Thoughts on Scott Young’s Immersion Experiment

I recently published a guest post by Scott Young, who just spent about three months in China, attempting to stay immersed in Chinese the whole time (even while traveling with his non-Chinese friend, Vat). I didn’t comment on my own interactions with Scott, though, or my thoughts on his experiment. So I’ll do that now.

Here’s a video we took in the (then) empty office next to the AllSet Learning office. We were plagued by technical problems, but Vat’s persistence got us through.

On “No English”

I was expecting that Scott would be taking a break from his “immersion” while talking to me and talk to me in English. We had exchanged emails before we met in person, and it was all in English. But no, from the get-go, Scott spoke nothing but Chinese to me. (And Vat too.) So we talked for quite a while (before and after the video), and it was all entirely in Chinese.

I part of me finds this weird. I suppose it’s because it violates the “efficiency” principle I talk about in my language power struggle post. We both knew that we could communicate absolutely effortlessly in English.

But he was a man on a mission, with a “no English” rule, and I totally respected that. In fact, It’s becoming less and less weird for me to think of Chinese as an international language. Chinese is the language of our office, and I speak to our (non-Chinese) interns mostly in Chinese as well (as long as they’re not absolute beginners).

On Studying before You Arrive

Me, Scott, Vat

Scott mentions that he had studied Chinese for 105 hours before coming to China. Vat didn’t. I’m sure there are other factors at play, but there was a noticeable difference between Scott’s and Vat’s Chinese levels. I think Scott was also putting more time into Chinese in China (Vat also had video and architecture-related interests to pursue). But the head start undoubtedly helped Scott a lot.

This is a common thread I’ve seen in a lot of success stories, though: for China, in particular, prior study seems to help immensely. I’ve heard and discussed with friends theories about having to deal with the “triple threat” of (1) unfamiliar language, (2) tones, and (3) Chinese characters leading to higher levels of frustration when tackling Chinese. In fact, it’s a good reason to delay studying characters a bit, if it means less frustration and a stronger foundation in pinyin and pronunciation.

I had three semesters of Chinese before setting foot in China. I sure struggled when I got here, but I was essentially focusing entirely on listening and pronunciation for the first couple of months. I knew pinyin, had the grammar basics down, and knew all the characters I needed for a while. I know that focus helped me tremendously.

On Preventing Friendships

In the guest post, Scott states:

> What matters is that you are not speaking English to prevent: (1) Forming friendships with people who can’t or won’t speak Chinese….

This is key, but it seems quite harsh. Can you imagine bumping into Scott while traveling around China, trying to strike up a friendly conversation with him about areas in Yunnan he’d recommend visiting, and being totally blown off by him in Chinese? Would you be heartless enough to similarly rebuff a friendly fellow traveller? This is exactly what Scott is advocating, though: “prevent[ing] forming friendships with people who can’t or won’t speak Chinese.”

I know that Scott is right, though. I also know people that have followed less extreme versions of this policy in order to make the most of their time in China, although those people tended to have more than just three months, so a few conversations here and there weren’t a huge deal. And then there’s the “expat bubble” crowd, of course. Most of those people didn’t intentionally form the bubble; it just “kind of happened.”

When I first started teaching at my first job in China at Zhejiang University City College (ZUCC), my only co-workers were four Australians. I fully expected those guys would be my new friends, and I was excited to finally get to know some Aussies. But they cruelly brushed me off; they were a tight-knit group, and not at all interested in letting me in. So I was on my own, lonely, and motivated to learn Chinese. I hung out with my Chinese roommate a lot. I studied. I went out and practiced with random people. I made more Chinese friends. I learned Chinese. I was kind of lucky, really.

This is one of those personality things, though. I’d be curious to hear from readers who have tried this, whether successful or not, and what the results were.


John Pasden

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


  1. Frank Fradella Says: June 27, 2014 at 10:11 am

    For the six months I was in China, I didn’t have a hard and fast rule about who I would and wouldn’t speak to. I had English speaking friends, but I wasn’t the most social guy in the country. I spoke English when my friends were speaking English, but when I was on my own — in restaurants, in cabs, at the store — I spoke Chinese.

    I didn’t put any real effort into getting better. I didn’t “study” at all. But when I left six months later, my Chinese had markedly improved. I’d be keen to try the “no English” approach for a month or two and see where it gets me.

