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Progress report: Thoughts on one month of learning Mandarin & some FAQs

| 32 comments | Category: mission

It’s been one month (and a couple of days) since I got into Taipei with the objective to speak fluent Mandarin in 3 months. So it’s about time I gave you a status report on my progress, before I share my next Mandarin video with you on Friday tomorrow! (This photo is a teaser for that fun video!)

Since uploading the first video, I’ve gotten some great feedback (as well as some not-so-great feedback), and taking them and my own awareness of my biggest issues into account, I have changed my strategy quite a bit. It’s important to note that I am always working to improve my current level - so a typical day for me in my first week, my fifth week and my eleventh week will each be completely different!

There isn’t one way and one strategy to learn a language, but you must adapt to your needs, environment and abilities.

Toning down on tones

As you can see from that video, I was focusing a huge amount on attempting to get my tones as correct as I could, and this required serious mental power as I said each syllable. This was based on the advice from a lot of people that I should focus on tones as much as possible in the beginning. It’s a bit of a double-edged sword, because all that energy on tones meant that I had no flow at all in the language.

So, my approach since then has been to learn words as best as I can, always attempting to get the tone right, but speaking quicker and sacrificing perhaps a few syllables to incorrect tones because of this.

It’s an approach I would highly recommend to other learners; definitely lots of work on tones at first, since it would be so much harder to fix bad tones when you are used to speaking the language for longer… but when your tones are “pretty good”, focus way more on speaking full words and sentences.

A few days should be enough for this – the two weeks that I gave it was too much.

The main issue with my first video was that I had to think a lot about each syllable and this lead to far too many pauses within words, which can lead to as many misunderstandings (or more) than speaking quicker with some tones wrong.

All that work on tones meant that I wasn’t able to get into conversations longer than brief interactions at all for almost my entire first month! That video was scripted and it still took me forever to say simple things, and this isn’t practical for real conversations.

If I had done my usual approach of saying things quickly as soon as possible and not worrying about mistakes, I’d be saying way more and conversing way more right now. But then again, it may be much harder to fix my tone issues. It has yet to be seen if I will have made the right choice, but what’s important is that right now I can converse and I am doing so with OK tones, so for the moment I think I made the right decision.

You’ll see in the video on Friday that I still have lots of room for improvement, but it’s way less awkward to listen to me speak, as well as being much easier to follow.

Getting over the plateau and finally conversing

This week I have reached a major milestone, just in time for my 1st month update: I can converse in Mandarin for long periods of time!! The temporary restriction (while I improve my comfort level and flow) is that I can only talk about certain things, and only with someone who knows to speak slowly.

I was stuck in a plateau for over a week of not feeling any important progress. My routine was similar to the frustrating day that I described, but my spoken practice was still for brief bursts, lasting only a few seconds each time. I was at the stage of being an “advanced tourist”, but far from being able to actually sit down with anyone for any length of time to talk, and was at danger of being stuck there for perhaps several weeks.

Speaking for any longer than a quick exchange was draining and a little stressful since it completely deflated my ego every single time it was one of the many new situations I was intentionally getting myself into, so I was keeping it a little at bay and studying a lot. After a very brief exchange, I’d retreat back to the books for several hours before the next one.

My main problem was that I wasn’t comfortable enough to speak. Whenever I tried, I’d freeze and wish I could look up the word, or realize how slowly I’m speaking and make an excuse to abandon ship. Most people’s solution to this problem would be “learn more words”, “improve your sentence structure” or the like, but I had a much better idea:

Force myself to speak with someone for three entire hours every single day

If you are learning to swim, you can either ease yourself in the shallow end with a floating device… or you can ask someone to push you in so you have to swim. As frustrating as speaking at this stage was being for me, I decided to, once again, run head-first into that frustration. Bursts weren’t enough – I needed no choice but to fill long periods of time with conversation.

So this week I’ve set up language exchanges and new lessons with different teachers, where the person would be motivated/paid to listen to me struggle, and I’d have to say something. I met one teacher who didn’t speak any English at all with me – after the class I felt once again like my brain was melting, but I had survived without simply repeating myself over and over. I had indeed successfully chatted about my time here, my work etc., and asked her about herself, and the particulars of our classes and future meet-ups, entirely in Mandarin.

