Chinese proficiency in 1.7 years — *really*?

New Year’s is a great time to plan out language learning goals. But it helps to be smart about it.

There’s a language study infographic floating around comparing the difficulty of various languages for native English speakers. It says you need 1.69 years/2,200 classroom hours to reach proficiency in Chinese:

People always disagree about how long it takes to learn Chinese, mostly because they talk about it with mushy terms: “learn Chinese”, “speak Chinese”, “know Chinese”, “fluent”, “proficient”, etc. I’m not gonna bother arguing with this graphic’s fuzzy term, but here are four other somewhat authoritative takes on how much time you need to learn Chinese. Accurate language learning expectations are important, so it’s well worth comparing.

Linguist John Pasden’s Sinosplice post “How long does it take to get fluent in Chinese?” quotes two Chinese experts. First, Da Shan aka Mark Rowswell aka the most famous foreigner in China:

2 years to lie on your resume and hope no Chinese speaker interviews you for a job…

5 years for basic fluency, but with difficulty.

10 years to feel comfortable in the language.

Second, Chinese linguist Dr. 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.
[...]
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.

Third, Joann Pittman, consultant, trainer, teacher, researcher, and writer with 28 years in China shares some research stats in her post, “How Long Does it Take to Learn Chinese?” Among her conclusions:

Even though I started ‘learning’ Chinese 22 years ago, I don’t yet consider myself to have ‘learned’ Chinese
[...]
a learner with average aptitude should plan to spend 50 weeks (@30 hours per week) to reach limited working proficiency level

Fourth, linguist and Chinese textbook author Martin Symonds in our post, “Learning Mandarin: Realistic Expectations”:

Full-time Mandarin Study
# of years1248!??!
Proficiency LevelSurvivalDaily LivingMinimum WorkFull WorkNative

Like Joann says, the point isn’t to scare people off or kill their enthusiasm for learning Chinese, but to give them realistic expectations so they can become better language learners, and craft their study according to their language goals.

There’s lots more in our Learning Mandarin topic.

Make civilized students.
Constantly use the Common Speech. Everywhere use civilized language

文明学生
时时普通话处处文明

The 2013 Grinch Award (is for your educational benefit)

Just because a Chinese Christian is in trouble doesn’t mean they’re in trouble just because they’re a Christian. Their Christianity may have something to do with it, or it may have almost nothing to do with. China being as it is, the “whys” are usually a little more complicated and a lot more pragmatic. This is not the Mao Era.

I haven’t gone searching for instances of Christmastime crackdowns this year. But this one did cross my news feed, and it’s a fine example for helping people see that “China cracks down on a church” stories are not necessarily a case of a communist atheocracy’s thought police persecuting ideological dissenters. I’m not saying that ideologically-driven persecution doesn’t ever happen in today’s China, just that for any given instance chances are far greater it’s:

  • [a] motivated by something more tangible than ideology (like money, land or face; they probably aren’t being harassed just because they’re Christians), and
  • [b] initiated by local, not the central, authorities.

In this one, it appears that greedy local authorities won’t give a local church the land that’s owed them (land grabs are hardly uncommon in China), so the church has lawyered up, and the local authorities are not taking that very well.

If we look at the details the picture that emerges isn’t so much one of snuffing out Christmas or Christianity; it’s about fighting/punishing a local organization who refuses to let the gov’t take its land without a fight.

Crackdown stymies China church’s Christmas meeting

The canceled meeting at the church in Henan province’s Nanle county came during a month-long crackdown on the church over a land dispute that pits its popular preacher against the county government [...]

…their pastor, Zhang Shaojie, and more than a dozen of his aides have been detained by police for more than a month and denied access to their lawyers…

The case has drawn the scrutiny of rights lawyers and activists who say it exposes a county government’s ability to act with impunity against a local Christian church even if it is state-sanctioned. Supporters of the church say the county government reneged on an agreement to allocate it a piece of land for the construction of a new building, leaving them without a place of worship.

Now, it could be that this local government is on an illegal ideological witch hunt. It’s not like that hasn’t happened before in China. But, China being as it is, it’s much more likely that the local authorities see an opportunity to essentially steal land from a group whom they’ve calculated does not have the power to fight back and win. Land disputes in China are common as, well, dirt. Even we’ve known of legal, registered churches in land disputes with local authorities in both Chinese cities we’ve called home.

Anyway, point being that when you hear a Chinese church persecution story you must look at the details. These days Chinese Christians are relatively rarely persecuted for their beliefs themselves (generally speaking). More often it’s because of something related (or even unrelated): their church bucked the status quo, the government wants their land, they said something to foreign reporters that ticked off someone of consequence, they embarrassed the authorities by doing too much public charity, they caused trouble for the authorities by fighting injustice in the courts or media, there’s bad local history involving churches, the church leaders have bad/no guanxi, etc., etc. Some of those things are related to or a result of their Christianity, some aren’t. But either way, it’s much different from going after a group just because they call themselves Christians. In the above AP story, it’s apparently a legal, registered, “government-run” Three-Self Patriotic Church that’s in trouble.

