Letting Go of Mandarin Learning Delusions

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Around a year ago I fell into a common trap for Mandarin learners. I started to prematurely believe that I was on the verge of becoming “fluent” in the language. My confidence was not baseless, rather it was rooted in the fact that after years of failing to learn Chinese I’d finally discovered an effective method and had made meaningful progress.

I mentioned in a previous blog that although I’ve been learning Chinese for a total of four years, the first two of those years were spent trying to figure out how to learn. By the end of year two I had completed DuoLingo, memorised around 500 words and passed HSK 3. Yet I would struggle to discuss the weather without tripping over my words.

But then something changed. I discovered Stephen Krashen and the input hypothesis. Krashen’s ideas helped me make sense of my lack of progress. He taught me that the reason I was still unable to have meaningful conversations was not because I wasn’t speaking enough but because my comprehension skills were poor. I could never understand what native speakers were saying to me. To address this I needed to leave the textbooks and consume large amounts of reading and listening content appropriate to my level.

I started consuming Chinese content like crazy, using graded readers, podcasts and the website LingQ. After a few months I realised something amazing was happening. Unlike all the other language learning methods I had been previously sold, this one actually worked. My brain was actually acquiring Chinese! The improvement I made during that period was impossible to deny and thrilling. My comprehension skills were finally good enough to engage in meaningful conversations, Chinese friends complimented me on my rapid improvement and beginner learners who heard me speak asked me how I became fluent.

Anyone who has learned a language before will be familiar with the process I describe above. The upper elementary stages of language learning, where we go from an average comprehension rate of under 50% words used in daily speech to around 80% in a matter of months can be giddying. As a relatively inexperienced language learner, the speed of my progress during this phase lead me to lose sight of reality. I started telling everyone who would listen that learning Mandarin was, despite the bad press, in fact easy. I even wrote an ill advised post arguing that anyone finding Mandarin difficult was probably using outdated methods.

Recently, I read a blog by a learner about how she acquired Chinese to the level of a native middle school student in a matter of six months. It struck me that the internet is littered with similar blogs – much like mine – written by sincere learners who at the time of writing are still intoxicated by the thrilling experience of acquiring Mandarin to a conversational level. This led me to reflect on my own delusional phase and pinpoint three common pitfalls I think all Mandarin learners should try and avoid:

Delusion #1: The Fluency Delusion.

Fluency is difficult to define. Some people argue if you are reasonably comfortable communicating with native speakers on everyday topics then you’re fluent. I would argue that fluency is a feeling, rather than an objectively measurable phenomenon. People who feel fluent are confident that they can communicate freely without major barriers to comprehension. Whilst it is certainly possible to feel fluent at the basic conversational level described above, that feeling will quickly evaporate the moment you step out of your comfort zone.

After spending months reading and listening to Chinese content, I found I was able to have conversations with native speakers and concluded I was basically fluent. Yet if you sat me in front of Chinese TV and asked me to tell you what the content was about I would, more often than not, be at a loss. That is because comprehension of 80% of vocabulary in daily speech typically equates to understanding 0% of the meaning. Trying to understand Chinese TV was a bit like decoding the following sentence: “Yesterday I was feeling quite *&%&@ so I decided to have a go at trying out my new *%$^@ which I recently bought at the local supermarket.”

After a while this led me to accept that however other people might define fluency, I personally didn’t feel fluent.

Delusion #2: The Rate of Progress Delusion

After realising my comprehension skills were still severely impaired outside of one to one conversations on familiar topics, I abandoned the illusion that I was fluent. However, I then began to entertain a new, more pernicious delusion: fluency was just around the corner. By learning the 80% most frequent words I had done the hard work. I was entering the home straight. All I needed to do now was learn the final 20%, which surely wouldn’t take very long given my previous rate of progress.

Experienced language learners will recognise this for the comical mathematical error that it is. Although the most common 3000 words you learn account for more than 80% of the words you will encounter in everyday speech, plugging the 19% gap from 80-99% needed to be truly comfortable takes a lot longer and requires acquisition of tens of thousands of new words. The inflated sense of confidence associated with this error is sometimes refered to as the Dunning Kruger effect (see below). Learning my first few thousand words had felt like a monumental achievement so it was pretty tough to accept that the hard work was yet to come.

