Foreigners like us don’t want to just survive or get by in Mandarin. Can you imagine, wherever you live, not having enough English to share your thoughts and feelings with people? Sure, you can buy groceries and understand directions, but what about sharing with friends about one another’s family life and other relationships, and all the struggles and joys that come with it? I would love to be able to discuss face, Confucianism, history, nationalism, family issues, individualism and interdependency, etc. in Chinese with Chinese people. Or at least imagine seeing traces of them in the nuances of the conversation. If we’re going to actually live in China – rather than merely exist as some sort of long-term, permanently clueless tourists – we have to really learn Mandarin well.
But attempting to learn Mandarin well is like training to swallow the ocean. That could be said about learning any foreign language, I suppose, but for native English speakers, Chinese is not just another Spanish or Swahili; the cultural/linguistic distance is significantly greater. After three years of full-time study a good student can expect to have poor Chinese, or in the more positive terms of Martin Symonds, the linguist who writes our textbooks, “a good foundation.” Comparing your progress to the average Western language student is one thing; your level of proficiency in the eyes and ears of native speakers is another.
Martin Symonds is a linguist who’s lived in Chinese cultures for decades and is the author of our textbook series. Here’s how he laid out realistic expectations in a journal article, regarding what a good student can expect to achieve with full-time language study in a good program in China:
|Full-time Mandarin Study|
|# of years||1||2||4||8||!??!|
|Proficiency Level||Survival||Daily Living||Minimum Work||Full Work||Native|
Apparently unless you’re some sort of mutant, you can’t learn Chinese in two years, or three years. Three years of full-time study gets you bad Chinese/”a good foundation.” Sure, you can wow your visiting friends and family and garner lots of compliments from the locals, but really being able to work, live, and love in Chinese is a whole nother deal.
We were privileged recently to have individual 90 minute sessions with Martin. Part of what he does is travel around and give coaching to the students who are using his materials. His experience helps paint realistic expectations for us. He assessed our progress, helped map out our learning strategies, and unreservedly affirmed our commitment to do what it takes to really learn this language well. A little sobering, but encouraging. After all…