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 I even wrote an ill advised post arguing that anyone finding Mandarin difficult was probably using outdated methods.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.
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.