Local officials don’t care what people believe; they care about money and about their careers — and if your group does something to mess with either of those two things (by not letting them rob you, or potentially making them look bad to their superiors), you risk retaliation.

Previous Grinch Awards:

***–> More on not thinking simplistically about Christianity in China: <--***

Cross-cultural Incarnation — your identity across cultures

Some Christmastime thoughts on trying to live authentically and meaningfully in a culture not your own. Because the Incarnation (God being born human as baby Jesus), whether you think it’s true or not, is an interesting way to think about living cross-culturally.


(Chinese shepherds visit Chinese baby Jesus)

It’s one thing to study the transmission and transformation of ideas and behaviours across cultural contexts. Those are issues that anyone working cross-culturally has to deal with no matter what field they’re in, whether they realize it or not. But what about how crossing cultures affects your personal identity?

As the outsiders

Here’s a bit from God Spares Not the Branches, an insightful (understatement!) exploration of cross-cultural and development work issues via the story of an American post-grad who volunteers with a local anti-AIDS NGO in Ghana. Emphases mine:

“Bryce,” his father told him, “when you step into the world of other cultures and seek to be a part of that which is different, your difference will be who you are to them. No matter how well you seem to become part of the people and their ways, you are not them. No matter how well they receive you and befriend you, your distinction is your reason for being there. When it doesn’t fit what is expected, you will feel the pain of rejection. It’s always just beneath the surface. That’s life. It’s not fair, but that’s how it is. You have to know who you are and be confident in that and what you are about.”

As a lǎowài I automatically identify with Bryce; we’re the outsiders trying to fit in and the Chinese are “them”. Even when we’re feeling good about how well we’re fitting in, even if to the point that we could momentarily forget how different we are, they wouldn’t let us forget, because they remind us every single day. We’re routinely hit with a myriad of largely ignorant-but-understandable expectations of who we are and what we’re like. I wonder what receiving these “identity prescriptions” every day is like for expats who don’t have a strong understanding of who they are and what they’re about. I suspect I’ve maybe seen that show a couple times over our five years in Mainland China.

As the insiders

But the Christmas holidays have made me re-read the above excerpt in light of the Incarnation. In Chinese Bibles it says, “The Dao became flesh and lived among us.” The idea being that the Creator, the Ultimate Being, became a human being. That’s a major living-standard downgrade, in what we could call the ultimate cross-cultural move:

He had equal status with God but didn’t think so much of himself that he had to cling to the advantages of that status no matter what. Not at all. When the time came, he set aside the privileges of deity and took on the status of a slave, became human! Having become human, he stayed human. It was an incredibly humbling process. He didn’t claim special privileges… [From Philippians 2:5-8]

This reverses the roles: God is the outsider and we are the “them”.

I’m not assuming Dan was thinking Incarnation when he wrote that section, but it’s an interesting angle to consider: Jesus as the ultimate model of cross-cultural identification and authenticity: leaving his home and completely taking on the language, culture and ethnicity of his host nation, while refusing to compromise who he is and what he’s about, even though he knows it will eventually result in rejection.

“…when you step into the world of other cultures and seek to be a part of that which is different, your difference will be who you are to them . . . When it doesn’t fit what is expected, you will feel the pain of rejection. It’s always just beneath the surface . . . You have to know who you are and be confident in that and what you are about.”

Maybe Dan was thinking Incarnation; so much of that paragraph relates to not just the Incarnation but also to how we treated Jesus when he refused to conform to our expectations of what he should be. But I’ll save that for a “Resurrection Festival” post (复活), because I like to keep the meanings of my historically re-appropriated holidays clearly sorted (no crosses at Christmas!). ;)

More about culture & personal identity:

More about Christmas:

P.S. — About God Spares Not the Branches

God Spares Not the Branches gives an intimate look at the complexities of post-colonial West Africa. The events, places and people are so realistically detailed you can’t help but believe this fictional story is actually a collection of real first-hand accounts — and that’s because it pretty much is. Author Dan McVey lived in Ghana for over 20 years, raised his family there, and still spends half of every year there, mostly on his farm. He applies an insight born of first-hand, long-term cultural intimacy to a deep exploration of several interrelated issues (many of which are relevant to China) by embodying them in his characters and their experiences. If you’re more than a little interested in any of the following, I think this book is worth your time:

  • The legacy of colonialism
  • African corruption
  • Problems with international aid and development (like priorities set not by need but by the politics of the donor nations, dependency, etc).
  • Drastic societal change affecting behaviour norms and values
  • The impact on sexuality of economic and gender inequality
  • The influence of the internet, media and Western culture — esp. entertainment and consumerism
  • The cultural hurdles in addressing HIV/AIDS
  • African identity and spirituality, Christianity, Evangelicalism, Islam
  • Muslim/Christian interaction

