On Learning Chinese in 3 Months

[P.S - you are in for big post here! But do read please]

So, the language learning community is buzzing, especially the Chinese one, with the news that Benny is attempting to become fluent in Mandarin in 3 Months. Now, phew, where to start on this doozy of a topic. I remember writing about this briefly last year, asking How Long does it take to Learn Chinese? A few others have already posted their thoughts on Benny's mission: Sara Jaaksola and Olle Linge. It pretty much echoes what most people are saying, that Benny is in over his head, but it's not impossible. Reddit also had a bit of go at Benny (with him posting there himself).

There are some topics I'd like to discuss concerning his mission as a language learner, linguist and Chinese enthusiast in response to Benny and lots of others things in terms of language learning.

The Beginning

I've been following Benny and other polyglot blogs for some time now. I find their dedication and admiration for learning languages inspiring. But, I've always had a mixed feeling of disdain, jealously and hope when reading his and other people's blogs. On one side, these people rock. The more people are inspiring and blogging about languages the better, but sometimes these goals that the polyglots put on themselves becomes pride, and turns into a stubborn defense mechanism.

I have found this on a few of these blogs. I remember being banned from commenting on a site for questioning statements. There is a divide between language learners, linguists and bloggers. This is a topic I also talked about in much depth with Benny on his blog post about linguists. Here in lies the problem.

The Experience Paradox

This can be applied to many things, but this is especially applicable to language learning, as it is a very personal subjective experience. Let's take an example here to clarify my problem:

Say I have learned Chinese by listening to Chinese TV all waking hours of my life and then after 4 months start talking fluent Mandarin, my method was a success. To me that is. Now if Joe comes to me and says, what I say is a wrong way of learning Chinese, because I should have listened to Chinese Music for 3 months, then I'd be more advanced, because this is what Joe has done, therefore my approach is invalid.

The argument is dead from the start. No-one will budge. Subjective experience becomes subjectively true.

Now, when claims are made from a linguistics objective perspective, based on research, then I hope, this is what has been missing from most polyglot blogs, is the tendency to avoid accepting defeat and or altering their "trusted" methods due to research and/or suggestions. HOWEVER, it must be added that even if the response is not given from objective point of view, then the learner must be willing to explore other methods, or at least accept that other methods might work.

That's the whole beauty of learning languages. There is no ultimate way of doing it. I recommend reading this book/research, about success in learning languages. It covers seven different types of successful language learners. Basically, it shows just how different methods and attitudes can achieve the same goal.

The same way that some people are stubborn in their ways about many things in life, the same way polyglots are (mostly) stubborn about their methods. Having a public blog, opens this up to scrutiny. The motivation to pursue a blog becomes suspicious. It begs the question, if you are learning languages should you also not be willing to learn how to learn languages too? Meta-linguistics skills is also something that I have talked about before when asking the question about whether Chinese is a good first foreign language to learn?

Relative difficulty is a real thing

Now this is something that bothers me the most about some polyglot blogs, is the idea that there are no hard languages. Objectively yes, relatively... nope. The difference between languages becomes a hurdle in terms of acquiring that language. It is simply there. This phenomenon exists. However, tackling the idea of hard/difficult languages becomes two-fold.

I have found this many times when people respond to me when I say that I learn Chinese, "Wow, it must be tough learning the hardest language in the world!" I usually just play along, and due to social etiquette I refrain from rambling linguistic nonsense to prove my point. But the fact remains, that there is a belief that there are objectively hard languages. My dad is even a culprit of this. When he sees me writing Chinese, he goes, "Why are they still using a primitive writing system?". We need to distill this belief and let people know that there is relative difficulty in acquiring languages. I can acquire Dutch relatively easy due to my Afrikaans background, but learning Mandarin, hell no.

But, Benny, always points out that there is no such thing as a hard language. I have read his blog and the language hacking guide and I admire the tenacity to instill this idea. It definitely works and helps people overcome the mental block. Anyone can acquire any language. But let's not kid ourselves, some languages are going to be more difficult than others to acquire. More time needs to be invested to achieve the same results. Acceptance of this, need not be a stumbling block, but in fact a challenge and more motivation.

I predict a post from Benny that will say that Mandarin is not that hard. He has already posted this idea as a comment on his Youtube vide0.

Chinese is so logical in so many ways, and I will be writing a post later to ENCOURAGE learners who want to take it on, especially comparing it to European languages. I think it's just so exaggerated to say a European language is easier. I can give lots of examples, and will later.

Like I said, objectively yes, relatively no, not if you're coming from a certain language background. Benny however has the meta-linguistic experience to overcome these differences more readily than others, but the fact remains that, it is harder to learn. For more about my idea on Chinese Grammar, click here.

Time becomes a measure of success

This is found in many aspects of life, the idea that the quicker one can achieve the same goals, the better the success is. I've been learning Chinese now for four years. It's been an amazing ride so far. However, I'm nowhere near the level of many others who have been studying it for four years in China. Or even have better self-discipline. Time and time again, validity of methods and success is measured in the time spent achieving a level of fluency. I absolutely deplore this and is often seen as a weak spot for someone's language learning prowess. "Oh you only learned how to order a meal after one year!? You are obviously doing something wrong. So your argument is invalid". Time =/= success

Success should be measured by personal growth and self-reward. Heck I was elated that I could rent my own apartment using Chinese after three and a half years. But sometimes, the reward could come from pushing yourself to achieve something within a time period. That's why I don't discredit people studying this way, but once again, it becomes a pride thing. It serves as a foundation for criticizing others lack of vigor, motivation and methods.

I predict I'm going to be a life long learner of Chinese. I love going into the intricacies of the language. I don't think I'd want to skim over languages and push the envelope. But hey, each to his own.