This whole week I’ve kept this up and have spoken three hours of Mandarin every day, and my conversation skills are starting to appear! I feel like such an idiot all the time I’m speaking, but I’m ignoring that and doing it anyway, and I can feel the progress every single day. I finally have the flow that I was lacking in my first weeks.

The fact that I can only do this with teachers or a language exchange is a temporary (and expensive) setback, because I am improving quick enough that I will be ready to talk to someone speaking a little faster and about a wider range of topics very soon. For the moment, it’s a useful stepping stone to be on.

Rather than wait until I’m “ready”, I’m attempting to properly socialise in a non one-on-one situation in the language every few days, and will be attending a party this Saturday with mostly locals. I’ve already tried this and failed miserably, returning home feeling like my Mandarin is worthless, since I’m trying something way beyond my current level, but persistence will yield useful results. This week I am way more likely to be successful, and if not, then next week I’ll be even more likely.

A refusal to give up is the key to success.

Way more restricted character learning

Another problem with my first weeks, which I do regret, is that I was learning too many characters. Rather than apply the triage system I’ve discussed in many posts, I was learning essential words both spoken and written. This may sound like an excellent strategy for the long term, but for the short term it’s quite worthless.

I do indeed need to speak the likes of verbs and such, but I do not need to read these words with the same urgency.

What I need to read must be focused on vocabulary in signs and menus. In this sense, a word like “to live” (in a place) is essential for me to speak as it’s very likely that I will say (and hear) this very frequently in conversations, but I won’t be reading this on any typical menu or sign. So my character studies have been sliced down into just reviewing some Anki decks related to food for the moment, and even within that I am discarding many cards that come up as they don’t fit my personal requirements.

I’ve also tossed aside Heisig’s book, which was recommended to me by so many, as this is also far too focused on the long-term, in the sense that you systematically go through the book and after you know it all well, then you’ll be able to understand the meaning of the most useful characters as a whole. Even that is still unhelpful as it doesn’t cover words, so it’s yet another “long term investment”, where knowing individual characters will help you figure out what a word means… sometimes. At best, I’ll be using the book as a reference next month when I return to learning characters with more focus.

Reasons why too much of a “long term investment” approach can actually be an incredibly impractical way to learn a language is something I’ll discuss in much more detail in a later post.

There is a controversial point in learning Chinese, where so many people recommend that you focus on characters as much as possible, as soon as possible. Unlike the tone issue above though I am quite confident that I can learn these for non-essential words later. It’s way more efficient to focus on learning what is essential to you right now. On top of this I’ll be learning them for words that have full context in my mind, as I’ll be comfortable in speaking them.

This is actually the way most Chinese people learn the characters too – they will be aware of and have fully incorporated the sound as a child and then learn how it looks some time later.

Some day I would like to read a newspaper comfortably in Chinese (for this mission, I just want to get the gist of one if possible), but right now I need to read menus and signs. After that I would like to read short simple sentences and can focus on key vocabulary in those then, and so on to expand each time to something a little more complicated.

This advice will annoy perfectionist learners, but I highly recommend you streamline your character learning, rather than learn as many as you can as you come across them. It’s inefficient to try to learn everything if you plan to use the language in the real world any time soon.

Anyway, I’m certainly not avoiding character learning as I see the same ones when using my Pleco app, or in my books. So I’m getting used to seeing them all the time, and they are not foreign to me – many characters I’m most used to seem like the best way to describe a sound or even word now! But since speaking opens up so many more doors and opportunities than reading does, I am focused on that much more.

Frequently Asked Questions

I asked those who have liked my Facebook page (as well as twitter) to leave their questions for me to answer in this post, and here are a few of the most interesting ones, which were relevant to my Chinese mission:

  • How did you improve your ability to differentiate/recognize tones when hearing multisyllable words?

In my opinion, focusing too much on learning individual characters (i.e. syllables) is a mistake. Words should always be learned as containing all their syllables in quick succession, as we do in every other language.

When doing this, you learn the tones in sequence, rather than individually. So for me “problem” is not wèn, 問 a falling tone, the core word sometimes meaning “ask”, followed by tí, 題 a rising tone, core word sometimes meaning “topic, subject” etc. which requires so much damn thinking, but simply wèntí (falling-rising) as one unit, not caring about the component parts, unless I come to them another time as an individual word themselves. I’ll discuss the techniques I’m using to remember multi-syllablic words with their tones another time.

