this reality is to practice listening repeatedly to a variety of people asking and answering common questions.
I’ll be sharing plenty more videos like this one for you to practice with in future posts so stay tuned for updates!
Note: If you want to review this lesson on the go, the audio (along with a pdf transcript) is now available to download below.