Flawed Plan

From Twitter, ajatt says:

> Another problem with going to the country to learn the language is that by design, just as your skill is peaking, it’s time to leave.

I can attest to that. It’s one of the big reasons I never left China.

I once did have a plan to stay in various countries for relatively short periods of time, just long enough to gain fluency. It does make me wonder… who is heartless enough to leapfrog across the globe, mastering one language after another, gaining precious insight into those cultures, only to leave each one behind?


John Pasden

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


  1. This is a good observation that I had not really thought about. For me, my connection with China and Chinese language comes from friends in Canada and more recently, business connections with China. I haven’t had the opportunity to spend extended time in China until this year. I’m glad that I have some roots with the language even though I am not ethnic Chinese. When I am leave China, it won’t be like ending a summer romance–I’ll still have a connection. There is always the possibility I will spend more time in China. Maybe if business is really bad in the next few years I’ll be eager to spend more time in a country with a lower cost of living.

  2. I would be that heartless if I could retain all the linguistic and cultural knowledge I gained in each country, but I’d have to return to the previous countries often, for short periods, in order to maintain what was gained.

  3. apiccion Says: March 4, 2009 at 2:44 am

    Someone who doesn’t care about future family financial planning or retirement.

  4. Word๏ผI know how that feels. I think that for me the solution is just to specialize. I think English, Spanish, Mandarin and Japanese will be good enough for me.

  5. I think it was a big advantage for me to come to China after a few years of learning the language back in the States: if I’d come here with no foundation, I might well have never learned anything beyond the usual “another beer” etc. that many expats pick up here. I do think there’s something to be said for gaining a foundation before doing the immersion thing.

  6. Wow, I couldn’t agree more; at first my plan was “If I can learn Chinese, I can learn anything! I’ll go on and study Spanish, German, Korean, etc.!” But now that I can speak Chinese, I’ve also learned so much about the culture and the people that it would be hard to move on…

  7. Brendan, really? I can think of several people with a fraction of your linguistic talent who came here with no foundation in Chinese who have made it quite some distance past “another beer, please”. Still, I see your point on the advantage of having a foundation in the language before you arrive.

  8. I definitely agree with Brendan. I’ve been learning Chinese on my own for a while now, focusing on learning characters (about a thousand so far) and words plus I am having a linguistic exchange with a Chinese girl. Of course I could have been in China as a tourist at the very beginning of my “apprenticeship” of Chinese. Now I finally made up my mind to go there (would stay only two weeks)… but next year :-), which lets me enough time to learn more characters and to expand my vocabulary :-))) It’s like, I want to get the most of it out there and be able to communicate a bit in Chinese with local people.

  9. Alberto Says: March 5, 2009 at 9:54 am

    To answer your question:
    The Devil.
    As described in popolar culture, by Bulgakov in The Master and Margarita, or by The Rolling Stones, for example. He does such thing. And if I were him I’d do exactly the same, but then again, I don’t have so much time on my hands, so I’m forced to specialize.
    Anyway, kudos to ajatt, well spotted really.

  10. Hehe.. My Chinese skills are very limit at this time but I’ll be in China by myself in just under 2 weeks. Staying a month and moving around a lot, as you do when you want to see everything on a limited schedule and budget. ๐Ÿ™‚

    I doubt I will gain anything close to fluency but I’ll have fun mixing it with the locals I think. This past week I have seen my confidence in “trying” to speak the language grow in leaps and bounds just because I know it’s going to help when I arrive.

    I’m going to make a bunch of mistakes but I am getting used to that and not seeing it as failure so much anymore but rather as a successful ‘attempt’. I say to myself afterwards ‘well I got that bit right, and after I repeated myself she understood’ etc ๐Ÿ™‚

    Just today I ordered pearl milktea almost completely in mandarin. And when I went to the the sichuan restaurant here in Sydney I was able to handle the weird looks and eat my mapo doufu without dropping anything! Then at the end I signalled the waitress and said ‘da bao’ and so she brought me a container to take my remaining food home! ๐Ÿ™‚

    Its so much fun to know another language!

  11. I think the key is to ensure that Chinese (or whatever your language may be) remain part of your life once you go back to the country. Fortunately for Chinese learners, you can basically do this anywhere in the world where there are Chinese people, which basically means anywhere in the world. I left China (officially) and moved to Chicago about a year and a half ago, but between, work, Chinese friends in the US, and QQ, use Chinese just about every day. It certainly takes a little effort (think of those Chinese people who seek out every possible opportunity to communicate with the laowai), but can be done…assuming you aren’t lazy.

  12. There are indeed people who jump from one country to another learning the languages and moving on, but I don’t think I would want to be one of them. It seems like a rather lonely life.

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