Learning them individually will leave you speaking like I did in my first video, or needing a native to slow down far too much. Just for the moment I need a native to slow down at the word level, not at the syllable level.

  • Compared to all the other languages you’ve studied, how does Mandarin compare in difficulty?

I’m actually at exactly the point I was hoping to be at after one month. I was much slower to get into conversations than in any other language I’ve tackled, but the sentence structure is so much more logical that I am expressing myself as coherently as I would be in learning any other language in a different language family after this amount of time. European languages require way more thinking in terms of very complex grammar issues and conjugations, and I almost have none of that to slow me down here.

The time it took from forcing myself to start speaking for longer periods of time, to actually being decently comfortable in having conversations has happened in a matter of days. In this evening’s conversation session, I would actually even go as far as to say that I was comfortable speaking (within the limited topics I can discuss) without feeling like my brain was melting the entire time as I’ve been up to now. While this is quite fast, keep in mind that 9 hours of pure speaking, with a native constantly there for feedback is a lot of time!!

So it’s harder to get into it, but when you do it’s way easier to make progress faster. This balancing act means that I still have no reason to think Mandarin is “harder”.

Vocabulary is an issue since I have almost no cognates I can rely on, as I would do in European languages, but then again, learning new vocabulary is way easier because the words are so short! There are a lot of homophones (words that sound the same), and this can be confusing… but it can also help you to learn because there is such a limited amount of ways that words can be pronounced, and you can use one word to help you learn the other if you do it with an efficient enough mnemonic.

In this way, for every “disadvantage”, I’ve found something that totally balances it out. I plan to write a detailed post about this much later. In the mean time, regarding difficulty levels in general I’d highly suggest you read this post.

  • How did you pull off an hour long conversation without hitting stumbling blocks like not knowing the right word or not knowing words that your conversation partner was using?

If the other person is speaking, I use extrapolation. Take the words I do know and try my best to figure out if I can know what they were likely saying. Context fills in so many of the holes that the conversation can indeed continue.

If I’m speaking and don’t know a particular word then I use a simpler word. Basic verbs like “to do” get overused, but with enough context it’s also quite clear what I’m talking about. Since I’m mostly talking to my teachers, they would be experienced enough in doing this with foreigners. Once again, this is just a stepping stone. I’m doing lots of work on vocabulary and will be using work-arounds less and less, so the other person has less of a need to adjust for me.

It’s very important to realise that “the right word” is not important at all. It’s a “good enough word” that you really need if you are trying to get by.

  • Do you have a Chinese nickname?

Not yet – some people reading the blog have offered to give me one, but I’d rather get one from a friend I make naturally here. I did this with ASL and am very pleased with my sign name because it has a personal history.

  • Given the fact that your other known languages do not belong to the same linguistic family, do they still help you learning Mandarin and if so, how?

Oddly enough, my basic American Sign Language has been helping me because it has a similar word order!

Otherwise there are other features that crop up, like the fact that “Yes/No” questions are answered with the verb of the question since there is no word for yes/no, as in Irish, and these questions have a question particle as in Esperanto. There are also general advantages of having learned other languages that give me a head start like being absolutely sure that the world won’t end if I go up to someone and speak the language (it takes some time to realize this!)

  • What’s the most challenging thing for you when learning Chinese?

The greatest challenge I am having by far has nothing to do with the language itself. When you learn languages in Latin cultures, or when I was learning Turkish or Tagalog etc. I found that people were very quick to approach me and start conversations. Asian cultures are quite different and in Taiwan most people let me be. For me it’s quite strange that in an entire month nobody has come up to me or tried to make any conversation, but I imagine it’s because I’m Caucasian and therefore unlikely (based unfortunately, on most likely interactions with other westerners) to speak Mandarin having a lot to do with it.

Although when I do the speaking first they are always quick to encourage conversation, so using skin colour as an excuse is quite weak. Nobody has switched to English if I start in Mandarin, since I do some simple things to make sure it doesn’t happen.

The problem is that this puts a lot more pressure on me to do all the approaching and hopefully make friends, and this is important as socialising in the target language is very important for me to improve quickly.

I’d say Portuguese is one of the easier languages to learn not because of its grammar etc. (which is more different to Spanish than most people think), but because Brazilians are the friendliest people I’ve ever met. I was approached by strangers every single day in Brazil – and conversations flow from this. The Taiwanese are definitely friendly, but in a different way – out of respect I suppose. Then again this may just be in issue in Taipei city, with those in the countryside being quicker to approach strangers, but I’m comparing it to my experience in cities in general.

