Monthly Archives: June 2012


Jun 2012

How long does it take to get fluent in Chinese?

To answer this question, I’ll start by quoting from a Quora page, where two heavyweights gave excellent answers:

Mark Rowswell, AKA Dashan/大山:

> When I started learning Chinese, I was horrified to hear that it would take me 10 years to become fluent. 27 years later I’m still working at it. Due to my work on television, some Chinese language learners may consider me a role model of sorts, but every day I’m reminded of what I don’t know and how much more there is to learn.

> “Fluent” is a relative concept. I would summarize:

> 2 years to lie on your resume and hope no Chinese speaker interviews you for a job (because 2 years is enough to bullshit your way through a situation in front of non-speakers).

> 5 years for basic fluency, but with difficulty.

> 10 years to feel comfortable in the language.

David Moser:

> The old saying I heard when I first started learning Chinese was, “Learning Chinese is a five-year lesson in humility”. At the time I assumed that the point of this aphorism was that after five years you will have mastered humility along with Chinese. After I put in my five years, however, I realized the sad truth: I had mastered humility, alright, but my Chinese still had a long way to go. And still does.

> As the the above answers indicate, the notion of “fluent” is very vague and goal-dependent. Needless to say, the Chinese writing system does more than any other aspect to hamper mastery, to the extent that adult speakers must address the daunting problems of the script in order to function in the language. As an instructive metric, however, we can turn to the Defense Language Institute in Monterey for some rough estimates of the relative difficulty. They divide languages into different difficulty groups. Group I includes the “usual” languages a student might study, such as French and Italian. They estimate “Hours of instruction required for a student with average language aptitude to reach level-2 proficiency” (never mind what level-2 means) to be 480 hours. A further level is characterized as “Speaking proficiency level expected of a student with superior language aptitude after 720 hours of instruction”, which is “Level 3”, which apparently is their highest level of non-native fluency. Chinese is grouped into Category IV, along with Japanese. The number of hours needed to reach level two is 1320 (about 3 times as much as required for French), and the highest expected level for a superior student after 720 hours is only 1+, i.e. an advanced beginner. These are old statistics, but the proportional differences are bound to be similar today.

> My own experience, in a nutshell: French language students after 4 years are hanging out in Paris bistros, reading everything from Voltaire to Le Monde with relative ease, and having arguments about existentialism and debt ceilings. Chinese language students after four years still can’t read novels or newspapers, can have only simple conversations about food, and cannot yet function in the culture as mature adults. And this even goes for many graduate students with 6-7 or 8 years of Chinese. Exceptions abound, of course, but in general the gap between mastery of Chinese vs. the European languages is enormous. To a great extent the stumbling block is simply the non-phonetic and perversely memory-intensive writing system, but other cultural factors are at work as well.

(David Moser is the guy who once explained why learning Chinese is so damn hard.)

My own experiences:

I’m not going to go into the complex issues already covered above (and I should also note that my Chinese is nowhere near as good as Mark Rowswell’s), but Mark’s numbers seem fairly realistic to me.

Because I began my study of Chinese in the States, then moved to China and started practicing on my own pretty hardcore, I’d say I hit Mark’s “basic fluency” milestone at around 4 years of study. “Feeling comfortable” probably came after about 8 years, but I think my standard for “comfortable” is also lower than Mark’s. (I seriously doubt I am as comfortable now as Mark was after 10 years!)

What’s the deal?

It always pisses some people off when you say that learning Chinese is hard, or that it takes a really long time. In fact, it tends to inspire certain learners to go out of their way to prove that the opposite is true: Chinese is not hard, and doesn’t take long to learn. That’s fine; somewhere between the extreme views the truth can be found. But I’ve always found it important to have a realistic view of what you’re getting into, and getting someone like Mark Rowswell’s take on the question is certainly interesting!

It seems that some people are afraid that many people will be “scared off” if Chinese is too often represented as “difficult,” and that those that attain some mastery and then tell others that it wasn’t easy are simply jealously guarding their own perceived “specialness.” Personally, I started learning Chinese precisely because I viewed it as a serious challenge, and didn’t fall in love with it until much later. I’ve heard many times that Malay is really easy to learn, but that’s never made me want to learn it.

The good news

The good news is that I truly believe that learning Chinese is getting easier, or that students are learning it faster than they used to. I’ve been observing this trend on my own anecdotally over the years as I meet ChinesePod visitors, as I meet new arrivals to China, as I take on new AllSet Learning clients, and as I work with new interns. The “Total Newb on Arrival” is getting rarer, tones are getting better, and some people are even showing up in China for the first time already able to hold a conversation. Nice!

I’ve compared notes with Chinese teachers abroad, and some teachers are making the same observations. One teacher told me that universities are having to restructure their Chinese courses because the original courses were not demanding enough, or didn’t go far enough. What’s going on here?

I think a combination of the following factors are playing a part:

– Kids are starting to learn Chinese sooner
– Chinese learning materials are getting better
– Technology is making learning characters (and pronunciation) less laborious
– Competition is naturally raising the bar
– Increased awareness about the Chinese language and culture make the whole prospect less intimidating overall

This is all very good news! And if this is a long-running trend that has been accelerating in recent years, it could also mean that while Mark Rowswell’s and David Moser’s accounts are totally truthful, it won’t be as time-consuming for you as it was for them because the difficulty (or time involved) to learn Chinese is depreciating, without us even having to do anything!