  2. John,

    Thanks for the follow-up comments. A couple thoughts:

    1. Yes, we did speak in Chinese, but as I mentioned in the post, our no-English rule wasn’t entirely successful (mostly from interactions between Vat and myself). When using the no-English rule to learn Spanish, I found it very effective and only mildly annoying, whereas it was incredibly difficult to implement in China. I don’t doubt that had our project’s predefined mission been to not speak English, I probably would have abandoned that stringency much earlier on.

    2. Studying beforehand is hugely important. I did 105 hours before China, but probably 200 would have been ideal from a no-English standpoint as it was still a couple weeks of aggressive studying before the minimal interactions were feasible for making friends. I’m facing a similar obstacle in Korean, which I did even less prior preparation for, and as a result I’m largely doing non-immersive studying before I have a level where keeping the conversation in Korean is really possible with people who speak English well.

    Again, this is a difference I noticed from European languages where the initial phase of near-zero functional ability is fairly short, so going to the country with low ability isn’t a serious problem. In China, it made up at least half of my stay, despite aggressive studying in China and 100+ hours of prior prep.

    I think a year of formal study of Chinese in a classroom (at the pace that classroom learning typically results in), or 150-200 hours of private study including regular conversation practice using would be the sweet spot of prior practice so that you could jump into the no-English rule without enduring months of self-enforced isolation.

    1. Regarding other English-speaking expats, I wasn’t so cruel in China (although I did pretend I couldn’t speak English in Spain!). As people universally expect white people to be fluent English speakers in China, I would have some conversations with people in English, I just tried not to form friends with those people or hang out with them later if I could avoid it. This is definitely a hard rule to implement, but I’ve seen the result of ignoring it–many people who only have other expat friends and can’t speak a word of Chinese. If you’re serious about learning Chinese, I’m not sure which is worse, some chance social awkwardness or a couple years of frustrated learning attempts?

    2. Speaking of which, I also noticed you seemed a little surprised speaking to us in Chinese. That’s an issue I felt magnified greatly in China compared with other European countries where I quite often spoke with people who were English-natives in Spanish, French or Portuguese without it seeming weird. Chinese definitely has more of culture surrounding it that it is used only for communication with Chinese people. Vat and I speaking to each other in Chinese struck other Chinese people as being far stranger than when we insisted on speaking other languages together as a learning strategy. Hopefully, Chinese will continue becoming a more popular second language and this will start to change.

    Thanks again for the interview and follow-up comments!


  3. Stavros Says: June 27, 2014 at 3:44 pm

    I have been studying Chinese for many years, sometimes intensively and other times insanely. Or maybe a cross between both. As for the no-English rule, I will say this: if you have a certain level, ie advanced beginner is enough, you can negotiate meaning in the target language with a trained teacher who is a native speaker. A learner should be thoughtful enough to know that they are asking the native speaker to chop and change their speech, to repeat and recast and rephrase sentence, all of which is quite taxing on both parties.

    As for meeting people on the street, be it Chinese nationals or members of the expat community, make your choices. You could meet some very interesting Chinese who have very polished English – or you could meet an absolute babe who insists on speaking her broken English; who are you to refuse her because you have a “no English” rule? Why miss out on the chance to make friend or should I say fweind? The same applies to the expat crowd.

    Just one thing: sure, it is far more socially acceptable for Chinese – or for all Asians – to learn English as opposed to Westerners learning Chinese. This is something that dedicated learners choose to ignore because they know in their heart of hearts that it holds them back. Be that as it may this is real and present and it is enough to put beginners off.

    What the above indicates how difficult it is for us to shake off our own cultural conditioning; after all, language is only sound with meaning, and the is meaning applied.

    John, apologies for the Aussies.

    Well done Scott. You’ve shown more young people that learning Chinese is indeed doable. Good luck with your other language learning adventures.

  4. you’re so 帅, John! 帅呆了!;)

    Language Power struggle post is going in my next newsletter, brotha 🙂 Thanks for the material ;p

  5. Jeez, is it really that important to pretend to not to be able to speak English? Is it going to ruin your learning experience to have a chat with someone? Immersion, sure, but that builds up your speaking hours quickly. It doesn’t subtract from that time when you tell someone how to get to the bus station. Hey, I used to do “no English days” when I was in Japan, too, but damn I didn’t pursue it to the point of being a jerk to people.

    It is not too terribly difficult at all to meet people who don’t speak a word of English in China. In fact, the country is chock full of them.

  6. One of the things I like about my tiny city of Zhangjiagang is that there aren’t many foreigners here, and it’s really easy to avoid the expat bubble. An advantage of living in a small town I guess, if that’s what you’re looking for.