This is not actually a major problem – it just means that it’s extra work for me that I don’t usually have, and I’m already working myself very hard…

This month I’ll get into socialising much more, and figuring out how to do that in such a way that I can start using the language more naturally is going to require me to put on my thinking cap. But discovering how to get around social and cultural differences is all part of the fun!

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That’s it! There were lots of other questions, but I’ve either answered them elsewhere or they weren’t so relevant, or I’ve answered them anyway within this post.

Hopefully this long post gives you an idea of where I am at – so far so good :D On Friday you’ll see my one-month-level video, which I wanted to separate from this post.

Share your comments about any of these points below!

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  • http://www.facebook.com/leesean Lee-Sean Huang

    Hi Benny! Thanks for the update. I’m an avid follower of your blog and also an aspiring polyglot myself. I’m Taiwanese-American and I think it’s great that you are learning Mandarin in Taipei! I tutored Mandarin for a bit in the past, and I found that one way to help learners master the tones is to get the learner to think about the tones not in isolation, but as a contour in a phrase. So while it is extremely important to get the tone of an individual syllable correctly at first, I suggest “mapping out” the tones in a phrase and practicing them that way, rather than word by word, even if the phrase is just 2 or 4 characters long. This “contour chunking” will help your pronunciation flow a little better. “Drawing” the tone contours in the air while you say a phrase seems to help too. Think about mastering the tones in spoken Mandarin as learning to sing a song. It may be helpful to start by learning a song note by note, but the real music comes from the relationship between notes, so it makes sense to learn the music (and Mandarin tones) as set of contours in a phrase.  

    I hope that made sense and was helpful, it’s probably something that is easier to demonstrate in a video.   

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny Lewis

      Thanks for the tips!

  • WC

    It would seem your admonition of my reply to the last article was correct.  I had actually typed out a long reply, but then trashed it as unconstructive and decided to wait and see how things went.

    I’m still surprised that you find Chinese no harder than other languages, but not as much as I was.  

  • http://stephanieisinspain.wordpress.com/ Stephanie

    I love the update.  It’s inspiring to hear about your progression in Mandarin!  I love the no BS approach, and that you said Mandarin really doesn’t have to be any harder.  We’re always accusing it of being one of the hardest languages, but you’re right, it’s not harder, just different.  We could learn so much more if we didn’t mentally block ourselves.

    I’ve been working on my undergrad for…a really long time.  After ten years of wishing, I’m FINALLY living in Spain (Asturias) for the semester.  Spanish is the language everyone considers the easiest to learn, but when you focus too hard you just get brain fries.  Anyway…I used to be awesome, took a hiatus, not so great anymore (or at least, my confidence isn’t!)…so I forced myself to go in the shopping district here and approach people.  I found myself sitting on benches with senior citizens and talking to panhandlers.  It helps! 

    Point is, this gives me inspiration to push harder, work harder, and hope that I can perfect this as much as possible in the next four months.  Thanks!

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny Lewis

    This isn’t necessarily a good thing. I like it when people go out of their way to interact with strangers. Timidness isn’t a good quality in my book, and something I’ll have to work around to make new friends.

    • Gweipo Ster

      The other thing about learning portuguese in Brazil is that a great many people don’t speak English – so you HAVE to use it all the time.  And I think the level of English in Taiwan is much poorer than in the average mainland chinese city these days, so you made a wise choice there.

      • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny Lewis

        Are you sure about that? Education is quite good here, and when I am really really stuck and do need to fall back, I’ve found that people’s English is way better than they let on. But they prefer to speak Chinese, which works out great for me!

  • Ethan Caine

    I bought your book last year and well…it sits on my hard drive.  Your determination has once again inspired me to start studying and more importantly start speaking.

  • Justin Mair

    Good on ya.  I know Thai and Mandarin are not the same, but the thing that helped me when learning the Thai tones was to use one sylable and practice saying the different tones over and over.  I did that every morning 10 mins a day for 2 weeks.   After that I focused on words and not tones.  That little drill helped solidify the tones in my head and improved the words drasticly.

    I know this is a bit late, but just something that helped me way back when I didn’t know Thai.