One more thing

Oh, and let me also quote Charles Laughlin from the Quora thread, who replied:

> Who cares how long it takes? Just do it! If you really want to learn Chinese, you will devote yourself to it however long it takes.

Very true.


Jun 2012

Dueling Flavors

A friend of a friend recently opened a restaurant in Shanghai called 斗味.


That’s as in 斗争 (struggle) or 决斗 (duel), and as in 味道 (scent, taste) or 口味 (flavor).

After dinner the other night, a friend was jokingly telling me that the name could be read 二十味 or 二十口未(口味). Ah, characterplay is always welcome… This particular example reminded me of Lin Danda (a timeless classic in character ambiguity).

斗味 is pretty good, and has very reasonable lunch specials, if you live way out on the west side of Shanghai. (It has a Dianping page, but is too new to have any reviews, apparently.)

Related: 味儿大


Jun 2012

More Simple Chinese Signs

A while back I did a post on the simple characters around you. I’ve been slowly collecting some other simple signs. Here are three more.

Noodle to Noodle

面对面 (noodle shop)

In simplified Chinese, can mian either “noodle” or “face.” 面对面 means “face to face,” hence the obvious pun. (Note: in traditional Chinese, the “noodle” character is written .)

The other characters are 重庆, the city of Chongqing.

Big Big Small Small


大大小小 can means “big and small,” and can refer to both “all ages” as well as “all sizes.” Makes sense for a clothing store!

City West Middle School


市西中学 is sort of on the west side of the downtown Shanghai area (near Jing’an Temple, across the street from the AllSet Learning office). It’s one of the best middle schools in Shanghai. (I guess you don’t need a fancy name with obscure characters to be elite.)


Jun 2012

Skritter for iPhone: finally!

The hard-working guys at Skritter have been working on an iPhone app for quite a while. They put up a nice launch page, made a really cool video, and then… proceeded to “keep us in suspense” for a really long time. Well, the wait is finally over! Even though I’ve been helping to test the new app prior to the official release, I waited until I got word from Skritter that the app has been officially approved before writing this review. The app is real!

Skritter iPhone app: Launch Page

I’ve mentioned before that I feel the iPad has real potential for Chinese writing practice. I’ve always liked Skritter, but when Skritter first came out, I had already put in my writing time (the old-fashioned way), and I wasn’t really interested in using a mouse or a writing tablet to practice characters. It did strike me as a cool way for a new generation of learners to write, however.

With an iPad, though, it’s different. The iPhone is a little small, in my opinion, when my writing utensils are as big and fat as my fingers. That’s why I’m more excited about Skritter on an iPad than on an iPhone, and I actually tested the app exclusively on my iPad rather than my iPhone. (To be clear, Skritter has only released an iPhone version so far, so I was just running an iPhone app at 2X on my iPad.)

How is it? Although I’m not crazy about every aspect of the design, the app got one thing very right: writing is very smooth. And for this app, writing is the right thing to get right. (I’m pretty sure that makes sense.) They could have invested more into slick iOS interface design, but they chose instead to make the actual writing functionality of the app work really well. Good call.

I’ve only got screenshots here, but the “virtual ink” feels very liquid as you write, like it’s really seeping out of your fingertips. When you hold your finger down and make slower strokes, you can see the extra ink “flowing” out and sinking into the “paper.” I like it.

Here are a few screenshots of me fluidly writing my name (and then the ink fading). Meanwhile the Skritter robot wants none of my narcissistic tomfoolery, and reminds me in blue what I’m supposed to be writing.

Skritter iPhone app: Fluid Writing Skritter iPhone app: Fluid Writing

Here’s me writing the character . (And no, the Skritter robot doesn’t like strokes to be that connected, but hey, it made a cool screenshot.)

Skritter iPhone app: Writing 安 Skritter iPhone app: Writing 安

Here’s some crazy unacceptable strokes just straight-up exploding, and then a screen for tone recall:

Skritter iPhone app: Explosion Skritter iPhone app: Tone Practice

Here’s some word lists and a settings screen:

Skritter iPhone app: Word Lists Skritter iPhone app: Settings

Finally–and this is a feature that kind of took me by surprise, because I’m a Skritter fan but not a regular user, so I was unaware of this feature before I discovered it–here’s a shot of Skritter’s Pleco integration. When you’re writing a word, you can click on the “info” button on top right, and then click on the Pleco button. That opens up Pleco, with the word already looked up. Pretty sweet! And there’s a button at the bottom of the Pleco screen which can take you right back to Skritter when you’re done.

Skritter iPhone app: Info Skritter iPhone app: Pleco Support

Bottom line: very cool app. Yes, the free app requires a Skritter subscription to support it, so it’s not the cheapest option for writing practice. (But if you’re such a cheapskate, what are you doing with an iPhone, anyway?)

You can get the app here.

P.S. It wasn’t until after I had written this review that I bothered to ask Nick of Skritter why the styles in the video and in the app I tested were so different, so only then did I learn that you can change the theme of the app. I gotta say, I like the “Dark Theme” much better. The default theme is a bit of a “Peking Opera Mask” turnoff for me. I’m all for a modern China with modern Chinese.

Here’s the difference between the two:

Skritter: Dark Theme Skritter: Traditional Theme

Skritter: Dark Theme Skritter iPhone app: Writing 安

Apparently a lot of people prefer the traditional “inky” style to the modern “flashy” style. Interesting.

P.P.S. If you’re interested in learning Chinese, though, make sure you’ve learned your pinyin first. AllSet Pinyin for the iPad can help with that.