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.

Dueling Flavors

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

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

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

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

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.)

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.

Vancl’s “No Fear” Ad Campaign

Vancl (凡客) is a popular Chinese clothing brand that hires the likes of celebrity author/race car driver Han Han (韩寒) for its ads.

This ad featuring Li Yuchun (李宇春) is all over Shanghai right now:

Vancl Ads

On first glance, the Chinese in this ad is pretty simple, but doesn’t seem to make sense. 我爱你 means “I love you,” and 无所谓 means “don’t care.” Huh?

But look closer… It’s not 无所谓 in the ad, but 无所畏. The final character is different. So the meaning goes from “to not care” to “to have no fear.” The ad intentionally plays with you to draw you in; 无所畏 (“to have no fear”) is not a phrase you normally use in spoken language (although 无所畏 and 无畏 are not so hard to find online).

This ad featuring Han Han part of the same series:

Vancl Ads

Here you have the same 谓/畏 wordplay, this time introducing the phrase 正能量, a phrase popular among the kids which can’t be translated literally, and is used to mean something like “positive attitude.”

Learning, Not Spurning

The other day I went out with my wife, carrying my 6-month-old daughter. My daughter gets a fair amount of attention, and when we stopped to check out the DVD lady’s latest arrivals, a small crowd of Shanghainese ladies formed around us. They were quite interested in my daughter.

After all this time in Shanghai, my listening comprehension of Shanghainese has improved a lot, but I can’t say I’ve ever made a really concerted effort to learn it, and I still mishear things quite often. This was one such time.

One lady kept making the same comment over and over, which my brain sort of automatically filters through Mandarin Chinese. So what I heard, in only partly-applicable pinyin, was something like:

Hao bu xiang!

Now, (hao) means “good,” but it can also be used as an adverb to modify an adjective, taking on the meaning of “very.” I know that the normal word for “very” in Shanghainese is 老 (lao), but I figured this was another way to say it.

不像 (bu xiang), of course, means, “not resemble.” So what I was hearing this lady repeating several times to my face, referring to the baby in my arms, was, “she doesn’t look at all like him!

白相相 副

Photo by Elaine_Song

Kind of a rude thing for a stranger to say, no?

I’m not in the habit of replying to Shanghainese, though, and I know my comprehension of Shanghainese certainly isn’t perfect, so I just kept my mouth shut.

As we headed home, I asked my wife, “what were those ladies saying? ‘Hao bu xiang?‘ Were they saying my daughter doesn’t look anything like me?”

Her reply was, “no, of course not! They were saying, ‘hao baixiang,’ which basically means ‘very cute.'”

So then I felt pretty dumb. What they had said was:

Hao baixiang!

(hao) did, in fact, mean “good,” but 白相 (baixiang) is the Shanghainese equivalent of the Mandarin word , which means “to play,” and 好白相 (hao baixiang) is Shanghainese for 好玩, which means “fun,” or, in this case, “cute.”

I knew the Shanghainese word 白相; I should have understood the comments. It’s good to be reminded what it’s like to be something of a beginner, making beginner mistakes. (It’s also good to realize that other people are not being jerks at all!)


P.S. I really didn’t know how to write the Shanghainese in this post… I didn’t want to bust out IPA, and using characters doesn’t seem appropriate either, but those are the characters used by the Dict.cn Shanghainese dictionary (which I linked to thrice above), and if you click through you get both Shanghainese audio (you need to hold the cursor over the audio icon, not click) and alternate non-IPA romanization.

Sinosplice Tooltips 1.2 is out

I continue to get questions about how I do the pinyin tooltips (popups) on Sinosplice. Well, let me remind you that anyone using WordPress can easily add this functionality to his blog. Just keep in mind that the tooltip content is manually added, not automatically generated.

The latest version of the plugin, 1.2 is available here:

Sinosplice Tooltips 1.2

You can also search and add the plugin through WordPress itself, and instructions on how to do that are here.

The plugin went through a rough patch recently due to some changes to WordPress’s edit screen code, making it difficult to add new tooltips to blog posts through the edit screen (although old ones continued to display fine). Now the editing screen “pinyin” button is working like a charm again.

A Chinese Perspective on World Gas Prices

The following data was taken from the March 27, 2012 issue of 星尚画报 (“Channel Young”) and reproduced with English translation:

Country Gas Price (USD/liter) GDP per capita (USD) Avg. Income (USD) 100 L / GDP per capita 100 L / Avg. Income
China 1.4 4428 2356 2.94% 5.52%
USA 0.96 47199 38686 0.20% 0.25%
Japan 1.42 42831 39304 0.33% 0.36%
Turkey 2.57 10094 5242 2.55% 0.49%
Norway 2.444 84538 37994 0.29% 0.64%
Denmark 2.34 46915 28583 0.50% 0.82%
UK 2.145 36144 27809 0.59% 0.77%
France 2.132 40152 23229 0.53% 0.92%
Germany 2.132 39460 24321 0.54% 0.88%
Italy 2.353 33917 18783 0.69% 1.25%

Here’s the chart in its original Chinese:

汽油价格美元 人均GDP(美元 人均总收入美元 百升汽油人均GDP 百升汽油人均总收入
中国 1.4 4428 2356 2.94% 5.52%
美国 0.96 47199 38686 0.20% 0.25%
日本 1.42 42831 39304 0.33% 0.36%
土耳其 2.57 10094 5242 2.55% 0.49%
挪威 2.444 84538 37994 0.29% 0.64%
丹麦 2.34 46915 28583 0.50% 0.82%
英国 2.145 36144 27809 0.59% 0.77%
法国 2.132 40152 23229 0.53% 0.92%
德国 2.132 39460 24321 0.54% 0.88%
意大利 2.353 33917 18783 0.69% 1.25%

As you may have guessed, this article came out at a time when gas prices suddenly went up and caused quite a stir.

