Laowai Delusions of Fluency

Kakis, a regular commenter on Talk Talk China, recently left this one:

I always love to speak Chinese to laowais, in fact, I am really good at teaching, be it language or Engineering stuff. A lot of laowais like the way I teach them how to pronounce ’si & shi; zhan & zhang; lan & nan;….’. But the thing is, laowais like to show off their Chinese whenever they are in the meeting or some conferences. They think their Chinese is already up to a standard whereby they can involve some serious discussions. But the fact is, they suck. They can speak some basic Chinese pretty well, some even have Beijing accent. But the truth is they are really far far away from being professional.

This is so true. I’m not trying to trash talk other foreigners’ Chinese; I’m talking about myself. It’s easy for me to say that I’m “fluent” in Mandarin because I’ve got the pronunciation down pretty well and basic conversation is a piece of cake. But when the discussion gets abstract or intellectual, I fumble. I’m reminded of this fact repeatedly in grad school. It’s usually not so difficult to follow the conversation, but to actually make a contribution on par intellectually with my classmates is no easy task!

I remember a while back my girlfriend once said to me, “when I talk to you, I don’t feel like I’m talking to a foreigner. I feel like I’m talking to a Chinese person. But it’s an uncultured (没有文化的) Chinese person!” I feel this is mainly due to my lack of sophisticated vocabulary, which I blame on years of self-study and taking a practical approach to language learning.

I know I’m not the only student of Chinese facing this issue. I don’t mean to discourage anyone, but I think that it’s important to stay humble. It takes a lot of hard work to become “conversationally fluent.” I know. But it’s still a long, hard road from conversationally fluent to “educated fluent.” Kidding yourself about your Chinese level doesn’t get you anything but awkward pseudo-intellectual conversations.


John Pasden

John is a Shanghai-based linguist and entrepreneur, founder of AllSet Learning.


  1. “[A]wkward pseudo-intellectual conversations” are pretty much all I get in English these days, too. 🙂

    You point to self-study as one of the reasons for your unsophisticated vocabulary, but do you really think attending a structured class and reading about 山田 and 玛丽’s rousing stories of going to the post office and buying tickets for the train would have left you in a better situation at this point in your study?

  2. John B,

    Self-study at the beginner stage is one thing, but I did it well into the intermediate stage. When I compare my vocabulary with people who majored in Chinese and studied it for 4 years, their vocabulary blows mine away.

  3. John,

    I wouldn’t hype up those who’ve studied a Chinese degree too much. More than half my class mates at Leeds came out the end speaking very little Chinese at all. And that is from (supposedly) one of the foremost Modern Chinese departments in Europe, if not the Western world.

    And about studying something structured, how about studying your interest area in Chinese? Now I know that Linguistic study in china is kind of out there (I went to some classes at Capital Normal in Beijing when I was there, and it was, well, weird) but it would be good at developing your ability to at least come accross as a convincing pseud in Chinese….

    I’m looking into doing the same with Psychology. Much of the work here is being done by the army, so I hope I don’t end up being taken for a spy…

  4. I seem to have the opposite problem in Chinese, as I have never self-studied Chinese and have always been in a structured college enviroment, and currently in my 8th month abroad in China studying in a fairly intensive program. I live with a Chinese roommate, and the other day he told me that when I spoke, I speak using very formal and complicated words, and that when it comes to basic conversation I should simplifly my vocabulary and grammar structure. I can talk about non-governmental international organizations, exchange rates, terrorist splinter groups, and lockes treatise on government but I am severly lacking the conversational grammar and a large amount of adjectives and colloquail sayings to seriously keep up in a dinner-time conversation.( I think I know roughly 5 Chengyu’s that I can use for that kind of conversation) I think this is because I have never taken a literature class, and really put alot of focus into studying things like Buisness, Government, Economics, etc in Chinese. I too have noticed that people who study on their own more have far better conversational Chinese than someone who studied in College for 4 years, because I think the focus of a college program is to achieve a basic comprehension of professional Chinese.

  5. sorry, I should say I can tattempt to talk about those topics in Chinese, I am by no means fluent in those areas.

  6. Phil,

    I probably wouldn’t want to trade my conversational fluency for higher level vocabulary, but at the moment I’m preparing a presentation on Chomsky’s Syntactic Structures in Chinese, so I’m feeling my inadequacies rather acutely.

    My classes in applied linguistics are entirely in Chinese, so it’s gotta be helping. I’m still in my first semester, though.

  7. John,

    I hear ya. I’m facing the challenge of trying to communicate a slightly off the wall (by mainstream ad agency standards anyway) approach to building brand strategy to potential “nodes” in our social network at the moment, and I always end up slipping into boring hackneyed terms, so I guess I’m feeling that need to be able to express the vague and intangible stuff pretty acutely right now…

    I’d be interested in hearing some of your Chomsky stuff, or meeting for a chat about it some time, it’s been a while, and I haven’t maintained my reading, but half my degree was in Linguistics, and it was always that down and dirty form stuff that kept me in the game.

