People learning Chinese always get complimented on their Chinese (link), and all those compliments tend to go to one’s head. Some people really start to believe their spoken Chinese is better than it actually is. And even if you don’t believe all the praise you get, you’re still probably overestimating your Chinese level.
Not everyone is above average
By definition, 50% of people are below average in anything. But studies have shown that most people think they are better than average. Two psychologists, Dunning and Kruger, won an IG Nobel prize for their research on this effect. They found people who are “incompetent” (e.g. below average) will:
- Overestimate their skill level.
- Don’t recognize real skills in others
- Fail to learn they are unskilled.
Ask yourself: are you “incompetent” when it comes to speaking Chinese? Is your Chinese really as good as you think it is? If you’re overestimating how good your Chinese sounds, you’re probably not studying as hard as you should and you’re not correcting the problems you have.
The failure of feedback
In their paper, Dunning and Kruger discussed why the incompetent don’t figure out their real skill level.
One reason is that people seldom receive negative feedback about their skills and abilities from others in everyday life (Blumberg, 1972; Darley & Fazio, 1980; Goffman, 1955; Matlin & Stang, 1978; Tesser & Rosen, 1975). Even young children are familiar with the notion that “if you do not have something nice to say, don’t say anything at all.” Second… some tasks and settings preclude people from receiving self-correcting information that would reveal the suboptimal nature… Third, even if people receive negative feedback, they still must come to an accurate understanding of why that failure has occurred… For success to occur, many things must go right… For failure to occur, the lack of any one of these components is sufficient. Because of this, even if people receive feedback that points to a lack of skill, they may attribute it to some other factor
If you really want to improve your Chinese, you have to deal with the each of these reasons. First, even the friends and teachers that correct your Chinese are only correcting a fraction of the mistakes you make (I blogged about that before here). Assuming you make at least five mistakes for every time someone corrects you will give you a better idea of how many mistakes you are actually making.
Second, real life situations make it virtually impossible to provide feedback for all the mistakes you make. Unless you’re on a reality show being taped 24-7, you’ll never be able to consistently go back to a conversation you had to figure out what you said/did wrong.
Finally, Chinese learners often ignore the feedback they do get. I’ve heard hundreds of Chinese learners complain about situations where Chinese people can’t understand them. They usually overlook the most likely possibility: the speaker made too many mistakes! Sometimes even getting a bad grade on a Chinese test isn’t enough to convince someone they need to make adjustments: some people get a bad scores will come up with lots of reasons for their failure. They didn’t study for it, or they went to sleep late, etc. Instead of using their test results as feedback they find excuses and never recognize their mistakes.
Recognize your mistakes
Mistakes happen. That’s normal. Don’t ignore your mistakes. Don’t make excuses for your mistakes. Make it a goal to find as many mistakes as you can whenever you can. Seek out feedback on your tones, on your pronunciation, on your word choice, on everything. You can only correct your mistakes after you recognize them.
How do you find out about mistakes your Chinese have? What methods or tools do you use to get feedback on your Chinese?
- Dunning-Kruger Effect on Wikipedia
- “Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One’s Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments”, Kruger, Justin; David Dunning (1999), Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (pdf)
The Dunning-Kruger effect is stronger in some cultures than others. In some East Asian cultures, the data suggests the opposite of this effect