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One Sunday afternoon, I spent over an hour talking to the mother of a friend at church. My friend’s mother was over the age of 80. She didn’t often come, because she had dementia, which made it impossible for her to be there every week.
The conversation was not in Mandarin Chinese, as I had initially expected. It was in Cantonese.
My friend was trying to tell her mother that I didn’t speak Cantonese and would have difficulty understanding, but her mother insisted that I did understand and proceeded to continue our conversation in Cantonese.
I did understand what was going on. But to my surprise, I even managed to say a few things back.
She asked me questions, and I answered. She asked me about personal things, like whether I had a boyfriend. Then she dispensed advice about how it wasn’t good to rush into dating and the like. And because I didn’t feel like I would be judged, I answered honestly. Besides, there was a chance she would forget. (Finding someone that you are comfortable speaking too is very important, and shall be a topic for another time.)
Before this, I have always been unsure about whether to regard Cantonese as a language that I speak. You know, when people ask, “How many languages do you speak?”
I don’t speak it, but I understand it.
It was something I picked up in my childhood, from the afternoons I spent at my maternal grandparents’ house. But my maternal grandmother can speak Mandarin Chinese, and I would use that when I had to talk to her. She is comfortable enough with Mandarin, and she remembers that I don’t really speak Cantonese, so she would specially speak to me with Mandarin.
I never really realised that I understood Cantonese this well, in a one-on-one conversation.
Sure, I’ve managed to catch snippets of conversation over Chinese New Year gatherings in the houses of my relatives, where they spoke Cantonese most of the time. They spoke English too, of course, usually to me, but among themselves, they would use Cantonese.
It was only with this experience that I realised that I had moved beyond the stage of being only able to understand but not say anything in response.
I chose to include this story about Cantonese because it was the first language that I found myself at this intermediate stage of understanding-but-not-speaking.
I have found myself at this stage for the other languages that I have learnt as well: French, Italian, and German.
In fact, I am only comfortable saying that I’ve moved somewhat beyond this awkward phase for French, at least for a time. (I haven’t been studying French recently, so if you were to ask me to say something, chances are, I can’t do it fluently right off the bat.)
After all these experiences, I finally realised that this stage of understanding but not being able to speak a language is normal. It is part of the process of language learning.
Understanding is the first step to being able to speak.
If you’re at this stage, where you find that there are things you want to say but cannot find the words, don’t despair.
Keep working at it, and soon, you can find your way out.
For some, it will be short, but it may take longer for others.
However, you have to work to improve. Otherwise, you can find yourself there for many years, like with my Cantonese (though it wasn’t something that I was actively seeking to improve either). In a way, that can also serve as a warning.
The passing of time doesn’t improve your skills; it’s what you do during that time.
Have you also experienced this intermediate stage, where you were able to understand what native speakers were saying, yet were unable to reply in the same language? How did you get past that stage?