  8. yeah, it hit me HARD when i started the transition. when i got my first job with a chinese company i was a decent conversationalist able to chat, throw jokes back and forth, normal stuff. the first week of work when i was asked to do a report about a feasibility study i was way out of my depth.

    a couple months of constantly looking things up in the dictionary, asking for people to explain things to me, etc.

    even now, when i write anything that’s formal or give a speech that should be formal i basically dictate it to someone and they make sure i’ve got my 于’s in the right places and i use the best synonym for certain words.

  9. John,

    I’m sure that if you keep up your great enthusiasm for learning Chinese, eventually you will become very well-rounded. By the way, since your girlfriend does seem to have taken notice, she might be able to help you a lot in targeting specific areas in which you sound inarticulate or uneducated- or phrases that you use that make you sound that way. That might save you time addressing what to learn first.

  10. 没有文化: I would generally translate this as “uneducated”, rather than “uncultured”.

  11. True dat!!!!!!

    Stay humble!

  12. Ed,

    Naw, she’s not much help unless I ask her questions directly. She’s the kind of person that doesn’t pick at my grammar/word choice if she understands what I’m trying to say. I’m fine with that… she’s my girlfriend, not my teacher.

  13. Not only laowai but any second language learner can have delusions of fluency. As a university lecturer in Korea, I sometimes received blatantly plagiarized assignments written in perfect English. When I pointed this out to the student, I often heard a reply like this, “Almost Korean student study grammar in school” or “I use dictionary.” I’d then hand them a dictionary and a piece of paper and say, “Okay, write it again in front of me;” this always dispelled their delusions of fluency.

    What we all come to realize as our language skills develop is that it takes years and years and years to become fully proficient. There are no shortcuts.

  14. John,

    Don’t worry, man, most of us would feel our inadequacies rather acutely presenting Noam Chomsky’s Syntactic Structures in English. I, for one, have little delusion about my fluency in Chinese: quite simply, it’s crap. Granted, considering I haven’t lived there in a year and a half, I think I’m doing ok (can still understand stuff, read/write all the characters I did learn and so on). I try and do an hour every night or two, and I did take a course last year in London (which certified me intermediate apparently!). Nevertheless, it’s just damn hard to practice in these parts if you don’t want to become a sketchy ‘language rapist’. Any suggestions?

  15. Wow. It sounds like mainlanders are a lot more critical about our Chinese than Taiwanese people are. I’m sure my Chinese isn’t nearly good enough to do a grad program like you are, but every Taiwanese person I meet praises my Chinese. Many have gone so far as to say, that my Chinese is “good enough” and that I “don’t need to learn any more”. While it feels nice to be constantly complimented, I’m sure that living in a more critical environment like you do must be better for long term language development.

  16. In Hong Kong, people faint if you say “ni hao”, and think it’s so cool. If you speak Cantonese, however, and lot’s of “gwai loh” (our term for laowai) speak pretty decent Cantonese, they’re ever so critical and laugh about the slightest pronunciation mistakes. Go figure…

  17. From the OP:

    But the thing is, laowais like to show off their Chinese whenever they are in the meeting or some conferences. they think their Chinese is already up to a standard whereby they can involve some serious discussions. but the fact is, they suck. They can speak some basic Chinese pretty well, some even have Beijing accent. but the truth is they are really far far away from being professional.

    I had a former boss who had lived in Taiwan for many years before moving to China. In small meetings between foreign staff and Chinese, he played the role of both participant and interpreter. Well, anybody who’s tried that knows it does not work. I felt sorry for foreign staff who didn’t speak Chinese and Chinese who didn’t speak English because a lot of important points didn’t get translated properly or even at all. Once he seriously offended a Chinese when he substituted for a Chinese word he didn’t know. Social chat is one thing while clear professional communication is quite another.

  18. Think about the fluency of non-native speakers of English. I know Chinese who have lived in the US for 15 years whose English is barely comprehensible. People always tend to overestimate their fluency/level in a foreign language. I had a professor in college from Japan who had lived in the US for almost 40 years, yet half the class couldn’t understand him when he spoke English. I’m sure he considered himself fluent.

    There are obviously many components of fluency: pronunciation, listening and reading comprehension, vocabulary, etc. Most people are strong in one area and think this makes them fluent. This is especially true in academia, where many people can read a language and recite ancient poetry, but can’t order a coke in a restaurant.

  19. Right now I think one of the biggest obstacles I’m running up against in my efforts to improve my ability to speak well and partiicpate in less trivial conversations in Chinese is my inability to express myself clearly in any language. When I compare my spoken Chinese with that of highly educated and highly eloquent native speakers, I realize how much room I have for improvement. But when I compare my spoken Chinese with my spoken English it doesn’t seem that bad. When I speak Chinese I still stumble around for words, and get caught up trying to express myself more precisely than is neccessary rather than just saying what I want to say as simply as possible; but I do the same things in English. Same with writing. It takes me forever to write a decent essay in Chinese, but it takes almost the same amount of time to write one in English. If anything I tend to be happier with my Chinese writing because it lacks the stylistic clutter that often pollutes my English writing. In order to improve my Chinese I’m going to have to improve my ability to speak in general, and improve my Enligsh along with it. Seems like the kind of thing linguists researching second language acquisition and pedagogy would do well to take into account.

  20. Being humble is great, as long as one keeps the self-confidence that allows one to persevere. And, being proud is fine, as long as one isn’t self-delusional as to one’s true abilities. I guess the best attitude is one which allows one to advance in one’s Chinese studies while enjoying good relationships with fellow students, co-workers and Chinese friends.