Of course, stats like GDP per capita and average income feel a lot more relevant to gas prices for countries where most of the population drives. It would be interesting to see this chart using “average income of drivers” instead of overall average income. You’d see a huge jump in the income column for China, but not as much of one for the USA.

(Oh, and yes, I’ve been meaning to post this for close to two months now…)

China Ammo for argumentum ad antiquitam

The summer between 7th and 8th grade, I went to a somewhat unusual “nerd camp.” I attended a 6-week “enrichment course” at the University of Tampa entitled “Logic and Critical Thinking.” We covered quite thoroughly the different types of logical syllogisms and logical fallacies. It was a singularly eye-opening experience for me, as many of the arguments I’d heard many times before were suddenly and for the first time exposed for what they were. In another sense, it was a new form of power. Adults rule the world, but they’re not above logic. Being able to identify logical fallacies in the arguments of politicians, teachers, and even parents was a potent little trick indeed!

Recently I read the book How to How to Win Every Argument: The Use and Abuse of Logic, which is basically a rundown of various types of fallacies, how to recognize them, how to defend against them, and even how to effectively employ them if you need to.

While a good read and quite entertaining in parts, many examples used in the book probably make more sense to a British audience than an American one. It also feels a little outdated at times, such as this passage on the argumentum ad antiquitam (“appeal to tradition”) fallacy and how it relates to China (links and bold added by me):

Students of political philosophy recognize in the argumentum ad antiquitam the central core of the arguments of Edmund Burke. Put at its simplest, it is the fallacy of supposing that something is good or right simply because it is old.

This is the way it’s always been done, and this is the way we’ll continue to do it.

(It brought poverty and misery before, and it will do so again…)

There is nothing in the age of a belief or an assertion which alone makes it right. At its simplest, the ad antiquitam is a habit which economizes on thought. It shows the way in which things are done, with no need for difficult decision-making. At its most elevated, it is a philosophy. Previous generations did it this way and they survived; so will we. The fallacy is embellished by talk of continuity and our contemplation of the familiar.

[…]

Skilful use of the ad antiquitam requires a detailed knowledge of China. The reason is simple. Chinese civilization has gone on for so long, and has covered so many different provinces, that almost everything has been tried at one time or another. Your knowledge will enable you to point out that what you are advocating has a respectable antiquity in the Shin Shan province, and there it brought peace, tranquillity of mind and fulfilment for centuries.

Hmmm, “Shin Shan Province,” eh? The use of “province” in two different senses in one paragraph is a little confusing, but I would guess that “Shin Shan” is supposed to be “Shanxi” or “Shaanxi.” Anyway, I suspect that even when dealing in fallacies and tradition, it’s still a good idea to use the name of a province that actually exists.

It’s true, though, that China is still a treasure trove for bullshit purveyors of all kinds, whether it’s China’s mystical past, mystical writing system, mystical vocabulary (“crisis” = “danger” + “opportunity,” anyone?), or mystical traditions. I’m curious if my readers have run into many China-centered argumentum ad antiquitam fallacies out there.

Back to Jing’an (thoughts)

When I first moved to Shanghai, I lived in the Jing’an Temple area, behind the Portman Ritz Carlton Hotel on Nanjing Road. It was a cool place to start out my Shanghai experience, and I enjoyed my time there (even if there weren’t many good eating options nearby). I discovered the joys of Shanghai morning walks to work there, and the whole “familiar strangers” thing was interesting. Later, though, I moved to the Zhongshan Park area, where I’ve been living for about 7 years now.

Jingan Temple in Late Morning

photo by Neil Noland

Well, now that the AllSet Learning office has established its new office in the Jing’an Temple area, I’m spending a lot more time here, and really liking it. I can’t realistically walk to work every day anymore, but this area sure is nice to wander around in. I’ve also got new neighbors now, and it’s good to be able to more frequently see friends that live in this area. (If you live/work in the Jing’an Temple area and want to meet up and do lunch or something, get in touch!)

The move has been keeping me busy (and away from this blog), together with hiring new employees. Building my own team of passionate staff has been a really great experience, though. They say that when you start a new business, it never turns out how you expected, and while my business plan is going more or less as planned, the aspects that turn out to be the most challenging and rewarding have been surprising. Hiring, training, and building long-term relationships with Chinese staff have definitely been at the top of both the “challenging” and “rewarding” lists.

In 2007 I wrote two posts about “how I learned Chinese”: Part 1 and Part 2. I always intended to write a part 3, because I definitely feel that I’m still learning Chinese very actively after all this time, but have not yet written it because it was never clear in my mind what the next stage was, where it began, and where it ended (or will end).

It’s now clear to me that “Part 3″ was grad school in China plus work at ChinesePod, and “Part 4,” a huge new challenge, is starting and running a business in Chinese. A kind commenter, after reading through this blog’s whole 10 year archive, has recently reminded me that I’ve written very few personal articles on Sinosplice lately, and that it sort of feels like something is missing now. Well, I’m planning on writing some thoughts on these experiences soon; and hopefully my readers will find them interesting or helpful in some way.

In the meantime, friends in Jing’an should hit me up… (and I’ll be getting caught up on my email soon!)

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