  • David Cheney

    I had studied Chinese for over a year when I went to Beijing last spring.  My skill level was about where you are now, after one month.  However, I had no trouble finding people to talk to.  On my morning walks, I would greet people I met with something other than ni hao, like zao an, or shang wu hao.  If they answered and smiled, I would ask a question like, “may I ask, where is a camera store? (in mandarin of course)  They would tell me, or say they didn’t know and we would begin talking about other things, like family or weather or whatever.  I did this for about 6 hours almost every day.  I was only there for 2 weeks, but I got very comfortable speaking and hearing the language.  If I didn’t understand, most people were very patient with me.  I didn’t become fluent in 2 weeks, but I found I could survive in most situations.
    I also wrote in a journal, sitting on a park bench, and someone would look at it with curiosity.  I would say, “ni xiang kan le ma?” (Do you want to read it?)  Of course they couldn’t read my poor penmanship in English and pinyin, but it would start another conversation.   Suggestions for what it’s worth.

  • Anonymous

    Benny,

    Are you using Mandarin-language songs to help you learn the tones? Is Chinese karaoke part of your strategy?

    As for letting you “be”, I really appreciated how the Taiwanese let me “be” when I was there. I do enjoy just being myself in other countries and not attracting attention as the foreigner. I do understand how this could be difficult from a language learning perspective. 

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny Lewis

      Yes, it’s a mixed blessing! I don’t feel like I’m being treated differently as a foreigner.
      No karaoke – first I need to make the friends to invite me!! But I’ll definitely be learning a song or two later on. I’m listening to a lot of love songs on the radio, since they sing slowly and its easier to make out the words.

      • Anonymous

         I’m looking forward to your singing karoake in Mandarin. I used to have a roommate from Hong Kong who listened to Canto-pop and I sang along having no idea what I was singing.

  • http://www.facebook.com/Daniel.Ravenscroft.Paterson Dan Paterson

    Hey mate, just found your blog and quite love it! I spent a year in China (Wuhan, Hubei province) learning Chinese. I’m glad someone pointed out that the flow of the language is as important as tones. After a while, tones will come naturally. You’ll distinguish them as second nature. Until then, the constant practice should get you by. Whenever I got them wrong I was almost always happily corrected!

    Looking forward to seeing more!

    All the best, Dan.

  • http://www.japaneseruleof7.com/ Ken Seeroi

    I think your decision to hire private tutors is a very good one.  I did that for Japanese off and on for a couple of years.  Even when you have friends to talk to, you won’t learn as much as you would from a paid teacher.  A teacher will keep you on track and push you to make progress, whereas friends usually try to make things as easy as possible for you (and them).  I think it’s money well spent.

    In addition to living in Japan, I’ve also traveled in Taiwan, and I agree the concept of friendliness is quite different in Asian cultures.   I wouldn’t be too quick to label it as “respect” or “politeness,” however.  It’s too easy to have a stereotypical view of Asians as being more respectful.  I wouldn’t say that’s true. 

    At least in Japan (but I believe it also applies to Taiwan), they don’t really have a culture built around friendships with people you don’t already have connections with.  People who speak English learn other ways of relating to people, but people who speak only Japanese generally don’t understand well how to establish and maintain friendships.  You know, growing up in the West, all those years we spent developing social skills –building friendships, having arguments, making up–they didn’t do it.  Japanese don’t relate well to one another, so it’s no surprise that foreigners have a hard time relating to them as well (unless, again, they speak English, and then it’s a whole other ball game).  You may find the same thing in Taiwan, and if so, it may prove to be a greater challenge than the language.  But knowing you, you’ll find a way to overcome it.

    Keep moving forward,

    Ken

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny Lewis

      Thanks for the cultural mindset summary! I’ll definitely keep it in mind if it applies here too! And yes, money spent on teachers is definitely well spent, especially since I steer the way the lesson goes, and make sure it’s conversation focused rather than lesson focused, since I can learn lists of words or grammar rules by myself without spending money.

  • Gweipo Ster

    If you want to improve your fluency, there is a book called Practical rhythmic chinese (http://www.amazon.com/Practical-Rhythmic-Chinese-1-mp3/dp/7560080227) which chants some standard sentence structures to a beat, you can then extrapolate and substitute your own nouns / adjectives whatever.
    It really helps with getting the language moving at a faster pace and to get away from words to sentences as a whole.