    Fellow white Americans often ask about my Chinese, “Are you fluent?” In the past I might respond: “I’m pretty fluent for a white guy.” Or, just, “I’m pretty fluent for a non-Chinese person.” If it is a friend asking, I might go into a spiel about how fluency is all relative, blah blah blah…

    I taught a class in my home two years ago, and all the participants were Chinese friends of mine. For their sake, and for my own fun, I taught one of the lessons in Chinese. It was fun and challenging. Sure, my Chinese didn’t seem very “fluent” at times, because I had never done this before. But it was a good learning experience. And my Chinese friends were delighted, I think, to see me be the one struggling this time, as opposed to them struggling with English.

  21. Justin (Parasite) Says: December 7, 2005 at 11:25 pm

    OMG!@ I read the quoted section before it appeared on your blog, and I have to say — I had NO CLUE the guy was talking about folks like you, who have been there 5 years+. I was thinking it was indicating people like ME who spent one year, but have the confidence to actually make use of opportunitites to use their abilities. I remember reading it thinking “oh.. right. gotta be careful, since my confidence is finally improving, I gotta keep a throttle on it. But perhaps after 1 more year over there I’ll be good to go.” So if you think it meant people like YOU then I’ve really got a shock to my system here… 🙁 Really worried.

  22. I have found that teaching a class, a course, in a foreign language is the best way to practise/improve said foreign language.

    “It takes years and years and years to become fully proficient.” There are worse cases: it may take years and years and years of struggle to get nowhere with a foreign language. 88 above has cited examples. We also see westerners (ok, ok, some foreigners) who spend decades in China with only a “Ni-hao” and a “Shuie-shuie” to show for it. Speaking of that, a friend of mine has found that with those two phrases and a third to make up his entire Chinese vocabulary, he can handle ANY conversation in Chinese. That third phrase is “Wo-bu-dong.”

  23. Gin, I should probably rephrase myself to say, “It takes years and years and years of study, practice, and usage to become fully proficienct. Simply living in the country where the language is spoken obviously isn’t enough. Here in the US I have met Asians who immigrated here as adults and are not fluent in English because they do not use English extensively in their daily lives.

  24. To Justin (Parasite):

    I’m sure you’ve met Asians who’ve been in the States for 5 years and still don’t sound terribly eloquent when speaking. Considering that most of them had already studied English for half a decade or more back in their home countries before immigrating, is it really that surprising that even after 5 years of practicing/learning Chinese, you’d still not be as fluent as a native? Anyway, if Asian immigrants in the US can survive with their English skills, then you can survive in China as well. There’s no need to worry. Just adjust your expectations.

  25. On the other hand, one of my best friends in college was a Japanese guy who went from being unable to order food at McDonalds to getting good enough at English to be admitted into the University of Colorado as a Journalism major within two years. Three years later he graduated summa cum laude and held a job with a newspaper. Anytime his friends pointed out how hard it would be for him to cut it as a writer in a second language, he pointed out that Joseph Conrad, arguably the strongest writer of his generation, spoke English as a third language.

    Similarly, I had one American friend who’s Japanese was good enough that my Japanese roommate’s parents were sure he was Japanese after eating dinner with us. I’m sure we all know of a few whitey’s who speak Chinese well enough to be mistaken as Chinese people over the phone. I agree that it takes a long long time to reach that level, but it doesn’t really have to be gruelling work.

  26. Mark, your Japanese friend didn’t arrive in the US with zero English. His oral fluency was false beginner, but he probably knew 5,000-8,000 words of English and could read at an intermediate level. Your Japanese friend also didn’t have to persuade Americans to drop Japanese and use English whenever he conversed with them. Some foreign students have a hard time forming social relationships with Americans, so your Japanese friend certainly deserves credit for being outgoing and confident enough to seek out opportunities to improve his English.

    We language learners all wonder when we will finally feel like we’ve reached full proficiency. Perhaps it is when we are mistaken for a native speaker of the language, or at least, a member of that ethnic group. A Korean woman said to me on the telephone once, “You’re Korean, right?” She did not mean a Korean national, but rather an ethnic Korean from overseas. I speak Korean with a foreign accent and have non-native errors in usage, but I think she did not imagine that a real foreigner could speak Korean so fluently. I felt like I had made it through the door into an exclusive club. “Ha, they can’t see my white face, so they don’t know I’m not one of them.”

    The story of Joseph Conrad is inspirational. I did not know that he was Polish.

  27. John,

    The good news is that you are comparing yourself with educated Chinese which comprise less than what? one-fifth of the population? The same figure goes for other countries (oh yes, including the rich ones).

    It takes time to learn a foreign language. And it doesn’t matter how ‘fluent’ you’ve become, you’re bound to run into at least one word whose meaning is unknown to you… everyday. This however is natural–even to native speakers.

    In your pursuit to be able to converse ‘better’ in Chinese, I’d like to advise you to read extensively. English may have colloquial and formal terms, but Chinese, along with a host of other Asian languages, is much richer in this regard. Memorization can be an odious task, but it’s also argueably the fastest way to enlarge your vocab bank.

