Can You Speak A Foreign Language With 400 Words?

Cycling on my trip to Taiwan.

Two years ago I had an experience which completely altered my perspective on language learning. I travelled to Taiwan for a three week trip and quickly realised I had vastly overestimated my proficiency in Chinese.

I had hoped the trip would consolidate all my studies over the previous two years. In my naive state as a rookie language learner I firmly believed myself to be at a solid intermediate level. I had memorised around 400 characters, completed the entire tree on DuoLingo Chinese and spent countless hours telling my language exchange partners about the weather. I was convinced that a couple of weeks immersed in a Chinese language environment was all I needed to finally make the leap to fluency.

Unfortunately for me I couldn’t have been more wrong. Upon arriving I quickly discovered I was incapable of holding a conversation lasting more than a few seconds. When meeting up with my friends in Taipei I would take my time to construct a sentence, they would reply in a way I couldn’t understand and eventually we would all lose patience and continue the discussion in English. Soon afterwards, a couple of embarrassing experiences were enough to completely shatter my misconceptions that I was anywhere close to Mandarin fluency.

The first was when attempting to buy a bus ticket in order to travel on my own to the east of Taiwan. My friend accompanied me to the station and on the way gave me some language coaching. Approaching the ticket booth I felt confident. Purchasing bus tickets had been covered in my evening classes back in the UK. Having rehearsed what I would say with my friend several times, what could possibly go wrong?

I told the lady at the booth I wanted to purchase a return ticket and specified the time and destination of my trip. She then responded something incomprehensible at what seemed like lightning speed and impatiently asked me a question. I had fully expected her to reply by quoting me the ticket price just as my teacher had done in class. But I couldn’t discern any numbers in the sentence she’d just uttered. Feeling lost I stared back blankly.

By this point an impatient queue had begun to form behind me and my friend who had been waiting to one side decided to come to my rescue. As he apologised on my behalf he used a Chinese phrase which I actually understood: “他会说一点点中文” (he can only speak a tiny bit of Chinese). It’s the phrase every learner is taught in their first class, designed to describe beginners who can say basic words like “hello” and “goodbye” but are unable to function beyond that. Hit by the realisation that after two years of study this phrase was still an appropriate description of my level, my ego popped like a balloon.

Photo taken near Taroko gorge in East Taiwan

The following day I took my bus to a town near the Taroko gorge where I planned to undertake a ‘workaway’, staying in a traditional tea hostel for a week rent free in exchange for doing some basic chores. By this point my confidence had been partially restored. The incident at the bus stop had been bad luck, I told myself. The lady at the ticket booth must have had a thick accent I wasn’t used to and since then several kind strangers and shop assistants had showered me with praise for my ability to say 你好(ni hao). When I arrived at the hostel I confidently introduced myself as a Chinese speaker.

The owner of the hostel was a very friendly lady who spoke no English and was clearly pleased I could speak some Chinese. We exchanged pleasantries and she showed me to my room. The next day I went down for breakfast and she began explaining the chores she wanted me to carry out. I could tell from her gestures and pointing that they involved cleaning but the details were fuzzy. It didn’t take long for her to realise I hadn’t understood a word of what she’d said. She swiftly got out her phone, turned on google translate and continued to give me instructions through a text to speech robot translator.

The problem with my Chinese was very simple: I didn’t know enough vocabulary to be functional. I was studying for the HSK 3 Chinese exam which requires comprehension of around 500 words and is sometimes misleadingly refered to as ‘intermediate’ level. Before my trip to Taiwan I had memorised around 400 of these but each time I used them to form a sentence a reply came back with at least one key word I didn’t understand, obscuring the whole sentence’s meaning. This made even simple communication outside of a classroom environment virtually impossible. A recent Twitter interaction between two polyglots – Richard Simcott and Steve Kaufmann – illustrates this point:

My trip taught me two things. First, I needed to massively expand my passive vocabulary to many thousands (as opposed to hundreds) of Chinese words if I wanted to stand a chance of comfortably understanding native speech. Second, I needed to change my learning method. Up until this point I had largely relied on exposure to canned textbook words and phrases in an attempt to master Chinese. Clearly this wasn’t enough.

After returning from Taiwan I abandoned my textbooks and began immersing in large amounts of reading and listening content, starting with simpler graded readers before using LingQ to work my way up to content intended for native speakers. I have written about this process in detail elsewhere. Two years on I can now understand thousands of Chinese words and hold long conversations in Mandarin with native speakers. My friends and I understand each other without any difficulty. If I were to go back to the tea hostel I am confident the lady would not have to resort to a translation machine in order to communicate with me.

So to answer the question: Can you speak a foreign language with only 400 words? Well, you can try but don’t expect to get very far. Any beginners reading this should avoid learning it the hard way.

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