Role-playing as a way to expand your Chinese

Role-playing is a word which is used quite often in textbooks and education literature. However, I have played tabletop role-playing games since I was ten and coming from that kind of background, I find that the role-playing games that are used in language teaching are very limited and sometimes quite dull. In this article I will discuss how you can use role-playing games to expand language competence, both as a learner and as a teacher.

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Role-playing isn’t the same as dialogue

Sometimes, authors and teachers seem to think that students reading the part of roles in a dialogue makes it role-playing, but acting out a dialogue and role-playing are definitely two different things. The former contains no creativity and is scripted, the latter requires creativity and is mostly improvised. Role-playing is about pretending that you are someone else or somewhere else and then acting as if that were the case. Let’s look at these two situations:

  • Creating a new situation
  • Creating a new identity.

Creating a new situation

This is the most obvious use of role-playing in language learning. Instead of being in the classroom, you pretend that you are somewhere else (while still keeping your own personality). You are then faced with a situation where you are required to interact with people using Chinese. The other party might be a native speaker friend, your teacher or a language exchange partner (in fact, this is one of the best ways of learning Chinese with an exchange partner).

For instance, pretend that…

  • …you’re inspecting an apartment you’re might want to rent
  • …you want to complain about strands of hair in your soup
  • …you want to excuse yourself for being late
  • …you want to ask the way to the bank
  • …you are wrongly accused of stealing someone’s cell phone

The reason you want to do this with a native speaker (i.e. not your foreign classmates) is that all these situations contain lots of cultural aspects. Even if you can translate what you would have said in your native language, it doesn’t necessarily have the same implications in Chinese.

Creating new situations to practice Chinese is useful because it allows you to prepare for situations you’re not likely to come across very often. For instance, during my two years (and counting) in Taiwan, I have actually never felt the need to complain about my food in restaurants. I have only rented two apartments on my own. Sure, some situations might arise more often than others (such as asking the way or making excuses for being late), but being able to design specific situations to practice language is awesome. It’s also much more fun than most other ways of practising the same things.

Now you might think that this is actually done in lots of classrooms and you’d be right. However, the next step is to actually consider these situations more carefully and make the situation less scripted. For instance, when you try to rent an apartment, ask your partner to write down a few things about the landlord, such as what his minimum rent actually is, what kind of personality he has, what he thinks about foreigners like you, etc.Of course, you as a learner don’t know these parameters.

Try negotiating the rent with a stingy landlord, try to get him to accept that your girlfriend will probably stay in your room on weekends. Do you have a dog? Do you have a passion for playing the violin? And so on. Use different landlords, use different situations. We’re now approaching “real” role-playing.

Creating a new identity

The next step is to change who you are. This typically requires more advanced language skills, but is very useful if you can do it. For instance, if you’re practising words related to bargaining, don’t just assume that you’re the person doing the bargaining and set some parameters for the seller, do the same for yourself! This requires you to move out of your comfort zone, which is great for language learning.

The reason this is less useful and should perhaps be restricted to advanced learners is because, after all, you’re not likely to say things in a situation which are completely alien to your way of being. If you don’t own a house, you’re unlikely to find yourself in a situation where you’re trying to get as much money as you can from the stupid foreigner who wants to rent a room.

Still, as an advanced learner, I find it useful to do so in order to explore the language further. What’s it like to negotiate salary in Chinese? What’s it like to be stopped by the police for a crime you actually have committed (even if you wouldn’t in real life)? What’s it like to introduce yourself as someone else (thus leaving the patterns you have worked out through years of being asked questions about yourself)?

Expanding role-playing

For those who aren’t familiar with tabletop role-playing games, they mostly work according to the principles I’ve described above, with the significant difference that the purpose is entertainment rather than language learning. Before playing, the participants decide on a setting (sometimes fictional) and characters (also fictional) that are going to appear in that setting. Role-playing is about creating an interesting story in this setting and act as if you were a character in that story.