  28. John–
    I appreciate what you’re saying about your girlfriend being your girlfriend and not your English teacher. My wife doesn’t correct my mistakes either (only rarely) and we only speak Chinese. At first I was a little upset, but I understand where she is coming from, even if it is a little frustrating sometimes.

    On the other hand, I’d be really interested in what your girlfriend means by ‘meiyou wenhua.’ I mean, what is it exactly about the way you speak that makes here feel you have meiyou wenhua. The U of H translation thread recently had a discussion about how to translate meiyou wenhua. They pretty much decided on ‘illiterate’ or ‘uneducated’ depending on the context.

    My pet theory is that the difference between written Chinese and spoken Chinese is wider than the spoken and written versions of most languages. You can analyze linguistic productions semantically and syntactically as falling anywhere in a large ‘orality’ continuum, with spoken language being on one side and, in the case of Chinese, classical Chinese on the other. Obviously ‘you wenhua de ren’ would be able use chengyu, xiehou yu, excerpts from poems etc. in normal conversation with little diffculty or explanation. I’m amazed when my students have memorized whole passages of, say, sanguo.

    I remember about a year ago I was explaining the expression “like peas in a pod” to my students. One of them quoted a passage from sanguo, maybe Gin and others will know it. I think Caocao said it. It goes something like, 煮豆燃豆箕, 豆在fu中qi. 本是同根声,相煎何太急. The fu3 in the second line has a hatchet on top and tile (wa) on the bottom. The qi4 at the end of the same line has sandianshui on the left and 立 on the right. The gist is something like why should peas of the pod fight…

    Now three of my five students knew this whole poem by heart. They all had at least master’s degrees. What surprised me was what happened when I was riding the subway home with one of my students that night. She was writing the poem in my vocabulary notebook, but she couldn’t remember the whole thing. Some random guy standing next to us then supplied the last two lines and told who said the poem in sanguo and why. Another guy next to him joined in with his view–two totally unrelated strangers on the subway who also knew the poem.

    Now I think the poem makes my contribution of “like peas in a pod” seem rather quaint. And if anyone ever says to me again “Chinese people are so uneducated and uncivilized” after spending 2 or 5 or 10 years here, or whatever it is, without being able to speak enough Chinese to even realize that there is this vast cultural resevoir, then I am going to puke right there. How many college graduates in the States or Canada could quote a line from Shakespeare from heart? Having lived in Denmark and Germany, I can say Europe is a bit of another story, I suppose.

    The question is, how many of us will actually ever know enough of this stuff by heart so really seem cultured in Chinese eyes? It certainly seems like a lifetime challenge. And we may need to except that we are ‘meiyou wenhua de ren’ when we speak our native languages as well… So what exactly does your girlfriend mean when she says this? Can you pin her down?

  29. instead of 声in the third line it should of course be 生. John–maybe you could help me to correct this. And are you able to find the fu3 and qi2 characters? …

  30. “煮豆燃箕”比喻兄弟相残。《世说新语.文学》:曹操子植多才,兄丕欲除之,命七步成诗,不成则斩。植应声而成:“煮豆燃豆箕,豆在釜中泣。本是同根生,相煎何太急。”

    This poem is indeed very popular, perhaps due more to the story behind how the poem was written. In the Three-Kingdoms period, the de facto king of one of the three kingdoms, Cao Cao was a great, ambitious, and mean politician, general, and a talented poet. His son Cao Pi inherited his political traits and military power (and meaner). The other son, Pi’s brother the young Cao Zhi (aka Cao Zijian) got his literary talent and was more talented than his father is this area. In fact, Cao Zhi was called one of the only two geniuses in history upto his time. Determined to get rid of the younger sibling, Pi declared to Zhi, aren’t the greatest poet who can make a masterpiece in no time? I give you seven steps. Make me a good poem within seven steps or else face death immediately. So Zhi began: “boiling peas with fire fueled by the peas’ pods, peas cry in the wok: coming from the same root, what’s the hurry in frying each other?” It was said that Pi killed him anyway.

  31. Corrections:
    …than his father in this area…..
    …aren’t you the greatest poet….

  32. This poem is thus called 七步诗 (qi1bu4shi1) – the seven-step poem. A related 成语(cheng2yu3) is 相煎何急 (xiang1jian1he2ji2, why fry each other).

  33. Thanks Gin! It really is a wonderful story. And much easier to understand the poem when you know the story…

    At the rate I’m going it’s going to take me 30 years to read Sanguo. By then, I’ll be too old for the strategems and wisdom to be much use to me. Isn’t there a popular saying about how you shouldn’t read Sanguo in your old age and Hong Lou Meng when you’re young, because Hong Lou Meng will corrupt you and Sanguo will make you too cynical…

    So when did you learn it? Is this something that anyone who has graduated from middle school should know? Did your parents teach you?

  34. Congratualtions John, you’ve just reached another stage of your language learning. I envy your position. I’m still jostling with Mali at the local shangdian and she doesn’t know whether she should buy xiangjiao or pingguo. Good luck in this next stage of your language development. And of course, be sure to keep us posted. One thing: you mentioned that you made a lot of mistakes in your language development, that is, you wasted a lot of time. Perhaps you could write a post which summarized a good deal of your failings while trying to achieve that ever elusive fluency, and give the readers following your progress some tips so they can finally get out of the shangdian and begin talking Chinese semantics.

