Learning Mandarin: Realistic Expectations

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…


27 thoughts on “Learning Mandarin: Realistic Expectations”

  1. If all else fails…you could start having kids, and learn the language from them :)or at least they could interpret for you :)

  2. Yeah, we’ve seen how that works: 6-year-olds correcting their mom’s English! But we’ll be in that situation either way… it’s unavoidable. We’ll do three years fulltime (hopefully), and then squeeze in whatever part-time we can around everything else.

    You’ll just have to be content with one grandkid for now. =)

  3. No worries there…I am content with 1 grandchild. You have to at least wait till I’ve saved enough $$ to travel to China!!!!Maybe you can borrow someone else’s children to correct your Mandarin!

  4. Sounds like crap to me. You need half a year to get some basics, and with daily training in live there, one can get pretty good in a year. Chinese Characters is another issue that may take A LOT of time, though.

  5. Happy 28th Birthday Joel!!!! We love you and miss you very very much!!!
    June 21, 1979 @ 4:19 am London, Ontario, Canada

  6. Thanks guys! We’re having a picnic dinner in the park tonight and hunting for old people writing calligraphy on the sidewalk with water and giant brushes.

    I suppose it depends on a few things, like: What do you mean by “pretty good” and “basics”? Pretty good compared to whom? People can ‘get by’/survive after a year, sure, if they never have to do anything beyond mundane daily living. But as someone who grew up around immigrants in North America, I have a hard time imagining anyone achieving truly good Chinese after one year, even if they were some sort of genius. Unless we’re comparing their Chinese to that of the average 20-something English teacher, and not to native Chinese speakers.

  7. Colleen and I are so proud of you & Jessica. So many things to learn and accomplish. We observed our many homestay students struggling with English, and as their ability to communicate in English improved, we were able to almost “meet” them all over again and dig deeper into their lives & hearts. I’m thinking that it makes lots of sense that your language journey will be very long-term. Just keep at it & know that you have at least a million cheerleaders who are rooting for ya!

    and Happy birthday a couple days late. ;)

  8. Yeah, in terms of language, we’re like your homestays, only way worse =) because we’re starting at zero. But you can see what learning a second language looks like to locals. Some of those homestay students have enough English to go to attend a summer program in Canada, but communicating at a meaningful level is a whole nother deal.

    What languages have you guys had live in your house so far?

  9. Joel,

    Interesting concept: “After three years of full-time study a good student can expect to have poor Chinese.” I think the biggest question is, as Ingo points out: are you including the hanzi characters? If so, I think that’ll really slow you down. But it sounds like you’re not talking about reading/writing because of the things you mention in your first paragraph that you’d like to be able to “discuss” with people.

    I don’t think a blanket discouraging…umm…I mean realistic statement like “You can’t learn Chinese well in 2-3 years” is fair. It seems to depend a lot on entrenchment into the culture. Because of some factors I’ve listed here it is difficult to get into situations where you NEED to learn Chinese. If you do need to, and if you don’t have hanzi to slow you down, I think you can learn to speak Chinese at an acceptable rate and thoroughness.

  10. Hi, Albert. Glad you dropped in.

    I think we’re both imagining the a similar average level of proficiency after so many years, but just calling it different things (your terms being more generous than mine).

    I suppose I’d agree with you that if you minimize the characters you could achieve an “acceptable” amount of proficiency… I just don’t think that what’s currently acceptable is really all that great. If immigrants to our own English-speaking home countries achieved the same proficiency in English, I think we’d see more clearly the point I’m trying to make. Their job prospects and the depth of communication in their friendships would be severely limited, for example. Locals would have to consciously adjust their speaking and listening when around them, etc.

    I agree that it’s probably not best to tell new language learners “You can’t really learn Chinese in 2 years.” That’s kind of a cynical-sounding paraphrase of Symonds’ chart. I suppose it’d be best to qualify it… like, you can’t become literate in two years, or you can’t discuss complex issues in depth in two years, or you can navigate daily living easily after two years.

    It’s probably best for us (Mandarin learners) to be a little naive and a lot encouraged anyway. =)

    And I should point out that the negative comments are mine, not Martin Symonds (he’s actually very positive and encouraging). But when he says students can have “a good foundation” after three years, that’s using his material, which intentionally de-emphasizes writing and reading, and explicitly teaches for conversational ability (and not for writing the HSK).