This can be employed for language learning as well, although this might be better kept outside the classroom simply because it takes a lot of time and works best in a one-on-one situation. Depending on your language level, you can invent different situations and characters. For intermediate learners, inventing realistic situations that are only slightly different from what you might actually experience probably works best. Advanced learners can try anything. Don’t forget to make the story interesting. Why not include a conspiracy, a love drama or whatever else you find interesting when reading books or watching films? Actually wanting to know how the story ends is a powerful motivation for playing and learning.

Of course, this is just yet another way of merging playing and learning, an essential component in successful language learning.  In this way, you can practice language which is really useful, but that you’re unlikely to come across very often. If you feel that’s too complicated, then stick to situations you’re actually likely to encounter and practice those. If it doesn’t go well the first time, try again! You can’t load a saved game in real life, but you can play the same scene twice in a role-playing game!

The importance of tones is inversely proportional to the predictability of what you say

Despite repeated attempts to debunk the false idea that tones aren’t important in Chinese (see my own contribution here), there are still people out there who believe that tones aren’t that important when you speak Chinese and that native speakers don’t really care about tones anyway.

As I have already discussed in the above-mentioned article, this is wrong. In this article, I will look at why this misunderstanding appears in the first place and what it tells us about ourselves and how we learn Chinese. In general, my theory is as follows:

The importance of tones is inversely proportional to the predictability of what you say

The graph below shows what this statement means. The more predictable a statement is, the less important tones become. Therefore, if the listener can be very sure what you’re going to say before you say it, tones aren’t important for successful communication. However, as soon as you start talking about things that aren’t obvious, tones become very important indeed.

Example #1: Ordering beer

Perhaps I have a slightly negative picture of people who say that tones aren’t important and think that they are more likely than the rest of us to order beer. That’s not to say that it’s wrong to order beer in China, it just serves as a very good example here. No matter how bad your tones are and what other mistakes you make, the bartender is likely to understand what you say (just say something vaguely similar to 啤酒 and you’ll be okay). Let’s reverse this example. If you work in a bar and a foreigner comes in and asks for something which sounds like “doo bir”, I’m quite sure you will understand what he wants.

Importance of tones in relation to predictability of utterance

Example #2: Going by taxi

I’ve heard the second example from at least two people (they were both relatively new students of Chinese and hadn’t mastered tones very well). The scenario: They want to order a taxi to go to a friend’s home. When they tell the driver the name of the place they want to go to, he just shakes his head, confused. After a dozen tries, they give up and finally manage to find a written reference to the address. The driver immediately lights up and pronounces the name of the street, which sounds identical to what the foreigners just said. Only with different tones.

To a Westerner, this might be frustrating. Can’t the driver guess what they want to say? The only thing that was wrong was some of the tones! The answer is that no, he couldn’t, because tones are very important indeed (as important as vowels, according to some studies) when it comes to determining the meaning of an utterance. The driver had no way of predicting what they were going to say (there might be hundreds or thousands of possible addresses) and therefore, the message was lost because of bad tones. If they would have asked to go to the main train station or the airport, the situation would have been different and they would have gotten there regardless of tones.

Importance of tones in relation to complexity of utterance

Real conversations occur between these two extremes

Of all realistic situations we might find ourselves in, saying the name of an unknown, obscure place in a big city might come close to being the least predictable case of all (possibly along with names of people), but most conversations don’t really take place in this realm, because there is context to help the listener understand. On the other hand, most conversations aren’t like ordering beer either. If you only say things that the listener can guess before you say it, what’s the purpose of having the conversation in the first place?

In general, I think that the importance of tones increases in proportion with the complexity of what you’re saying. In particular, the number of words you use when you speak Chinese has an impact on how important tones are. If you only know 2000 words and have spoken with the same person for a while, the guess-what-the-foreigner-is-saying game becomes quite easy, because there are limits to what you can say. However, if you know 20 000 words, it becomes much harder.

The importance of tones also increases in proportion with the complexity of the message. If it requires mental effort to understand what you’re saying even if it would have been said perfectly by a native speaker, do you really want people to spend most of their energy trying to figure out what words you’re using? No, that’s not what we want. Instead, we want to limit as much as possible the distorting effect our pronunciation has on the message.

Tones are more important than most people think

I suppose this was just another way of saying that tones are important and a rather long-winded way at that. Don’t overlook tones. Don’t think you’ve mastered tones after studying for a semester or two, you most likely haven’t. I have argued against perfectionism many times (When perfectionism becomes an obstacle to progress), but this is an exception.