  35. your problem in chinese discussion is just the same as we have in discussing one particular topic in english. my teacher once said that ” i dear to say that none of you can talk deeply about one topic more than ten minutes. ” some of us may don not agree with him, but it is just the case. both you and us need to know more about the culture. I personally suggest you try to read something in chinese, it will help you to know the logic of the chinese .

  36. Aah, Laska,

    Well, every individual would have a different experience, and, as several have mentioned above, extensive reading is necessary and irreplaceable for Chinese, way more than for English. In my case in third grade or so it was lots of lian-huan-hua (连环画, illustrated story) books in probably 3rd grade and prior. Those were well done black line drawings with simple texts telling historical novels or movie scripts. Never had the money to buy, so we rented, pennies for a read right there on street-side vendors. Most of my after school, non-playing hours were spent there. Got my doses of vocabulary and what I thought was literature. From 3rd and fourth grade on, full versions of what ever old novels I could laid my hands on, which in that period was extremely difficult and darn right dangerous. For example, my first San-guo and Yue-fei were brown, tattered copies with pages missing from both front and back. So that round of reading meant reading 90%, with 15% words to look up, and understanding most of the heroes and events but

  37. but

  38. Oops, forgot the “less than” sign is a killer. Here is the rest, retyped.

    …but less than 20% of the political intrigues in San-guo. By the way, like many Chinese of my generation, this was almost exclusively where I learned my traditional characters (繁体字, fan2ti3zi4) and a fair share of my old styles (文言文, wen2yan2wen2). This continued all the way through high school but senior years saw a shift in emphasis, namely sex related materials. How I wish I had had access to any copy of Jin-ping-mei! By the time of graduation from high school, I’d say the vocabulary was 98% developed (reach my personal 100% sometime in college, but declined steadily to, haha, maybe below 60% today since coming to America). In college, I turned to unheard of things like Shakespeare (having finished several translated Charles Dickens before college) and Sherlock Holmes while picking up more ancient Chinese poems, those not taught in high school.

    Another way to learn history and literature used to be story telling from parents, elders, and professional storytellers (ping-tan in Shanghai/Jiangnan, da-gu and kuai-shu in Beijing/huabei, and shuo-shu everywhere and on radio which was really popular at times). This story about the seven-step poem was from a teacher uncle of mine. This went on a lot. I then verified it on my own with my favorite “selected chengyu stories.” Still later on, further reading told me that my uncle’s version of the poem itself was a condensed version (originally Cao Zhi had 煮豆持作羹, 漉豉以为汁, 萁在釜下燃, 豆在釜中泣. 本是同根生, 相煎何太急 but later writers soon made it four lines and a bit easier). And I learned that Cao Zhi actually died later than Cao Pi. Apparently Pi would definitely have had Zhi killed but he was short of just reason then and his “Queen Dowager” stepmother stepped in in time. My uncle was either misinformed or wanted to add some dramatic effect, so dramatic it stuck with me as the preferred ending to that story.

    And my uncle must have told me this story to teach me not to be mean to my brother, sister, and cousins. I doubt he achieved that effect…Hehee.

  39. Patrick,

    Thanks. I wish I had some good suggestions for you, but I really don’t. In fact, before I left for China, I was sort of a language rapist wannabe (for Chinese). Fortunately, I came to China, so I never had to go down that dark road.

  40. Mark,

    The vast majority of mainlanders are not critical at all. It’s rare to find the critical ones. You have to seek them out. (It’s even rarer to find critical ones with any tact, so you can’t be picky…)

  41. Frank,

    You are exactly right in your recommendation that I read more. That has been my problem for a long time. I’m working on that.

  42. Laska,

    Now that you mention it, I’m not sure exactly what my girlfriend meant… I interpreted her comment to mean that my vocabulary isn’t sophisticated enough. I’ll have to try to get it out of her.

  43. SM,

    Thanks. I will consider your suggestion, although I’m a bit reluctant to offer too much advice, because I’m well aware that I still have a ways to go yet. I’m still a 4. 🙁

  44. Gin,

    Cool story! Sorry if the text formatting threw you (you can read how Markdown works here), but please feel free to let the stories flow when the spirit moves you.

  45. Gin–Thank you for sharing that. It was really informative to read the background on your cultural development and on the ways you learned about these stories and different versions of them. It’s an interesting topic to me and I hope we have more opportunities to discuss along these lines. It’s been a long day here and I’m really tired, so I’ll have save a more thoughtful discussion for another time… So you grew up during the cultural revolution? And you are now (I’m guessing off the top of my head from previous posts) working in academia in the States? Your written English is really great–very fluent. I hope I have a chance of speaking Chinese so well some day.

    John–I wish I could graduate to “meiyou wenhua de ren.” My wife just calls me retarded. 🙂

  46. Laska, Laska, you got it all wrong!

    You had it completely reversed. Years of education and you still had it totally, one hundred eighty degrees reversed, going in exactly the opposite direction. Sure, you claimed you’d been tired and all, but still…. What can I say? I am disappointed in you. Your wife will be too, I mean. No wonder she calls you …. oh, never mind.