  11. we don’t have our students anymore because we’re in a tiny little place now. but we had folks from Korea, Mexico, Japan, Brazil and Saudi Arabia. All good experiences. Lots of charades & bad attempts at sign language in the early days. keep at it. big hugs :)

  12. all sounds pretty discouraging to new learners. i think it all depends on where you want to be at. to settle for everyday conversational skills without too much consideration for reading and writing is pretty much where i want to head and i am sure many others too. no matter what the language i think that is attainable within 2 years of pure study.

  13. I agree, Luke, that it depends on what your goal(s) are. If someone sets out to have daily living conversation skills, that itself is a significant accomplishment and a fine goal to shoot for. They shouldn’t feel bad about not being able to read and analyze classical Chinese poetry!

    Your goals will also determine what kind of program you go into. For example, if you want every day conversation skills, then a university program geared toward taking the HSK would probably be a bad fit. But the program we’re in would be pretty much a perfect fit.

    Since we eventually want to be literate, we’ll have to (eventually) draw on more than our current program can offer. But it’s great for us right now, being at the baby stages of Mandarin.

  14. interesting blog…how’s the language study coming along? i taught english in Xi’an for a year, and with no prior language instruction in a year i was definitely able to do more than survive, i was finally reaching the point where i could make friends entirely in chinese and actually not feel like talking to them was a whole bunch of hard work. but for the most part i agree with your assessment on how long it takes to learn chinese. but just remember it’s all good fun and the best way to learn is to just get out there and make a fool of yourself :)

  15. Thanks, Jonathan. I totally agree about the fun factor, and being willing to make a fool of yourself. There’s no avoiding it for people who want to actually progress.

    I think Chinese learning expectations can be accurately described in different ways – it just depends on the perspective/measuring stick you’re using. From a foreigner-in-China perspective, we’re doing alright. But, like I said to Albert above, if I think of the immigrants in Vancouver that I grew up around and imagine them having the equivalent level of English, then suddenly our Chinese doesn’t look so hot. I think both measurements are legitimate: the first is more helpful and encouraging for us beginner language students, but the second is more ultimately accurate for people who want to live and work in another language and culture.

  16. This reminds me of the underwear
    gnomes episode from South Park.

    1. Study Chinese a loooong time
    2. ???
    3. Fluency! (or in the spirit of
    South Park, make money!)

    Totally agree that it takes that
    long to get to real fluency as
    you’ve defined it here and
    elsewhere, Joel.

  17. Dear all,
    claiming that learning Chinese is the same as learning some other western language…well, that is surely crap to me. However, I must say I learned more Chinese in a 6 weeks course in Beijing than in a 3 years course in Italy, at university level. Now, maybe I am exaggerating things a bit, but still. I am saying this because living in China for a while is absolutely necessary in order to learn a decent Chinese. That’s it.

  18. I’d be really interested to hear what your Chinese language level is now. It’s too years since you wrote this post. Are you fluent or can you get about an have basic conversations?

    Do tell. We need a follow up from two years of experience.
    Do you still agree with what you believed 2 years ago about Mandarin aquistion?

  19. I don’t think we’re fluent in any meaningful sense of the word. How accurate that chart is to someone’s experience depends a lot on the student. We aren’t among those specially-gifted language geniuses, but we’re self-motivated and put in the study time. The chart fits us, though Jessica’s Chinese is noticeably better than mine (everyone says so, without hesitation; they’ll tell me every single time we’re out together speaking Chinese).

    The better students in our school kept pace with the chart; the lazy and/or less gifted students didn’t. Plus, the chart’s categories are a little mushy: “daily living” vs. “minimum work”? A guy with English that matches my Chinese could get a job in Vancouver, but not a good one, not one that centered on communication.

    At the end of two years we could spend a day out or an evening all in Chinese. It also helped that our friends and neighbours were more used to us, our accents, and the need to simplify their vocabulary. We had enough grammar that we could start to spend more mental energy on ideas and incorporating new vocab, instead of worrying about how to put the sentences together.

    I could work somewhere that only required me to have basic Chinese. And we’re talking oral communication here, not reading and writing. I type Chinese e-mails to friends, but character recognition (typing pinyin and selecting characters from a list) isn’t the same as character recall (handwriting). My Chinese e-mails are several paragraphs long, but I know there’s bad grammar and word choice involved, plus I consult dictionary software a lot.