Two things in particular stand out to me:

  1. Intimate detail and nuance — Dan has lived into this culture and society and conveys a much richer and more empathetic picture of the people and challenges they face than what the best journalists can deliver.
  2. Challenging all around — This is not merely a liberal scolding of conservative Western worldviews, dragging a fictional character through a Western culture war conversion experience in a world of stereotyped stock characters (like in The Help). There’s plenty that will make Western political conservatives squirm, but Dan’s allegiances aren’t dictated by the Western culture wars. His compellingly detailed, uncompromising portrayal of African reality refuses to flinch in the face of events that Westerners, right or left, have difficulty processing. Like a shocking exorcism account, written in the same finely detailed, eye-witness-sounding delivery with which he describes farms. He doesn’t insist the reader accept the account at face value, but he also makes it difficult to casually brush off.

Merry Chinese Jingle Bells 2013

Christmas Eve morning 2013, at my day job (turn up your sound!):

They get cuter in the chorus. IMO this one turned out better than last year’s.

More Chinese Christmas! –> Doing Christmas 2013 in China?

Hate flagging down taxis in China? Problem SOLVED

I don’t know about taxis in North America; I can’t remember ever being in one. In China they’re relatively cheap and common, faster than the bus, and you probably don’t own your own car. We take the bus as much as we can, but that still means at least one taxi per week.

Taxis save a ton of time if you don’t get stuck not being able to get one. Flagging down a taxi in China can sometimes be a major pain. They’re all full. Or there aren’t any. Or someone “steals” “yours”. Or — most annoyingly — they’re empty but they inexplicably wave you off. Turns out there are reasons why empty taxis pass right buy you. Sometimes they’re about to change shifts. Sometimes they fear the hassle/awkwardness of a foreigner who might not speak Chinese. But more likely, they’re using this free smart phone app: 快的打车. And now that we are, too, our arm-flapping on the side of the road days are mostly a thing of the past.

We’ve been using this app for a week, and it’s genius. It basically means you never end up wasting time waving your arms at the traffic while trying to out-position all the other roadside arm flappers. You enter where and when you want to be picked up and your destination, it notifies every driver instantly, and they choose whether or not to accept. So far it’s only taken seconds for us to get a reply. You can talk to the drivers directly. And they’re motivated to follow through: this app means they have much less empty car time, but if they fail to show up you can ding them and they risk getting temporarily banned from the software.

This going on our China essentials short-list, along with Pleco (Chinese language learning app), the China Air Quality Index app, and DIY air purifiers.

Doing Christmas 2013 in China?

For your Christmas 2013 in China, here’s some Chinese Christmas music, art, vocab, memories, trouble and soapboxes.

Chinese Christmas Music

Chinese Christmas Art

Chinese Christmas Vocab

Posts of Chinese Christmas Past

Chinese Christmas Trouble

Christmas Soapboxes

Pollution Progress?

The last few days air pollution levels have hovered around 300, and since yesterday afternoon they’ve been solidly over 300. That’s nothing special, but the response I’ve noticed this time around is different. We heard about pollution safety from three different sources (friends, work, neighbours) all in the same day. Before people would either ignore it or pretend it was “fog.”

Apparently 300 is the magic number. Today was the first time our Chinese preschool has ever cancelled outdoor activities and shut all the classroom windows because of pollution (“haze/smog” 雾霾). They usually keep the windows open even when it’s cold for health reasons, so this time they’ve judged (or someone with authority judged) that the air outside is a bigger health threat than having closed windows. I had nothing to do with it. And that’s not the only thing.

Our Chinese friends have reminded us to wear masks when we go out — for the pollution, not for the “cold” (many Chinese wear “mouth covers” 口罩, usually cloth, to keep “cold wind” 寒风 from getting into their stomachs and causing Chinese medicine-related ailments). I was biking back home Tuesday night next to a neighbor, and he was actually wearing a pollution mask. That’s probably the first time I’ve ever talked to a Chinese person who was wearing a mask for pollution.

This is all a big change from what we’re accustomed to here, where people (and weather reports!) were happy to note the “fog” () with nary a mask in sight despite the fact that outside smelled and looked like the inside of a tailpipe. It’s helped that the Americans installed their own monitoring equipment on the roof of their embassy in Beijing, broadcast the hourly readings over the internet via smartphone apps, and caused a P.R. ruckus when an exceptionally Dickensian day triggered a “Crazy Bad” reading. If the anecdotes I encountered today are any indication, it seems like the days of air pollution denial are over.

I still can’t believe they closed the windows…!

About Chinese air pollution:

About Chinese medicine: