This week I had the pleasure of interviewing two fascinating guests on my podcast, both of whom have achieved unusually high levels of spoken Mandarin. I’ll be posting both interviews over the next couple of weeks.
For now, I wanted to reflect on what I learned from the first of these encounters, my interview with a man who achieved an incredible mastery of oral Chinese within such a short time frame that it has forced me to question everything I thought was possible in language learning.
When I began studying Chinese five years ago it was initially the spoken language which attracted me more than anything else. Working at a university in the UK, I was constantly surrounded by Chinese students chatting away in their native tongue. Above all else I was captivated by the unfamiliar sounds which were so different from the languages I knew.
My primary ambition was thus to one day become a highly proficient speaker of Mandarin; to produce these strange sounds accurately and with ease in order to convey meaning.
I consider my own case so far a minor success story. After several years of trial and error I have become relatively comfortable speaking Chinese. But recently I came across a video online of a man who, astonishingly, managed to surpass this feat in little over a year.
On the eve of the first UK lockdown in March 2020 Will Hart, a 20 year old Medical student, couldn’t speak a word of Chinese. He had never been to a Chinese speaking country, had no Chinese family and had never had any meaningful contact with the language in any form.
A year later he posted a short video online in which he spoke with a fluency approaching that of a native speaker. He was so fluent, in fact, that when I sent the video to my tutor she initially questioned whether it might be dubbed with a native Chinese voice.
Recently, a second video appeared on YouTube in which Will was interviewed in Chinese at length at the 1.5 year mark. In the comments under the video some viewers questioned whether his claims were feasible. But after interviewing him for my podcast and speaking to him for several hours I have no doubt he is completely sincere.
In order to learn Chinese to a high level, motivation and time are crucial. But the question that has puzzled me since hearing Will’s story is: why do the vast majority of learners who are equally motivated and spend just as much time as Will did fail to achieve similar results?
Following the interview I identified three primary factors I believe lay the ground for Will’s success. It is rare for dedicated Mandarin learners to meet two out of these three criteria from the start. Having all three is almost unheard of.
Factor One: Meticulous Attention to Phonetics
From the beginning, Will did not believe himself to be blessed with any special gifts or ‘a good ear’ which I often hear new learners boast about. More often than not an inflated ego causes learners to neglect working on crucial aspects of Mandarin phonetics they believe they can pick up naturally. Will, on the other hand, paid meticulous attention to phonetics from the beginning.
In addition to grasping the tonal system he also carefully studied the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) and charts marking tongue positions, making sure he could produce each component accurately before getting started. Doing this enabled him to become comfortable with the phonetics quickly, removing a huge weight off his shoulders. This freed up energy to focus on improving other skills – such as sentence structure – and had a huge impact on his speed of progress.
Factor Two: Efficient and Consistent Learning Strategy
Inexperienced learners often spend years exploring different methods before settling on a learning strategy. During this exploratory period it is easy to delude ourselves that methods we enjoy or find convenient are effective when in fact they’re not.
Will didn’t fall into this trap and instead condensed this trial and error period into one month. After figuring out that DuoLingo is not an effective learning tool he did his research and worked out a plan prioratising efficiency which he stuck to for over a year.
Since Will’s goal was to learn to speak Chinese he made listening and speaking practice his top priority. He learned characters using flashcards but he didn’t spend much time reading. His daily routine consisted in engaging in conversation practice with friends and immersing in hours of online Chinese content which he mined for vocabulary and sentences. He drilled these sentences using Anki on a daily basis for at least an hour.
Factor Three: Close Network of Native Speaker Friends
Most learners I’ve met who reached high levels fast all have one thing in common. They established strong ties with native speakers. Doing this gives the brain an unconscious imperative to acquire the target language. From the beginning, Will’s Chinese friend was willing to help him practice on a daily basis during lockdown. Later he found himself surrounded by Chinese students at the University of Manchester and swiftly befriended them.
Although Will lives in the UK most of his social life is in Chinese. At the time I interviewed him he told me he had not spoken English for several days. Most of his best friends are Chinese, as is his girlfriend. They have always supported him by giving him constant feedback, correcting his pronunciation and grammar mistakes. Crucially, he made sure to write these corrections down and drill them on Anki regularly.
Will is remarkably modest, to the extent that it’s not clear he entirely grasps the degree to which his attitude, approach and results radically diverge from almost everyone else. As an independent learner who has never taken a Chinese course he hasn’t met many other people studying the language.
He told me he is aware many learners struggle with Mandarin for years and fail to become fluent. But he doesn’t always seem sure which of his methods are worth mentioning since much of it probably appears to him like common sense.
That’s understandable. Surely everyone would agree drilling tones and phonetics at the start is a sensible thing to do. Isn’t it obvious that writing down every single correction from friends and turning them into whole sentence Anki flashcards to review daily (rather than just hoping we’ll remember them) will speed up our progress?
Yet how many of us actually do these things? It seems to me many learners are primarily concerned with finding and using methods they find convenient and enjoyable. Will had fun learning Chinese. But he also spent time on tasks other learners might consider too monotonous or dull.
It’s impossible to know the degree to which Will’s achievements could be replicated by other learners under the same conditions and how much they owe to his innate abilities. It’s interesting to note that Will had tried and failed to learn Spanish for several years at school. In fact, like many people who take languages at school Will previously suspected he was a lousy learner.
The exact reason why some outliers are able to acquire Chinese at lightning speed while most learners lumber along for years before achieving anything like fluency remains a mystery. The factors involved are varied and often too intangible to isolate with precision.
Nevertheless on hearing Will’s story I immediately felt compelled to document it on my podcast and blog as one of the most extraordinary achievements in language learning I’ve ever come across. One that surely pushes the boundaries of what many of us had previously thought was humanly possible.