    After two years I feel we’ve got something significant to work with, and that there’s potential for the future. The road ahead still looks endlessly long, but there’s some significant mileage behind us.

  20. I’ve already droned on elsewhere about how hard it is read Chinese (never mind write it) but I feel again the need to puncture the ‘speaking Chinese is easy’ myth. I just do not believe any of the guys who say this could handle a two-minute discussion in Mandarin on, say, the impact of Three Gorges Dam project. Yes, the grammar is relatively simple. It is not hard to say ‘qing zailai yige pijiu.’ But any in-depth discussion, on any topic, is a very, very tall order, as you will need some serious vocabulary, which most foreigners frankly lack, and, more than that, you will need to understand what the other guy is saying. Don’t snigger, for this is the biggest obstacle. I know a Japanese woman, married for thirty years to a Chinese, who still cannot understand CCTV news properly. Aural comprehension is EXTREMELY difficult, as in more difficult than Japanese, French, Spanish, German, Russian or just about any other major language. This reasons for this are described above; suffice it to say, this is the single biggest hurdle you, the aspirant Mandarin learner, are going to encounter. It takes decades.

  21. Frankly I think all this is exaggerated. I think the timetable laid out by this Martin Symons is far too pessimistic. In fact, you need abut one year of fulll time sutdy for daily living, two years for minimum work, and maybe three years for full work. Of couse, writing is more difficult, but reading is also not so unreachable. Sometimes I think foreigners who have learnt Chinese feel the need to perpetuate a myth about its huge difficulty. I know many foreigners in China who communicate fluently after a year or two of full time study

  22. I think the chart is too pessimistic as well. I have been studying Chinese for four years, two of those at a university in the US and two of those in my free time in China. I honestly put in about 2-3 hours a day on average, which I definitely wouldn’t describe as full time study. I can have basic conversations perfectly well. My grammar isn’t great but people almost always understand my meaning. Also, the characters are not THAT hard. I can read the newspaper in Chinese and understand the gist of the article and most of the details. Right now I recognize probably between 2500-3000 characters. As for writing, I can use a computer to input Chinese just fine. Writing in Chinese is not a useful skill in this day and age. In fact, all of the younger Chinese I know are not able to hand write many the more uncommon characters, since they, like me, just use a computer to input them and have long since forgotten how to write them by hand.

    My listening is still a bit sketchy. I can understand the TV dramas okay but the news is tough. My reading level is high enough to where I can read the subtitles if it’s not too fast.

    Keep in mind that I’ve been doing this for 2-3 hours a day for four years, which is not full-time study, and I’m about at the same level of the chart, plus have good reading comprehension.

  23. I don’t agree with those numbers at all. Although you’ll just have to take my word for it, my Cantonese is about minimum work standard after 18 months or so, and I’ve learnt to read and write (to the point where I can read ~2500 characters) at the same time.

    If I can do it that fast even with Cantonese (with its extra tones and different grammar to written Chinese) while working as an English teacher, I see no reason for Mandarin learners to be any slower? (I’ve not even been doing it full time, I’m forever getting distracted by Mandarin, Japanese and French, not to mention all the English I ingest and expel each day.)

  24. The teaching _methods_ have to be considered as well. Much American language teaching is still done with methods that are very ineffective. I know nothing of Symonds, but even the mention of a textbook makes me suspicious. Language is for communication. Hard to communicate with a textbook. My five years of public school Spanish did not enable me to communicate. Two weeks in Guadalajara did. (In fairness, the five years of grammar and vocabulary, did provide a head start for the two weeks of actual language to build on.)

    1. I prefer to think of learning language primarily as mastering a skill, practicing to do something, rather than merely studying to understand something. So basically re-thinking the relationship between the necessary information (vocab, grammar, phonics) and the skill you’re trying to master. This makes language study is more like athletic training or learning to swim; there’s necessary knowledge to get in your head, but the aim is always practical real life application.

      Our original language program wasn’t that great, actually. I heard someone recently describe theirs: group class in the morning introducing the content, followed by one-on-one session after lunch practicing that content, and then book homework at home. That sounded better for beginners and low intermediates than we had: three hours of one-on-one, and then oral homework and and book homework on our own.

      Also, this post got an update of sorts: Chinese proficiency in 1.7 years — *really*?

Leave a Reply!