  • Gweipo Ster

    Here is a better explanation – it’s got simplified characters, but I never bothered with the character bit, used to listen to the CD all the time to get the structure and rhythm into my head
    http://www.chinasprout.com/shop/BLL094

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny Lewis

    I really am sick of your arrogant and unhelpful tone Judith. And you clearly are not even reading the post! I’m NOT focusing on high-frequency characters!! Please kindly leave me alone if you have nothing helpful to say – your comments are wearing my patience thin.

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny Lewis

    That’s the most complimentary insult I’ve ever gotten :P

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny Lewis

    Absolutely – I’ll never doubt its efficiency in doing what it proposes. But I will doubt the usefulness of that objective in the first place for short-term objectives, which are far too widely ignored in language learning.

    As I said, I’ll come back to the book next month and may appreciate it more, although I don’t think I’ll have as much of a need to learn characters as I will full words for my non-ambitious reading goals.

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny Lewis

    1 & 2 make a lot of sense.
    3 is just as applicable to many places I’ve lived in though.
    But they are definitely friendly once I break the ice, so I look forward to making some cool friends now that I can at least converse basically!

    • Kevin Iga

      Yes, Chinese are often used to being introduced to someone before they feel like they can talk to them.  Which means if two people have never met, neither will want to break the ice.  But if *you* break the ice, and introduce yourself, they may think it weird at first but then you’re introduced and they can talk to you now!

      Glad to hear you’re making friends.

  • Kevin Iga

    For what it’s worth, I’ve heard the same statement from an MIT linguist (it may have been Alec Marantz but it might have been James Harris).  He was making the point that sign languages have grammars like spoken languages do, and said that ASL had a word order that had some similarities to Mandarin.

  • Kevin Iga

    A suggestion for a blog video post: It has been useful and enjoyable seeing some milestones but so far you’re mostly been showing us only prepared monologues (you have interviews for the Lantern Festival but they’re not interactive).  These, I think, undercut your main point: that language learning is not a matter of speaking everything perfectly, but a matter of interacting with real people.  Consider what you’re doing for those video posts: you are making sure they are absolutely correct, with NO errors, then saying them outside of a social context–the exact opposite of what you are suggesting language learners should do!

    I’m glad to hear you’re having real conversations in Mandarin for hours at a time (even if it’s with your tutors), but it would be nice if your blog had some clips from these interactions.  Show us how you get around not knowing the right word for something, or saying things the wrong way, yet still communicating effectively while learning new words and expressions.  Or what you do when it’s clear communication has broken down, or when you’re struggling to think of what to say.  And not caring whether or not you make “mistakes”.  As the weeks go by, I think we will see you making fewer and fewer “basic” mistakes and making more and more “advanced” mistakes as you tackle more and more interesting conversations.  And that will be a nice illustration of your language hacking techniques, much more than prepared “correct” monologues.

    Of course I am thankful for the fact that you’re sharing what you are doing with us for free, so I don’t want to sound ungrateful.  Your posts have been fun and educational, and I really do appreciate them.  But I am just noticing a way in which your blog can be an even better illustration of your language learning principles than it is right now.

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny Lewis

      Thanks for the suggestion, but please be patient as I upload new videos. The purpose of this video is actually to share a cultural insight. The side purpose is to show people that I have gotten my basic flow and that natives can understand me. You are underplaying the importance of knowing prepared sentences – as I speak “spontaneously” with my teachers I am using a limited vocabulary and do tend to use set phrases a lot.

      In about 2 weeks if I’m comfortable at speaking at this stage, I’ll upload a completely spontaneous video, but once again I’m interested in the content of the actual video and want to discuss something interesting and worth watching. A video I’d upload now would just be of me talking about myself, saying things everyone who reads this blog knows already.

      From a language learning perspective it may be “interesting”, but I am trying to frame languages as USEFUL things, not something to be picked apart and analysed. My level of Chinese is useful to introduce myself to people right now and make smalltalk. This does not transfer well onto Youtube or for spectators. I will strike a balance between transparency in my current level AND something actually worth watching beyond linguistic curiosity.

      People can get inspired to see me struggle in a spontaneous video next time, but I will be talking about something other than myself when I do that.

      There is also the issue that it’s way harder than you think to find people willing to talk on camera – most of my time to make that video was to simply find and convince people. It’s why I only did 2 interviews – otherwise I would have had many more! It’s not as easy as you think it is to ask my teacher if I can record our lesson and upload it for thousands of people (a lot of them who will definitely say mean things, possibly about her too) to scrutinise.

