So there’s this blogger, Benny the Irishman, who has a blog titled “Fluent in 3 Months”. I discovered his blog maybe the summer before I went to China, and have read along as he learned Dutch, Tagalog, ASL, and Hungarian. I’d been wondering if he was ever going to try a language without an alphabet, so you can believe I was excited to see his most recent mission announced: Mandarin!
There’s a few things I really like about Benny’s blog. He wages war against the misconception that some languages are harder than others, he encourages people (sometimes) to tailor their language studies around the activities that the plan to use the language for, he emphasizes speaking even when making mistakes, he challenges the definition of fluent, he utilizes the Pareto principle in language learning and he promotes the use of videos as a way to keep oneself accountable for one’s goals.
My own personal mission in life, regarding language-learning at least, is to dismantle the belief that some languages are inherently harder than others. If a language was intrinsically difficult to learn or use, why would it have been developed, and why would it have continued? That just doesn’t make sense. I will grant that some languages may be easier for speakers of certain other languages to learn, but no language is just HARD. Benny apparently thinks similarly; after each language he learns, he does a post called “Why [this language] is Easy”, in which he usually compares aspects of the language to another language that is generally perceived to be easier, like English or Spanish.
I also agree with his conviction that languages are learned for a purpose, and that no one method of studying is applicable to every purpose. For this reason, the way I learned Chinese on the farm during my second summer there was very different than the way I learned when I went back for the year. In Benny’s words:
This language is yours to use as you wish. What I say about ignoring those telling you what to do applies equally to what I say. Speak if you want to do that, but forget my advice or that of any particular method and watch TV or read comics if that’s what you prefer to do in your target language (I am totally and utterly wrong to follow if your priority isn’t to speak a language socially…). Focus on reading if that’s the enjoyment you get out of foreign languages, and aim to read the kind of things you would read in your native language… And, of course, if you enjoy debating politics, speaking with no hesitations as you do in your native language, and using fun references to classical literature, then by all means do that too. In that case it truly is how you were meant to use the language.
Speaking even when you know you’re going to make mistakes has been a part of my Chinese language learning from the very beginning, although I wouldn’t have said it that way back when I started doing it. I did it on the farm out of necessity! It’s also clearly not something I’ve internalized completely, because I’m confident in Chinese but downright timid in Spanish. It’s a huge part of Benny’s philosophy, and probably the biggest thing I take away from his posts.
Especially since I came back from my year in China, I have been asked a lot if I’m “fluent”. I never really know what to say, because I don’t quite know what fluent is. To some people, it means the perfect ability to discuss any topic under the sun, but sometimes when I explain my much more modest abilities, others call that fluency. One of my favorite articles at Fi3M:
Someone may say that to speak a language fluently or “good enough” by their standards, you must be able to:
- Participate in a debate on a complex topic, such as one on philosophy
- Speak with no hesitations
- Use complex vocabulary and advanced expressions
- Never have any serious miscommunications
- Be able to give the definition or translation of a low-frequency use (but still important) word
- Write a complex essay
- Never make basic spelling mistakes or misuse a common word
- Be able to participate in a discussion that any typical native may have
But here’s the thing – based on these criteria I don’t speak fluent English, my native language. I break many of these rules and others. Going through this list again, in order:
- Philosophy is something I’m quite weak at, and debating is something I’m even worse at. If you gave me this test in English, I’d fail it. This is a fact of life; there are some complicated matters I can discuss, but many I can’t.
- I’d fail miserably at a requirement of no hesitations too. Have a look at my TEDx talk, and count how many times I say “ehh…” in the first few minutes. It’s a LOT. Hesitation can be caused by lots of factors (in my case here, by nerves from talking on a stage).
- I don’t have as many videos in English as I do in other languages online, but there are still a lot. If you watch any of them you will see that I don’t tend to use really big words, and I don’t go out of my way to pick clever quotations or use really well worded expressions. In fact, many English learners tell me that they enjoy reading my blog because I have a straightforward and simple way of writing. This isn’t intentional; I simply don’t use extremely complex English with anyone. I did quite poorly in English in school actually.
- Because of speaking Hiberno English, I’ve had some moments where I have had to scratch my head and wonder what the hell that other English speaker is saying, or vice-versa. What the F is a “nitch”?? Why are they so confused by me saying “Stop giving out about your man”? And that’s forgetting the cultural misunderstandings; I’ve had way more with Americans than I have with Spaniards for example.
- Many times, people have said words to me that I probably should know, but simply don’t. One of my most common uses of Google is actually “define X”, where X is some English word. With enough context I rarely have to do this, but sometimes it’s unavoidable.
- I can’t write an essay at academic standards. I rely on spellcheck all the time when writing something like a blog post.