    I’m not trying to scare John, but it really is not the way you, Laska, projected. Instead, “meiyou wenhua de” graduates to “retarded” when gf graduates to wife.


  47. ??? Gin–After reading your last post, I have to admit I probably looked like a dog who had just been shown a card trick. But, in case you’re thanking me, you’re welcome. Dog brains like mine don’t need to understand everything.

  48. Laska, It was joking, to have some fun and, yes, to thank you.

  49. 🙂 I see. It was fun.

  50. Sonagi said:

    Mark, your Japanese friend didn’t arrive in the US with zero English. His oral fluency was false beginner, but he probably knew 5,000-8,000 words of English and could read at an intermediate level.

    You’re joking, right? He failed all his high school English classes. In our first language exchange, he asked me the meanings of “went”, “change”, and “store”. Furthermore, he was placed in the lowest level of my school’s International English Center on the basis of a written test he’d taken in Japan. I’d have put his starting vocabulary at less than that of an American student of Japanese would pick up in one semester. He did know lots of Gairaigo, but then again that helps English speakers learning Japanese even more than Japanese speakers learning English. There are no two ways about it; that guy’s language acquisition after he got to Colorado was nothing less than phenomenal.

    Your Japanese friend also didn’t have to persuade Americans to drop Japanese and use English whenever he conversed with them.

    Now, THERE you have a point! I’m convinced that there’s no way he could have done the same if Americans all kept answering his English in bad Japanese, and made him fight just to use the local language like Chinese people do. Actually, I would go so far as to say that that’s the only thing that’s really hard about Chinese compared to other languages. The characters the tones, etc. are all easily acquirable if you have the input. Kids pick them up successfully all the time. So do a heck of a lot of Asian-looking immigrants and students.

  51. Of course kids pick them up successfully. Kids pick up any language (no matter how “difficult”) easily. However, once your brain is wired a certain way, languages that are more different will be more difficult to pick up.

    Characters aren’t “hard”–just tons of memorization, reading, and writing, so very time consuming. Tones, however, are something that some people who grew up speaking non-tonal languages will always struggle with.

    BTW, you can’t blame Chinese people speaking to you in English for impeding your progress in Chinese literacy.

    I’m also unclear about which “Asian-looking” immigrants” you’re talking about. Asian-looking immigrants in China? Keep in mind that a lot of East Asian languages are tonal or stress-based, so their brains are use to keeping tones/stresses straight. Due to regional proximity, there’s also a lot of sharing of vocabulary across the cultures there. It’s the same reason why a native-English speaker would ahve an easier time picking up French than a native-Chinese speaker.

  52. In terms of the immigrants, I was thinking of Thais and Vietnamese. As far as they go, you may have a point. When I said “Asian-looking” students, I meant Americans, Germans, Russians and others of Asian ancestry (but who didn’t speak an Asian language prior to coming to Taiwan). The only advantage they have is that people don’t try to talk to them in English all the time, and I do think that’s a big advantage.

  53. John, this 没有文化 thing is very interesting. I think its true translation is not “uncultured” but “uneducated”. Have you seen all the job adverts asking for 初中文化?It is a level of education that is intended. But it sounds distinctly funny when I bump into peasants and they freely tell me that they 没有文化. No one in England will tell you he is uncultured simply because he did not have good educational opportunities as a child! I know a peasant from Guizhou living in Kunming who could not understand what was happening when the man guarding my building told me I had received a 包裹. Apparently, although he is Han Chinese, he had never heard of the term, and didn’t know what the 裹 character meant! Your girlfriend is probably telling you that she can converse with you as easily as with a peasant who got very sparse schooling!! In actual fact, that is not bad, as peasants have good conversational Chinese, but just not the high-level stuff you may need at university.

  54. DJW,

    Yeah, Todd said it already, and I agree. I was sloppy on that one.

  55. heh heh, next time someone says “Hello!” you can say, “你别hello,说不定我的普通话讲得比你好!”

  56. oops, no 的, right?

  57. “laowais” don’t have the market cornered on showing off.
    I believe there would be a mass of angry replies if someone posted the same remarks about some Chinese people’s Enlgish ability. As a teacher in an American University I must say the same can be said for a large amount of students from the PRC and Taiwan. Many times I have had to clarify misunderstandings due to Chinese graduate students’ poor knowledge of English. Both sides of the fence are the same. There is no contest in language learning and a semantic arguement concerning the meaning of fluency is futile. As stated above there are many native speakers of Mandarin who would be clueless in a Mandarin buisness meeting. Same can be said of many native English speakers concerning meetings conducted in English. Labeling an entire group of people as show offs simply because they are trying to use what they know is a little bit harsh. It is a nice way to shame someone into discouragement in thier language learning however.

    • jeronimo Says: June 9, 2014 at 6:16 pm


      To be honest, this sums up my views on foreigners speaking Chinese perfectly. There is no monopoly on arrogance or delusions of fluency and one English teacher I know even has her local teaching assistant make suggestions on word usage or spelling in class (which without exception turned out to be incorrect). The TA has an English degree but that doesn’t mean she got a degree in tact too. The difference is I think it would be completely okay to ask questions of word usage in Chinese if done with even a little bit of tact and Kakis’ post is very harsh and even a little snobbish. To be honest it’s very rewarding to even speak a little Mandarin with proficient speakers when you are learning it. It doesn’t mean you’re a show-off.