      Based on the reception every single video I’ve uploaded in the last month has gotten I’d have to honestly tell the teacher that mean things will be said, possibly about her too. This is a lot to ask. I’ve just met some of my new teachers this week and can’t propose such a thing so quickly.

      But I’ll find a way. Just know that I’m well aware that everyone wants to see absolutely every single step of my language learning journey, but transparency has its practical limits.

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny Lewis

    Next week I’ll have a spontaneous chat with my teacher and record it, and will try to get more spontaneous chats if I can later on, especially in more interesting situations. Hidden cameras are illegal and immoral. This isn’t a reality show…

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1030142615 Brian Farnell

    Tones…I graduated in the top of my class in one of the hardest language schools in the country and my tones were terrible, even non-existent according to some of my teachers.  Chinese has so many homophones that everything is understood from context anyway…you can get away with NO TONES.  I do not recommend this, but don’t get hung up on tones at the expense of learning.  I could talk all night long about any subject with little troubles.  Since tones are vocal inflection, you’ll actually pick them up through repeated exposure.  The truth…most Chinese speak Mandarin as a second language and their tones are often wrong (drawing from their native dialect), which can be more difficult than having no tones at all.  Just say the word with the correct tone when you are learning, and if it sticks in your memory that’s great, but don’t worry if it doesn’t.  They will naturally appear because of ‘mirroring’ from frequent exposure.  The mirroring effect is stronger the more you like/respect the person you are talking to, so keep that in mind.

  • http://www.facebook.com/marcelofschiavo Marcelo Schiavo

    Eu adoro quando vc fala bem do Brasil rs
    If we had in the beginning this feeling that we get after reaching a good level at something, it would be a lot easier to push ourselves to our best. 

  • dump zhinese

    are u a stupid Zhinese upholder? Truth: Russian dislike speak English with foreigners because they think

    Russian is a royal tongue of their own, although environment in Russia is not agreeable. But, anyone from P

    R C (main land C)and Ta i wan and Hongkong refuse to talk in Zhinese with somebody from oversea because

    Zhinese is a stupid language and very suck. We want international friends help rescue us. It is not popular

    inside and outside Chinese speaking circle. If possible, we choose to chat in another tongue between us,

    too. It is just supported by the feudal hierarchy system, do you like this? there is no real humanity, no

    freedom, no open-minded…… full of hypocricy and monarchy and chacinery and…in Chinese. Ok, maybe

    someone think its abysmal handscript is funny? Then, perhaps you’re a paiating artist! Now Chinese is lying

    to the whole world about how well it is. In fact, it is absolutely a feudal dynasty indeed. And maybe you

    should call me Chinese just according the ID card, but, I think I’m colonized by C N.

    Oh, forget onethig, there’re lots of Chinese teaching insitutions financed by main land PRC in many

    countries worldly, and these school acclaim they can teach you some stupid curious stuff in C N!? Oh, yes,

    they do. they do waste our citizens’ tax to create more and more ‘ZHINESE’, and socialism (the biggest liar

    in the human history), if you like^-^, Aha, similar with communistic slogan: Communism liberalize the whole

    world! …Plus, suck zhinese culture liberalize the whole world! Yes, I think you like that, eh?

    At least, speaking any language is funny a little bit more.

    At last, remember any zhinese speaker never want to chat with u in znese. Not believe, You can try a

    litte…

  • Andrew

    This post is a little late, but yeah, the best way to learn Chinese is to simply listen and repeat and not think about tones AT ALL. That is the approach I am taking in learning Cantonese and it seems to work pretty well, but then again I am Chinese. In fact I wasn’t even aware the Asian languages had tones until I was in High School. Before that I would just listen to the sounds and just associate a particular noun or verb which I already knew in english with that sound in Cantonese, this was when I was a kid.

  • Gus Mueller

    I’m always puzzled by people having trouble with the 4 tones. (Only 4! and they’re all pretty different). But you are right about one thing: Chinese has words of 1,2,3,or 4 syllables (maybe 5 for all I know) but when they say yinhang or gogngongqiche they are thinking “bank” or “bus” not “silver business” or “public work air cart” and the learner should get onto that as early as possible… it’s down to the teacher: I was never taught “wenti” as two words. I can’t imagine anyone is.