A Theory on Beginner Chinese

Now, to Benny's mission. He will have measured success in speaking. But not reading, that's a whole different topic for another day. Chinese is extremely unique in that aspect and requires a whole post for itself.

John Pasden made this post some time ago. Although it compares Japanese vs Chinese, it makes an interesting point that I'd like to discuss, which might throw things off a bit, but I'd like your input. Here's my theory:

Learning Chinese becomes more difficult as you learn more.

Ooooh. Insightful! But allow me to explain.

Chinese has 400 syllables. ONLY 400 syllables (excluding tones), with English for example having thousands of different syllables. This makes Chinese extremely homophonic. Now, concerning the question of tones, it makes the homophony a bit less daunting, but does it really?

Let's consider a beginner Chinese learner. Tones are being learned, but due to uniqueness of the tones, its importance is underestimated due to not being used to saying words with tones. That's what I did and is a crucial mistake when starting Chinese. But, context plays a good role aiding the learner to not completely feel helpless when using tones and conversing with Chinese. I have found this quite often. When saying a single word, to explain something, I often get weird looks. Yep tones are wrong, but when used in a sentence with other sounds, the context corrects my failure in mispronunciation of the tone. So by definition, I can converse to some extent with Chinese, without focusing on tones that much.

Until the complexity comes in and homophony kicks you in the ass for not paying attention to tones. Now, what happens when you go further with learning Chinese? You start encountering syllables with the same sounds, but different tones, which makes the meaning completely different. Now context can save you again, yes, but it becomes increasingly difficult due to being exposed to the different words. Either you understood before or not, but now if you don't understand the word in context, a second set doubt kicks in trying hard to get those tone associations going.

Let's take an example:

时间, which means time. A normal word learned early in Chinese.

Now look at all the other possible words for the same two syllables, but different tones:

实践

事件

世间

尸检

时艰

识见

and more. Now, the confusion sets in. That's why I think, it's possible to get by with beginner Chinese without focusing that much on tones. You just have to get some tones right. I know this might sound a bit controversial, but that's why I think Benny will succeed if his tones are poor. And let's be honest, tones take a long time to master. However, Benny is an extremely good pragmatic observer. I have seen it before in his posts. Context plays a vital role in early acquisition. He will use it to his advantage.

It must be added however that I do not know where this ceiling in beginner Chinese is. He will apparently record a spontaneous interview at the end of the three months. It will extremely interesting to see how he does. If he controls the conversation within a framework of his understanding AND have not surpassed this ceiling, he will be able to communicate. His tones will probably be wrong, but he will be understood. Unfortunately, his goal of C1 is completely misplaced. That would be comparable to between HSK 5-6, even maybe above 6, because academic Chinese is not for the faint hearted. Conversational Chinese is much more realistic, albeit still a great deal of work.

What impact is this leaving for language learners?

Motivation is a crucial crucial part of language learning. For that I give immense claim to Benny. He is excellent in that regard. I mean, who doesn't want to do what he does. Speak from day 1! I wholeheartedly agree. I've read his Language Hacking Guide, and one point stood out to me, if you really want to excel in language learning change your "want" to a "need".

Many people will achieve success in following Benny's methods. However, with great power comes great responsibility. That's why I feel that sometimes, starting missions like this, where you have to prove to the public your goal, you might mislead the audience into false hope and misinformation regarding languages. Like the idea above that is mentioned about relative difficulty in second language acquisition.

What will the response be to Benny's results?

Now let's forward till the end of Benny's mission and imagine two scenarios:

A) He was successfull

People will respond with congratulations of course, but most people will respond with a distrust in his claims. This is because of his goal. I'm sure critique will come from many avenues. Many won't believe him.

B) He failed

This will be a first for Benny. If he admits it, but I'm sure, lots and lots of people will respond with an "Aha told you so!".

Both responses will lead to a negative response in my opinion and I think that's sad. When opened to public scrutiny, especially with such a lofty goal, proving something to others becomes a nasty thing. That's where I think an unfortunate thing occurs, when you have a product to sell and it's your living, then you have to prove your methods work, otherwise your product fails. Benny looks like an amazing guy. I'm sure I'd love to sit with with him over a few beers and talk about the world and travelling. But sometimes, like many people, we will disagree about things. I would say that I love learning languages, but I'm a more methodological learner. I love going after the small things. Heck, why will I spend the whole day researching character encoding just 'cause I noticed a small change in a character? I'd like to become fluent in a language. He will respond that he also likes to becomes fluent in a language, but in a lot of them. I'm sure we will agree that both sides are good.

But I'll ask him one final question, Benny, have you ever considered that if you fail in your Mandarin mission, to admit it and learn from your mistakes? Because I believe, someone in your position, can teach us a lot more about learning languages, especially if you have failed, than many other people out there. You have spent many years perfecting your technique, why not now again?

But then he'll respond, "I might just prove you all wrong".

And that ladies and gentlemen is the whole crux of the matter. One can go on and on about learning languages (like I have now!), but sometimes, you can, and I really believe this, achieve a lot in 3 months of learning a language. No, he doesn't have a language gene or a natural talent, it all comes down to pure tenacity of it all. We are all skeptics, and that's good, I'm one of them. Mandarin really is the top of languages to conquer for an English speaking person.

In the back of my mind I want Benny to fail. I know it sounds bad. But hear me out. If he fails and is willing to accept that Chinese is a tough language and works hard to conquer that failure, we as a Chinese learning community can then constructively help each others to achieve the same goals, whether it's 3 months or 4 years. There is no magic formula to this. Sometimes we wish there was. That's why Benny is great, 'cause he makes us believe that. But sometimes, you get hit with a language like Chinese and all previous conventions gets thrown out the window. That's why I love it. And I hope that's what Benny will find too.