Delusion #3: The Input is Everything Delusion

My experience of the effectiveness of mass input approaches lead me to a third delusion: The belief that in order to learn Chinese all you need to do is read books you like and watch movies you enjoy. According to the input hypothesis, the more you read and listen to comprehensible input you enjoy, the better your speaking will eventually become. This is true and I still believe comprehensible input is the single most important aspect of learning any language, including Chinese. But input is not enough.

There are at least two aspects of Chinese which require more than comprehensible input alone to master: characters and tones. In order to learn my first 1000 or so characters I relied heavily on drilling flashcards. However, after reaching around 1000 characters, I found that reading large amounts of content was enough to pick up new vocabulary. This initially worked because the most common few thousand words appeared repeatedly in my readings and I was able to acquire a lot of vocabulary without flashcards. But when it came to lower frequency words input alone was insufficient because the new words didn’t appear with sufficient regularity to stick in my brain. Drilling flashcards on a daily basis has thus proven essential to acquiring lower frequency words and rare characters.

As for Chinese tones, I have written elsewhere that native speakers of non-tonal languages usually require special training to get used to them. But for large periods when learning Chinese I believed that as long as I did more listening my pronunciation and tones would naturally improve on their own. I found that I was able to pick up a lot in this way and that despite not having a full grasp of pinyin and the 5 tone system my pronunciation wasn’t terrible. However, it was very far from ideal – especially with tones. Worse still, I often couldn’t hear the difference between my tonal mistakes and the way native speakers were pronouncing them. I have spent a lot of time re-focussing my attention on tones and training myself to hear differences which seemed incredibly subtle to me at first but which sound like glaring errors to the native ear. This experience has convinced me that mass listening input alone is not sufficient to master Mandarin tones.

What Next?

I do not write this in order to make reaching fluency in Mandarin seem like an impossible task. Nor do I wish to contradict anybody else’s subjective definition of fluency or diminish the significant achievement of reaching a conversational level of Chinese. But I have personally found it liberating to free myself of the delusions described above. It is no longer possible for me to be disillusioned when my inflated sense of proficiency crashes against reality. This makes it less likely I will become demotivated and quit Chinese for long periods of time as I have done in the past.

Having a realistic perspective on the volume of vocabulary required to become comfortable watching Chinese TV, understanding the news without any strain, watching movies for pure enjoyment and to talk freely about the content I’m consuming has also led me to rethink my approaches and restructure my learning routine more effectively.

It’s true that being deluded is motivating in the short term. If you think you’re on the final straight of a marathon, you’re more likely to sprint. But what when you discover that what you thought was the finish line was actually a mirage? How long will you continue running? Realism, however brutal, will always lead to a healthier mindset and the kind of sustained long term commitment required to reach your Chinese goals.

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18 Thoughts

  1. Cliff Garstang says:

    Hi again. This was really useful and I especially enjoyed the Krashen video. Very compelling, and you offer some important caveats. I’ve avoided most input methods (unless Rosetta Stone courses count) out of, probably, laziness, but I recently started working with graded readers. I’ll check out the links you’ve provided. When I moved to Korea at the age of 22, I was taught Korean via a method called The Silent Way, which bears some similarity to the second style of teaching Krashen demonstrated. Ironically, I was also being trained to teach English using a very traditional and boring “repeat after me” method.

    1. Yes Krashen had a big impact on me, although I’ve come to think the input hypothesis is often communicated in a way that’s too simplistic – hence the caveats. That’s interesting, I have never heard of the Silent Way – I will check it out.

  2. Anonymous says:

    I am a Mandarin student from Colombia, my name is Amanda. I have been studying Chinese for almost 10 years, and I have felt all the delusions through this journey. I don’t feel any fluent, not only because I don’t speak fluently but also because I don’t understand what a native is telling me or a movie is actually saying. I also feel like I dont learn, like if sometimes I feel I have a lot of knowledge and vocabulary, but in a certain moment that just disappears, I don’t feel confident because I feel my progression rate is very low. Also, as I had Chinese teachers and they spoke in Mandarin and they made us hear movies and music, I felt like that input didn’t work for me. I tried to listen and understand but it just seemed so difficult that it was a delusion. I would add the writing delusion, it is so difficult to write characters and the tones in the pinyin hat sometimes are frustrating. I can’t learn how it is correctly written or if it has beautiful shapes or if the word is correct because of its tone. But I would solve it with repetitions of writing and the correct way to write, so it is easier to learn it and do it, the tones would be more a vocabulary topic that can be solved with flashcards, and a lot of learning.

