How to Learn Mandarin and Can You be Fluent in 6 Months?
Hi there, Steve Kaufmann here. Today, I’m going to talk to you about how to become fluent in Mandarin in six months. Let me begin by saying that you can’t do that. However, it’s a goal. I think one can become quite comfortable in six months. First of all, let me explain why I’m going to talk about that.
I received an email from one of my viewers here and he said “I am a current student of Mandarin Chinese” blah, blah, blah, blah. “I live in Beijing. I have a goal to become professionally and socially competent in Chinese as quickly and as efficiency as possible. My timeframe is six months to one year. I agree that the classroom is not the best place to learn a new language, although, I plan to use it as a door into the world of Chinese.” Good idea.
“People such as Tim Ferriss talk about the Pareto 80-20 principle”, which I don’t think applies to language, but I’ll explain why. He says “You have spoken about material over method.” Well, maybe. We’ll talk about that, but he says “In the interest of discovering what can work best for a language learner, I’d like to take advantage of your extensive expertise.” If you flatter me, I’ll always accommodate you.
“In your pursuit of Chinese fluency, what would you say were the most effective exercises or methods you used, for example, speaking with a native one on one, reading Chinese novels, comics? Two, what sort of helpful exposure to the Chinese language did you have that others may not have thought of or incurred? Three, what is the biggest waste of time? Four, if I had to teach myself, what books or materials would you recommend? Next, if you had to train me intensively, how would you drill me?”
So this is this the thing, fluent in six months. Okay. Where I come unstuck with this idea of fluent in three months, six months, nine months, 12 months, is the assumption that you’re going to do something in six months and then you’ve finished it. You’ve completed it. You’ve now done it. Language learning is not like that. What you want to achieve in six months or nine months is this language potential that is going to enable you to improve a lot as you continue to use the language.
In all the languages that I speak, I am better now than I ever have been. Bear in mind, if I leave a language…like right now I’m trying to study Italian and last night I was at a party with some Brazilians and for the first 10-15 minutes I was falling all over myself speaking Italian rather than Portuguese, but towards the end of the evening I got better and that’s only in one evening. I think if I were in Brazil for a couple of days, my Portuguese would get better than it ever has been. My Mandarin Chinese is better today than it was when I finished my 10 months of intensive training, even though at that time I could write longhand. I can’t do that now.
What I’m trying to say is that any language is a lifelong journey. All you can do in a period of three, six, nine months is get yourself up to that level so that you can now engage people in more or less intelligent conversations, you can start to read things that are more or less interesting and then you will just continue to improve. The more you use the language, the better you will get. It’s like a snowball. The more you have, the more you can engage in meaningful conversations, the more interesting material you can use and so forth and so on.
With that in mind, I think the goal is to get comfortable so that you can comfortably interact with people in meaningful situations, comfortably access authentic material. Even though you’re going to stumble, it’s comfortable because you don’t worry about stumbling and you know that it’s a long road. So, with that in mind, here’s what I would recommend for Mandarin Chinese if the sky is the limit or, for that matter, for me if I were taking a new language say Turkish. Go the place the language is spoken. Go there right away. If nothing else matters, money doesn’t matter, just go there.
I have often said you’re better off to wait until you have some exposure to the language before going if you want to, basically, optimize the opportunity. You know, maximize the return on investment. But if you’re not worried about a return on investment, go there because you’ll be surrounded by the language. It’s a constant incentive to learn the language. Every time you learn something, you might notice it on a shop window or hear it on the radio. All of this stimulates you to keep going. So that’s number one. Our friend here who sent the email is already in Beijing, so that’s good.
The second thing is specific to Mandarin. If I remember, my first month with Mandarin we had a thing called Chinese dialogues. It was spoken so quickly that I thought they were doing it deliberately to annoy us. It was so annoyingly fast and we only had Pinyin or, in those days, Wade-Giles, which is a different system of using the Roman alphabet to describe Chinese. So we read it phonetically and we listened to it. I listened to it over and over and over again and I was so annoyed by how fast they seem to speak, but I think that was very good for me.
I’ve often thought about should you begin by learning the characters or not and so forth. I think in the case of Chinese where we’re dealing with tones and all these other things, I look back on it now, probably not a bad idea. Then when you start learning the characters, you’re learning the characters for words you have already heard and maybe know and know the meaning of and the vocabulary in these initial dialogues is pretty basic.
Any time you try to study something that you already have a point of reference for you’re going to learn it better. You’re going to be more curious. I always quote the famous Sufi saying “You can only learn what you already know”, which is a slight overstatement. That’s why I always say with grammar, once you have enough input and experience with the language, the grammar rules start to make sense. You actually want to learn them because you’ve come across these structures in your listening and reading.
So with the Mandarin the first thing is, the first month, just listen to these simple dialogues many times and if they’re too fast for you that’s probably good. I would suggest maybe laying off the characters for the first month. That’s number one. Number two, once you start the characters, you have to have a program. I started with 10 a day and I got it up to 30 a day. Granted, you’re going to forget most of them, but you have to relearn them and relearn them.
I’ve described on many occasions how I use this checkered paper and wrote them out longhand, put the meaning over three columns and then soon would run into that again and keep on doing that. I started out at 10 and I got it up to 30, so I think some kind of a space repetition system like that. Characters you’ve got to spend an hour a day and you have to do it every day, every day. So this person is in Beijing, he’s got all the time in the world and wants to learn Chinese, an hour a day on characters because that’s your major stumbling block. Until you have the characters you can’t read and I believe that reading is very important to acquiring the vocabulary. Then the most effective thing to do is to listen and read, in my opinion.