You don’t want to stop improving just because your teacher understands what you’re saying. She’s used to hearing foreigners speak Chinese, she knows roughly what you’re going to say. When you leave class and join the real world, bad tones will cause you loads of trouble. If you learn them properly from the start, this problem doesn’t necessarily go away entirely, but it is at least alleviated!

What does this mean?

In essence, it just means that you can’t say “people I talk with understand what I say, therefore my tones and pronunciation are correct”. Communication is a about a lot more than just tones and it’s obvious that it’s possible to communicate without them in some situations. That doesn’t mean that they are unimportant or that you should spend less time practising (regardless of your current level). My favourite way of analysing tone problems is with the simple guessing game I have described in this article, why don’t you try it out next time you have a native speaker around?

A final question to the reader

This is just a theory. I can back it up with experience and reasoning as I have done in this article, but I can’t prove that what I say is correct. What do you think? Why is it that some people maintain that tones aren’t that important? If you’re one of those people, what’s your counter-argument to what I’ve said here? Please leave a comment below!

Learn Chinese by listening to the listener

The most obvious way to practise listening and pick up some vocabulary is to listen closely to someone speaking Chinese. This is very obvious and is one of the most useful and accessible ways of learning a language, but only focusing on the spoken Chinese misses one important point.

Listening to a dialogue, have you ever tried listening to the person who isn’t speaking?

If you haven’t, you should, because you will learn a ton of useful Chinese. It probably won’t be the kind of language that increases your scores on tests, but it will definitely help you to sound more native and feel less at a loss when you’re in a similar position yourself.

The thing is that languages consist of a lot more than just words. Even if we disregard body language, there are still verbal communication going on all the time that can’t be said to be words. While listening to someone retelling a story, here are a few things that can be expressed with just a sound:

  • Yes
  • No
  • I agree
  • I hear what you say
  • Please continue
  • I don’t understand
  • I don’t believe you
  • What?

I’m not going to give a detailed analysis of these, but just to show you what I mean, I mean sounds in English like “oh” to indicate surprise, “hm” to indicate thought or perhaps reservation, “mm” to express agreement and so on.

The point is that these sounds are not necessarily the same in Chinese

There are some English sounds which simply confuses Chinese speakers if used in Chinese (the most prominent I’ve encountered is using “mhm” to indicate agreement, but which is often interpreted as” I don’t understand”).

Conversely, Chinese contains a lot of sounds which do not exist in English or any other Indo-European language I’ve studied (you should have come across these even in very basic textbooks, I talk about sounds written as 嗯,咦,噢 and so on). You can try to learn these by asking people how to use them, but even better than that is to do a listening exercise somewhat differently:

Listen to a naturally flowing dialogue, but only focus on what the listener is saying

Even though it certainly helps, you don’t need to understand everything said in the dialogue. Apart from giving you a feeling for how these sounds work and how you yourself can use them when you listen to someone speaking Chinese, you can also pick up some information on how to use very simple words. I’ve mostly talked about sounds so far, but of course people who listen to someone uses words as well, such as 是的, 对 (對) or 没错 (沒錯). Since this kind of words is used very, very frequently, it’s always a good idea to learn more of them and learn in which situations they can be used.

Make sure you do this with many different dialogues, because different people tend to use different words, so by listening to more than one, you increase the likelihood that you will pick up something new or that what you learn is common practice and not a weird aberration. TV, radio and any other media containing natural dialogue are excellent places to start (I find interviews especially interesting), but if you live in China, you could just listen to people around you.

By studying and mimicking the way people interact, including things that aren’t necessarily in your textbook and might not even be in the subtitles or transcriptions on TV or radio, you will improve your Chinese. Most of the time, you should of course focus on the speaker, but if you haven’t tried listening to the listener, give it a try!

Questions to the reader

  • Have you made any curious discoveries regarding how you use these sounds in your own language and Chinese?
  • Have you encountered any sounds that make people confused or that make you confused?
  • Do you find yourself using these words whet you speak your native language (I do, sometimes)?