    When it comes to speaking with Chinese friends, I usually insist on Chinese upon first meeting someone, but once we’ve developed a closer friendship I’m ok with speaking English.

  7. What does ‘105 hours’ really mean? Is it only instruction time? Does it include study after the lessons, i.e. homework, listening to multimedia content on your own? Still, his level is good for that amount of time. When I started to learn Chinese in Taiwan, I remember encountering foreigners who would ignore other foreigners, almost with an air of disdain. Although learning Mandarin was extremely important to me, my observation of those types was a good wake-up call to maintain perspective. I still associated primarily with Chinese, but I didn’t blow off foreigners if I happened to encounter them in a social situation.

  8. I’d like to encourage everybody in such an immersion experience … anybody who has learned almost the basics of Chinese language … and who is willing to improve & practice even still with fear of speaking.
    After (myself quite lazy) learning Chinese for one and a half year, I was invited to travel to China. I had a week for myself in Beijing before meeting my Chinese teacher and family … and so “by accident” I bumped into a friendly chinese person who helped me to survive this one week … without speaking any foreign languagee, just Chinese. It was a great frustration (listening to my own Chinese) plus a great experience (having a polite listener) some hours everyday. I’ve lost my fear of speaking step by step and learned quickly to describe by symbols almost everything what I still couldn’t express correctly in Chinese. This helped me a lot in superfast learning and practicing new vocabulary. My pencil filled my small ever present pocketbook quickly, even with chengyu and other crazy daily language stuff. Finally it became fun and next years I was travelling many, many times to China, living and surviving always in a pure Chinese speaking environment.

  9. Friends first.
    Language second.

    We all are 着急 to improve our Chinese, especially in the early days of learning.

    Still, balance, reasonableness, and a long term approach is far far more effective.

    Be it Benny and his rediculous claim to master Manadarin in 90 days… these stories are simply old news and highly predictable as to the results.

    One of the most powerful draws of John amd sinosplice from the beginning was the “slow and steady” motta… vs. all the hype and nonesense associated with folks trying to learn Chinese in ten minutes.

    Bottom line, no surpise scott seems to be moving on to korean already based on the reply above.

    Today’s market demands excellence and mastery in something… which is harder and harder to find. Far too many jack of all trades, master of none. Most especially this seems true with expats and their half-baked Chinese. Sigh.

    • Stavros Says: July 3, 2014 at 6:15 pm

      The main point of this guest post was to encourage newbies to get started. Employing a strategy certainly helps. The first three months make a difference, and it is the period in intensive learning where s learner must have what they perceive to be as positive experiences. Three months is not enough to learn a language – it is still the honeymoon period. After the culture shock has set in and life becomes routine, intensive learning – and finding those continuous positive experiences – gets harder and harder.

      In my view, these two posts have been about employing strategy, and how it has been regarded from various people. It should be said, new learners require all the encouragement they can get. When I began, I simply bulldozed my way through in the hope of getting better. But Scott’s methods – which are written about in more detail on hackingchinese – appear to be sound, and worth taking note of.

      The long term learners may scoff at those who jump in and out of languages. I myself did so privately, always reminding myself of your own sentiments. Seldom do you come across the likes of John Pasden, the types who have embedded Chinese to the extent they can conduct their entire professional lives through Chinese and also have a mature and life long relationship strictly in their foreign language. I see the above constantly in English, and most English native speakers don’t even bat an eye, but only demand the excellence you have touched on.

      But lets not make Chinese learners an elitist fraternity for the few and dedicated. We all learn languages for various reasons, some love splashing around the shallow ends and others like to dive in the deep and never come up for air.

      In the early days, we all need to validate our study efforts. An excellent way is finding willing listeners, who may be native speakers or advanced speakers such as John. Sure enough, in approaching John, Scott calculated that his efforts would be supported. Both John and Scott have promoted their own interests and also pushed forward the discussion of Chinese language learning.

      However, the following must be said: In having read some of his blog entries and watched some of his youtube videos, Scott is obviously a life-long learner who knows how to promote himself and his ideas. With speaking only in Chinese to John Pasden, Scott has robbed John of a chance to have interesting conversation in English about all kinds of topics. I can understand John’s point: all their correspondence was in English, so he could safely assume that he was going to engage with Scott in English face to face. But little did he know that Scott was too focused on his language studies.

      Perhaps in order to make a success of oneself and to validate one’s efforts, you need to tread on a few toes. With Korea having “strict” cultural traits, one can only wonder how Scott will fair. Will his assertiveness be met with a valid response or will he be rebuffed as too direct and aggressive?

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