If I went to Turkey, you talk about this one-on-one with a native. Yes, after three months, but not initially because I don’t know enough of the language. I don’t like being put in a position where a teacher is drilling me. I just don’t like doing that. I’d rather discover the language on my own and when I’m able to defend myself and understand what the teacher is saying then we can actually get into a conversation; in the meantime, just that massive exposure as hard as you can go at it. If you’re full time, of course, you can vary things. You can work on your characters. You can work on your listening and reading. To keep your incentive up, by all means, have a one-on-one session, but don’t sit in a classroom listening to other non-native speakers mangle the language. I would never do that.
“Helpful exposure that others may not have had…” No. The main thing was that I went to bookstores all the time in Hong Kong. There was a geography book at 300 characters. There was a history book at 600 characters. I was constantly scouring bookstores for readers with glossaries and that were graded for character level. I think that’s important. The biggest waste of time is looking up a conventional dictionary. It’s so time consuming in the case of Chinese and you have to assume that whatever you look up in a dictionary you’re going to forget. You’re going to forget it as soon as you close the dictionary half the time. You’ll go right back to the context and you’ll forget what it was you saw in the dictionary, unless you’re a lot better than I am. I think a lot of people have the same experience. It’s just too difficult. Again, you don’t have enough things to tie it to.
“If I had to teach myself, what books or materials…?” You have to go out and search for materials. No one is going to give them to you, you have to go. Everything is so much better now than when I was doing Chinese. You can look for material on the Internet. Of course you can go to bookstores. You don’t have to use traditional lookup dictionaries. You can have online dictionaries. You can use LingQ. You stay in the context so you don’t go off and look something up, close the dictionary and come back ooh, what was that. Use whatever you can find, constantly be looking for new stuff and just keep on feeding it into you. That’s what I did.
Another thing is I would start to write as soon as I can. Now, here again, there are things that you can do that I couldn’t do. For example, you can write and then very quickly on Google Translate see how far off you were because your thoughts are going to start in English. You write something out in Chinese, you struggle, go to Google Translate and type it in. If you have a Mac, you can use the dictation. You can actually speak it and up pops the Chinese. So you can actually practicing your writing. If you’re at LingQ you can write something, put it on the exchange, somebody will come along and correct it for you.
“If you had to train me intensively for a month, what would the program look like?” Well, it wouldn’t be very different from what I’m saying now. I wouldn’t drill you. I wouldn’t drill you. I would tell you to go away and fill your brain with Chinese, listening to it, reading it, learn characters and when you’re ready come back and we’re going to start talking. When we talk, I’m going to make notes of your mistakes and you’re going to get a list of those mistakes to take away and study. I’ll try not to interrupt you when we’re speaking, which is essentially, again, what we do in our online conversations at LingQ where we send these reports through that people study.
So there you have it, that’s for Chinese. I think after six months… Oh, two quick things here. Tim Ferriss talks about the 80-20 Principle and I presume this refers to 20% of the words give you 80% of the content. I have never found that to be such a useful concept. In other words, 20% of words account for 80% of the context of any conversation. You’re going to come across them naturally anyway. However, to get into meaningful conversations, to understand what people are saying, you will find that you need a lot of words. That’s been my experience.
The most frequent 80% will take care of themselves. Don’t worry about it. You have to worry about how to stay motivated so that you can learn the many, many words that you need to engage in meaningful conversation with people. Intelligent conversation, to read books, to read the newspaper, to read magazines, to understand movies, you need a lot of words so the 80-20 doesn’t apply.
Then he said that I spoke of material over method. I’m not quite sure what that means, but as I’ve said many times, motivation, initiative, time with the language, developing that ability to notice. There, again, is where a teacher can help you. There are certain things that you just won’t notice and the teacher can point them out. So the method really to me is a lot of exposure and then starting to speak and when you start speaking you just keep going and don’t worry. Don’t worry like is this the third tone or the second tone, just speak. Just speak.
So I think you can achieve a lot in six months. If it’s a European language, even three months you can get to that threshold level. Sometimes I’ve talked about this upside-down hockey stick where the first three months or so is very difficult. You are aware of making progress because a previously unintelligible language is now intelligible, but then there is that long period.
That’s why I say don’t think in terms that you’re going to master it in six months. You’re not. You’re going to get yourself up to a level and then you’ve got a long road. If you’re in China, you’re probably young. You’re not going to learn Chinese and forget it. You’re going to have Chinese with you for your whole life and it will continue getting better or it should, if you develop habits of reading and listening and so forth and so on.
Before I leave you I just want to say – again, I’ve gone a bit long here – I was up in Whistler at a lumber industry conference and on my way up there and back I was listening to Italian, so I’m going to leave as a little trailer here driving down with Howe Sound on my right. I’m listening to _____ and he’s describing _____ Como and, of course, the _____ Howe Sound is a bit reminiscent of _____ Como. It’s just this whole idea of how reading and listening can take you off into different centuries, different countries, different languages. It’s a constant source of enjoyment with the language. I might enjoy listening to an Italian audio book 20 years from now, as I did when I listened 20 years ago. So your languages are always with you.
Thank you for listening, bye for now.
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