    1. Hi Amanda, thanks for your comment. I think it’s important to make sure the input material you’re working with is comprehensible to you and appropriate for your level. Otherwise you will get frustrated, for example if you try and watch a movie and don’t understand anything. There are lots of graded readers available which allow you to start doing extensive reading even when you only know a few characters. I wrote a blog about this here: http://imlearningmandarin.com/2021/03/17/why-im-a-fan-of-chinese-graded-readers/ I also recommend the website LingQ which allows you to easily look up and save words you don’t know: http://imlearningmandarin.com/2021/05/24/using-lingq-to-study-chinese/ Good luck! 加油!

  3. The truth is that I have learned very little for the years that I have been learning Mandarin

  4. Anonymous says:

    I have been studying Mandarin for almost 5 years at my school and so far I have learned very little, it seems to me that in a language that is very difficult to learn and that requires having a very good memory, I have not been able to move on since I find it very difficult to have to learn a different sound and writing for each of the words.
    I am not able to carry on a conversation, much less that the other person understands how little I know how to say, I also feel that I am stagnant, for one or two years I know that I could achieve it and that I was capable, but after we went into quarantine due to this crisis due to COVID-19 and I lost everything that I am already advancing
    I’m Colombian and my name is Juan

  5. Anonymous says:

    I am a Mandarin student from Colombia, my name is Nicole . I have been studying Chinese for almost 8 years. I don’t feel any fluent, not only because I don’t speak fluently but also because when I watch or listen to music in Mandarin I don’t understand anything .It is also difficult for me to memorize so much vocabulary, how words are written, which character to use and the form in which each sentence has to be written. A delusion I would add would be the delusion of writing since for people who are learning Mandarin it is very difficult to know which character to use and how to write it well so that it is not confused with another; another delusion I would add would be the delusion of pronunciation since many times when I try to say a word in Mandarin it is understood as something else.

  6. Anonymous says:

    I am a Mandarin student from Colombia, I have been studying Chinese for almost 8 years and I still don’t feel any fluent, not only because I don’t speak fluently, but also because when I watch movies or listen to music in Mandarin I don’t understand anything . It is also difficult for me to memorize so much vocabulary, how to write pinyin, which character to use and the form in which each sentence has to be written. A difficulty I have would be the delusion of writing since for me, it is very difficult to know which character to use and how to write it well so that it is not confused with another; another thing would be the delusion of pronunciation since is difficult to say words with the correct accent so that I am understood.

  7. Anonymous says:

    I am a Mandarin student from Colombia, my name is Mariana, i have been studyng Chinese for almost 9 years,I feel that I have not learned Mandarin very well, firstly because I do not feel fluent in how I pronounce and when I see a movie or some video in Madarin I understand only a few words, it is also very difficult to know that a single word has many meanings and then I don’t know What is the meaning of that word in the phrase is very difficult to learn to write certain characters, when they taught me this language it was not the best sleep since they were Chinese teachers and the only thing they gave us was music and songs which I never knew how translate it or try to understand it.

  8. Anonymous says:

    I am a mandarin student from Colombia, my name is Tomas. I have been studying Chinese for 8 years and I have pass through these 3 delusions, sometimes I felt as if I was fluent, but then I take the time to hear my voice and realized that how I spoke was terrible, I used to think my vocabulary was improving since teachers taught me the words and their meanings, together with their pronunciation, but I just couldn’t remember the words, or I forget about them in few days. Furthermore, I tried watching animated movies with subtitles and hearing music in Chinese, but I didn’t understand what the people were saying, reading text books and taking notes made me feel as if I finally have learned something, but it was all a delusion. Now I think is not only the input but to practice, repeat and test what I’ve learned so that I can engrave the lessons and knowledge in my mind.

  9. Clayton Davis says:

    I started learning Mandarin in 1995. When I think of all the bad methods and terrible misconceptions that I had to cycle through one after another before I even felt minimally competent, I shudder. I wish I hadn’t had to go through all that, but I didn’t really have anyone to show me the way. There has been no magic method, just lots of work. Good luck in your studies.

    1. Thanks for your comment Clayton. Wow, I bet learning in 1995 was very different to learning today. I sometimes wonder if I would have had the willpower to persevere if I were studying at a time before flashcards apps, online plug-in dictionaries and the huge array of online resources which facilitate language learning today today. I know how hard it is even with all these resources. Well done for persevering.

      1. Clayton Davis says:

        Yes, the world was very different then, but I’m sure you would have persevered. I’m grateful for all the things I have now that I didn’t have back then. They’ve helped me a lot with other languages, for sure.

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