In an ESL class I teach, we were talking about shopping at an outlet mall in a Chicago suburb, and when the class ended, I heard someone say "ee ba ba" in Mandarin.
Lately I've been concentrating harder on what the heck Mandarin speakers are saying, because otherwise, I'd be wasting my language-listening time. After all, what's the point of listening to a language I've studied even briefly if I'm not going to try to understand what people are saying? I can use the skimpy knowledge I have and try to make sense out of a sliver of "blah blah blah" among the crazy tones. I even do it with Spanish--eavesdrop on conversations that I don't totally understand.
I thought for a moment, and then used the context to make an educated guess: they were probably talking about the expressway I-88, since "ba ba" is "8 8", and we had already talked about the outlet mall in English. So I asked them, and I was right! "Ee ba ba" was I-88.
The last time this type of deduction occurred was this past weekend, when someone said "cha ei" (I don't remember exactly the second word, my Mandarin is so lame) while standing near some eggs. I guessed "tea eggs" and I was right, which surprised the egg-talkers.
Sometimes I use Japanese to try to understand Mandarin. Such as the time we were talking about the word "gifted" in class. Someone asked another student in Mandarin what it meant, and a student said "tien sai" which is similar to the Japanese "tensai" which means "genius" more than "gifted." (However, at this point, I wonder if that's the only meaning. Perhaps it could mean "gifted" in certain contexts.) Anyway, I told the students, "no, it's not that meaning" and everyone was shocked because I had understood what they were talking about.
So, I guess I've discovered another way to surprise people. Which means if I study more Mandarin words, I'll be able to understand and scare even more people until they start to assume I can decifer whatever they say.
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