- I can’t participate in “any” discussion. If I find it boring, I’ll lose interest and lose track in what’s going on in the conversation. Sorry, but this is just the truth. There are a very large amount of possible conversations that I can’t participate in English, even when it has nothing to do with technical issues or enough vocabulary. Talk about shoes/fashion or many sports I don’t follow and you’ll quickly lose me, even though these can be quite simple conversations.
The Pareto principle (that 80% of the effects come from 20% of the causes) is applicable in many different situations, and I firmly believe that language learning is one of them. I’ve seen it in my progress – in my 10 week course at the U of M, I learned something like 700 characters; in the nearly three years since then I haven’t even learned twice that. Anyway, when looking at character frequencies, you see that you just get a lot more “bang for your buck” with more common characters:
500 – 75.8%
1000 – 89.1%
1500 – 94.6%
2000 – 97.1%
2500 – 98.5%
3000 – 99.2%
3500 – 99.5%
Combining this with an earlier point, I think that the most important characters/words to learn are not a universal truth. They depend highly on the situations in which you plan to use the language. For me, farm vocabulary and tools were extremely important at the beginning (which is why I learned how to say rivet gun before much more “common” words). Later on, types of dance, American ingredients, and base Catholic theology were priorities to me that most people probably wouldn’t bother with.
And his method of making videos every few weeks along the way is really cool. I really wish I had videos of me speaking at various points, just to see how I was actually doing back then. You can only judge your true speaking ability in hindsight, I think . . .
My only complaint about Benny is that he often comes across in his writing (especially in his responses to comments) as very harsh. He can be quite critical of commenters (who, in all fairness, are sometimes very critical of him). Sometimes this means he ignores the advice of people who know the specific language he’s working on better than he does. An example:
Da Ben Dan: The problem is not speaking Chinese, it’s understanding it. Come to Beijing and you won’t understand a word the locals say. It’s like they speak with a mouth full of marbles.
It’s like learning "Queen’s English" and then dealing with a Scouse or Brummie accent.
Benny Lewis: I’ve been listening to a lot of Beijing Mandarin in my learning material and I can understand it fine.
Da Ben Dan: Well, good, but that’s educational material. I’m talking about out-on-the-street, local Beijingers, even- dare I say it- uneducated people. Try sitting in the back of a taxi with a local Beijinger who doesn’t move his lips when he speaks (like a ventriloquist) and see how that goes. I’ve been here 12 years and even now I often go: "Shenme?!?"
Benny Lewis: That’s too bad, but I’ll get to Beijing and let you know what I think when I’m there. I imagine it’s difficult, but way less impossible than you are making it out to be. Sorry but 12 years is a REALLY long time to not be able to understand people at the level you claim – are you speaking in English the vast majority of your time? It’s the only way I can imagine you would be having so much trouble after such a long time.
I feel like he made some unfair assumptions and jumped to some ad hominem attacks there. While I understand his frustration at being told everything is impossible, it’s also polite to warn someone behind you about obstacles in the path to watch out for.
So when he made an impractical goal in his original mission statement, I felt the need to say something.
And yes, I will be incorporating reading abilities into this mission, as I’d otherwise be illiterate, and not able to function socially. My priority will be to be able to read menus and signs, but soon after, I do want to be able to get the gist of almost anything I see, with an effortless ability to recognise the most common 1,500 symbols (about half of what most people would consider the number needed to be proficient, so I won’t call my reading abilities fluent). For this mission I won’t go as far as to try to be able to read the likes of full newspaper articles beyond headlines, as that will take too much focus away from my main spoken objective.
I’m excited to see you tackle this! I think fluency in oral Mandarin is totally doable; I worked on a farm in China with local workers and reached conversational abilities (plus lots of technical and farm-related vocabulary) in about 6 or 7 weeks. Chinese (and Taiwanese) are very understanding and excessively appreciative of attempts to learn their language (which they themselves believe to be difficult).
A few words of caution/advice: In my experience (15 months living in China, 10 days traveling all across Taiwan), not everyone in Taiwan speaks "standard" Mandarin, so remember that a word you learn once might not work somewhere else. Make sure you don’t learn Hakka or Min by mistake . . .
Secondly, 1500 characters is a lot, and learning to read beyond the first 500 or so is extremely antisocial and requires a lot of work. It’s absolutely possible, but when your focus is to speak with people and interact with the world around you, 1,500 might draw you away from that focus. The 500 most common characters make up nearly 76% of usage; the top 1000, 89%; and the top 1500 nearly 95%. Is that extra 19% of _reading_ worth it to you? I’m a much more serious Mandarin student/user than I think you hope to be; I currently know about 1,900 and wonder how much more I should try to learn for my purposes.
Apparently he revised his mission, for once taking the advice of several commenters in addition to me. I would be interested in seeing his reading/writing abilities now! It has been cool to watch his progress in his youtube videos, and I’m glad he took on the “Chinese is hard” myth.