  58. One thing I wonder about: in many fields, but especially in business culture, acronyms are standard practice. It’s a sort of secret language you have to learn whenever you cross borders into another company, their local patois. How does that funtion in Chinese? Do they have such shortenings? My guess from reading Chinese is that they don’t have such things, that they repeat the whole phrase, which looks somewhat ridiculous in English translation. I can just imagine a Mandarin translation of a French newspaper; there they assume that every person knows the meaning of any particular acronym and they throw them into the story without ever mentioning that, for instance, MSF is Medicins sans frontieres (to use a banal and totally made up example).

  59. […] think this has an obvious application to self-perceptions of foreign language fluency, as well. I know I exhibited some Dunning-Kruger effects after my first year of studying Chinese. […]

  60. Yifeng (Frank) Says: June 23, 2007 at 12:08 pm

    I have similar experience as Gin for my culture developments. Since there were not too many stuff in childhood, I picked up “lian-huan-hua” (illustrated books, something like American comic books but with far more historical contents), classical novels at very earlier ages. Before I went to junior middle school (age 12), I think I had done reading most of Chinese classics. In junior middle school, then I expanded to foreign translated literature such as Charles Dickens’ series, novels from some great French, Russian novelists or short novels from O’Henry and etc.

    Of course, in junior and senior middle school, we also go through the traditional style Chinese such as articles, prose and poems. I think “educated” people may easily use some traditional style Chinese (wen-yan-wen) in the conversation. The benefit of traditional Chinese is its ability to zip a lot of information into much shorter sentences. The shortcoming is that it needs long time of learning. That is why the Communist Government asks to use “bai-hua-wen” (basically conversation Chinese) to make it easier.
    However, the most beautiful part of Chinese is its ability to condense information in its traditional Chinese. So normally “bai-hua-wen” writing is much easier to be done compared with “traditional-Chinese” writing.

    Anyway, I think level of my Chinese peaks around my junior high and begins to go downhill in Senior high (all those college entrance exam pressures) and becomes far worse in University. Now the level of my Chinese now is even worse than my level at my University time. I do not think I have read much in Chinese literature (not include reading Chinese novels written in the past 60 years, I consider them current style: bai-hua-wen) for quite some time. I used to be able to write articles in traditional Chinese style at ease and quote poems, sentences, and proses from classical pieces at ease. Now, I may still be able to write one but in great difficulty, since the ability to quote those easily and connect one piece over the other becomes much more degenerated. What a pity.

    Now I have been in the States for quite some time. The only thing is improved is my English Skills. So that is something at least I can be proud of, right? 🙂

  61. Yifeng (Frank) Says: June 23, 2007 at 12:33 pm

    I might provide one example of “educated” conversation. Please correct me if I am wrong. For example, you are talking about war in some country with your Chinese friends. In that country, several war lords fight each other for the presidency or ultimate control. If some one expresses his/her opinion in the following terms,


    he may be considered a “educated” one. Basically, it means that “Qin empire has lost its deer (referring to the power of controlling the country), the whole country is fighting for such deer (meaning to gain that privilege of such power, or to be the new emperor). The one who is quickest will grab it. Of course, you can understand “quickest” in many ways such as: smartest, using the opportunities in a perfect way to defeat its enemies and get to its goal or etc.

    The original piece of such quote is from (史记淮阴侯列传):

    However, that should be among conversation within equally-versed people. If you talk such piece with uneducated people, you will confused them since they have no clue what you are talking about. Moreover, normally Chinese people will almost never speak in that way to a foreigner during a regular conversation. It is just like Americans will also use simpler English when talking with a foreigners than with another fellow Americans.

  62. Sweet God, what a bunch of self-righteous wankers. Yep, I admire your linguistic abilities, but I\’d never want to have a beer at a ball game with ya\’ll. Bet you\’d say the same about me, too…

  63. Yifeng (Frank) Says: June 23, 2007 at 1:37 pm


  64. Yifeng (Frank) Says: June 23, 2007 at 1:53 pm

    for cancun:

    Of course a relaxed conversation during ball game is an important way to communicate with your friends. However, if that type of conversions are all you have in your entire life, then I do not know what to say.

    I hate to say people are divided into different classes: by wealth, by education, by ability and etc. In the aspect of intellectual communications, you may never know how deficient you are. Of course, people can be dumb and still lead a happy life, right? I believe a lot farmers never read novels by Charles Dickens, Luo Guanzhong, Shakespeare, never know the earth is round, they may still be very happy and may also be millionaires as well.

    If you are American or of western background and you never know O’Henry, Edgar Allan Poe, Charles Dickens or Victor Hugo, then seriously you have some problem with your education. It is just like as a Chinese, you have no clue who Cao Xueqin is. You may be a laughing stock if you say “which team he is playing for?” if some your friend ever pops up the name: Edgar Allan Poe.

    Of course, your friends may never do so if they are also all deficient in this regard.

  65. Yifeng (Frank) Says: June 23, 2007 at 1:59 pm

    oh, it is for that “canrun” person, not “cancun”.

