Have you wondered what the meaning of a word is? I do that all the time over here in China. I imagine that everyone that is learning a new language wonders what a word means, how to use it, and when not to use it.
At some point in learning a language you become ‘conversational’ and can get along in conversations with people who are native speakers of the language. Certainly you may not understand all the words that you hear but you can piece together the conversation enough to know basically what they are talking about. It is that point of the learning process that would allow you to really begin to learn how to speak the language not so much by studying the language but by practicing the language.
I experience that every day with the people I work with that are ESL Chinese. These co-workers work with me and have questions that I am the expert on and will ask me questions in English since my Chinese isn’t good enough to do it any other way. They come to me and ask me what they should do and how they should complete some task. I realize that they are probably spending as much time thinking about what to say and how to say it before they come to see me as they are actually taking to ask me the question. I hope they know that I sympathize with their challenge. I do the same thing every time I go out, every time I meet someone for the first time, every time I have to tell the driver where I want to go or what time to pick me up. I repeat over in my mind at least once what I am going to try to say.
When we begin to learn a language through conversation we have many challenges. One of the challenges with learning language in these kinds of interactions is the words you learn may have unique meanings because of context. This is particularly challenging for me in Chinese since there are so many meanings for each sound. Remember that there are only a few hundred sounds (syllables) in the Chinese language and even with the addition of tonation it is still a small vocabulary. So how that sound and associated tone is used can mean significant differences to the meaning, even native speakers have problems with this so it isn’t just the laowai (Foreigners) that get in trouble with this.
I am occasionally reminded that those learning English have the same problems with meaning. The situation that I am in here in China is also very unique for the majority of Chinese workers. It is not very often that they will be an environment where they will work and communicate with so many English-speaking foreigners. So they really do get to practice their English more than most Chinese workers do.
While they probably do learn some new words from the conversations we have, most of those are the really nuclear terminology kinds of things. While it is rare, we occasionally will have a new word that they haven’t learned as some point outside of work. What I realized the other day is that some of the words they have learned the meaning for may not be the standard meaning that a native speaker might have. The use of the word in a regular context by a native speaker might really confuse them.
An example from the past few weeks – Dysfunctional; a term most of us that are native speakers use in a business environment. It usually is understood to be a routine word about organizational relationships and how they don’t align to take full advantage of each expertise. However, if you are learning the language and vocabulary from TV and other mass media that is heavily influenced by advertisements, it is most likely not used in that context. In fact, my friends have never heard the word used outside of those normal advertizing mediums. Their only exposure to the word before has been in medical and drug advertisements.
It goes to prove that communications is much more than the words you say. It is important to pay attention to your “audience” to make sure that they know what you mean. When you see that puzzled look on their face, don’t just brush it off; stop and make sure that you have communicated clearly.
I think that they all understood why I laughed when I finally understood what the problem was. I certainly had to explain what the word meant in this context and that we weren’t talking about “THAT DYSFUNCTIONAL”. While Erectile Dysfunction is not something to laugh at for those that experience it, it is certainly not the usual topic of discussion in business meetings in the Nuclear Power Industry; at least not in the meetings that I normally attend. Glad that we got that cleared up.