  66. Hm,

    Is it seriously that bad to learn Mandarin?
    Is it that hard to achieve true fluency?
    I have learnt

    I as Indonesian have had a chance to study in Australia before and would consider myself as reasonably apt when it comes to English.
    Then again, this much fluency and “sense” is achieved through years of watching TV show like 24, Top Gear and joining forums after forums to hone my sense on real world English.

    Still, It’s just that I feel my English instinct is just quick NOT instant, like my Indonesian. By almost any miles, Indonesian to Chinese is even more a world apart than Indonesian to English.
    Indonesian is quite simply the most simplistic language (for English speaker at least) you can ever imagine, for a couple following reasons:
    1. grammatical rule can be disobeyed in so many cases (in spoken Indonesian at least) and yet the sentence would still make perfect sense!
    2. Huge number of heavily simplified loan words from English. In English both words like form and phobia have “f” sound as the initial consonant but of course you have to know which one starts with an “f” or “ph”. This is just not the case with Indonesian. All similar instances in Indonesian will always start with an “f”. If this is not it, then what else is? This already gives me miles ahead head start in learning English.

    Anyone care for some opinion on my thought?

  67. […] That’s because a realistic expectation for learning Mandarin to true fluency might be twenty years – and many people continually delude themselves along the way. […]

  68. Being fluent at a “social” level is obviously different from being fluent in a professional field, and we all agree on that. I consider myself to be fluent in spoken English, but everytime I try to bring my English level as high as my level of Italian, I fail. Also, sometimes it happens that I need to read twice or more a post written by highly educated native English speakers (like the China Law Blog).
    The thing is, in the Chinese language case is even more difficult. Foreigners don’t just want to “show off” their “poor” and “unprofessional” Chinese….apparently Kakis does not realize how hard is learning such a language from a foreign point of view. It seldom happened to me to meet some Chinese professionals whose level of English was pretty high, but as I said, this comes one in a million times – and they are usually from Hong Kong. Fact.

  69. When people say “Oh your Chinese is really good” I say “it’s good enough for travel but not enough for business”.. and that’s basically the crux of it. I can get by no problems.. but put me in a room with native speakers and I am lost within the first couple of minutes unless they are talking about very mundane things. I am the first person to admit I am not fluent.. not even close.. but I will try to use it as much as I can.. and if that comes across as me being arrogant or showing off, then so be it.. it’s the only way I am going to learn. 🙂

  70. LOL!!!

    I like what SS said to you

    See you soon

  71. thanks for the urine in the cheerios.

  72. David Moser Says: April 17, 2012 at 1:12 am

    Amen, amen, and AMEN to this. You know how we routinely see people like Henry Kissinger, who speak English with an accent, but can conduct conversations at a very high level with a comprehensive mastery of grammar and vocabulary that is close to native level? I can count on the fingers of one hand the Mandarin-speaking foreigners I’ve run into who are at that level of fluency. And I’m not one of them.

  73. ExpatinBeijing Says: April 22, 2012 at 9:25 pm

    Just stumbled across this post and had to comment as this issue of Laowai’s delusions of fluency has been bugging me a lot recently. After 2 years of study in my home country I moved to China to undertake a year-long intensive language program. I am baffled by the number of laowais living/studying in China who delude themselves into thinking their 口语 is fluent after only a couple of years of study. Many seem to think it is OK to simply memorize large lists of vocabulary and string them together with 这个 and 那个, with complete disregard to grammar and pronunciation. It is not their poor Chinese that bothers me, it is the “I’m so awesome” attitude they have while speaking Chinese. I’m not bragging about my own Chinese, far from it, my 口语 is not much better than theirs and I can only manage the most basic of conversations, but I spend a lot of time focusing on developing correct pronunciation and have an input before output approach to learning, therefore I don’t spend nearly as much time speaking as the above mentioned laowais as I prefer not to attempt blabbering off in Chinese unless I am quite sure what I am saying is grammatically correct, for fear of developing a bad grammatical habit. To many other laowais I appear to struggle with my Chinese, but the fact is that when I do decide to open my mouth, what I say is usually correct and with good pronunciation, and gradually, with patience and continuous listening/reading, my 口语 naturally develops on its own. My point is, many Laowais need to realize that Chinese isn’t something you can master in a couple of years, it takes time. Having these delusions of fluency at such an early stage in their learning will only hinder their overall progress.

  74. […] the same time, I found a blog post that fairly accurately describes where I am, and from which I took the English title for this post. My Chinese isn’t as good as the […]

  75. When and how did u feel u broke through this point, John, and did you believe there was a particular moment you knew you were beyond it?

  76. […] of work? This is the “unjustified confidence” I’ve talked about before in my post Laowai Delusions of Fluency. It helps to stay humble, and honest feedback is […]

  77. I appreciated reading this. After 2.5 years of Japanese I am very happy with my ability to live in Japan and have relationships entirely in Japanese. No problem talking all day long about any topic. But then watch the news and I can understand maybe 70%. Join a group of students and I can’t follow their conversation, let alone contribute. Anything outside of everyday chat, whether it be about a new video game or the plot of a movie, or about nuclear power or chemical reactions… I can get by, but I sound like a retard.

    The main problem is active recall of vocabulary (which is different to recongition)… there’s just so much though, and I don’t want to do English->Japanese flashcards for the thousands of words I might want to use ‘someday’. Any ideas…?

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