Benny’s 3.25 month video: questions that waste your time

Here you go! My 3 month and one week Mandarin video!

[Video also available on Youku. Click CC to enable captions in English, Simplified Chinese, or Traditional Chinese]

My interviewer is John Pasden, who writes at the 10-year-strong blog dedicated to all things Chinese-learning, Sinosplice. He is a co-host at Chinesepod (which I’ve been listening to regularly throughout the 3 month project – separate post about that coming up next week, with another video interview with the other main co-host, Jenny).

This will probably be my last video interviewing another white guy for a while :P This is also the last video where the main point will be to show my level, as I’m going to attempt to use my Chinese to share much more interesting things in future, during my cultural exploration of the country (hence the new video introduction).

Despite that, we did manage to have an interesting discussion. I’ve written about this topic in great detail before regarding the hardest language to learn, and in this video I mention how wasteful I find the idea of comparing language difficulties for non-linguists.

It’s an “interesting” thing to ponder over, but I personally find it as useful as the question “I wonder if I’m in the matrix?” – perhaps a fascinating discussion about what-ifs and theory, but it involves unrealistic precursors that apply to nobody, like “all things being equal”, and has no real world applications at all. It’s nothing more than an annoying distraction for people who are more pragmatically focused on using their one key language.

For most people, it’s a completely impractical thing to ask in the first place. If you are only learning one foreign language then who cares about relative difficulty with other languages that you are not currently learning? Focus on your own language and stop wasting time wondering how easy or hard other ones are.

The same goes for any such question. If someone is a smarter language learner than you, has more free time than you or whatever, well good for them I suppose. But who cares when it comes to you and your situation? Don’t let anything like that distract or demotivate you. Only ask questions with the ultimate purpose of improving your learning strategy.

You have your own story to live, you will overcome your challenges, and you will focus on your situation. Nothing else matters.



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  • Icekid17

    You have you won story to live? Do you mean one?
    intresting article. Gotta say i’m guilty of having the whole most important language discussion?

    • Benny Lewis

      If you enjoy the discussion, as a way to pass the time or whatever, there’s nothing wrong with it. But if it influences your language learning in any shape or form (discouraging you, or making you feel jealous of learners of other “easier” languages), then it needs to stop now ;)

      Nothing wrong with an interesting theoretical discussion, as long as it’s ignored in the real world, where it has no practical application.

  • Logancameron

    Very good job! I think when you broke the mandarin up when you said “Chinesepod” you said it in an American accent! haha maybe its just me, sometimes the Irish and American accents sound similar on certain words.
    When I have to say an english word in a language I’m speaking, I usually say it like an Amercian so they understand clearly ( I’m from New Zealand)

  • Paulo Roberto

    Awesome, dude.
    Chinese is my next language.

    • Benny Lewis

      Glad to hear it! Have fun :D

  • Benny Lewis

    In my experience, speaking at normal speed (actually, how I’m speaking is terribly slow compared to many native speakers) with lots of mistakes but doing it confidently is way less annoying than speaking at a snail’s pace. In social situations this is not practical.

    Remember, the focus should be on efficient communication, NOT speaking perfectly. Also, my goal is to use a language in the same way as how I use English, and I don’t speak English slowly. Speaking at this speed helps a conversation progress better.

  • John Biesnecker

    真不错, Benny. Quite impressive. 

  • westmeadboy

    Hey Benny – not strictly related to this post – but looking at your route, I strongly recommend you don’t miss Hangzhou (now is a great time of year for it too) and also get into those mountains in Sichuan!  Maybe spend as little time in Zhengzhou as possible (I hated it) :)

    As you might expect, you will get a completely different impression of China when outside of the cities so try to get into the countryside!

    I’ve travelled many parts of China and find Yunnan/Sichuan is best for me.

    Happy travels :)

  • Joe Lemien

    I actually have an opposite take to the whole “hardest language” thing than many people. This is completely irrelevant to the many language learners who will only learn one language. However, Chinese was my first foreign language, so I have great confidence that I can learn any language because I learned one that tends to take more time/effort than most! All I need to do is have the motivation and put in the hours.  :)  After grinding away at Mandarin for so many hours, the alphabetic nature and clear patterns of conjugation in French and Spanish have seemed simple, and even Russian has seemed easy in at least one aspect: it has an alphabet! I would encourage budding language learners to learn languages that greatly differ from their native languages first, so that when one tackles other languages they seem easier.

  • Jeff Petersen

    Great work. I wonder how many of the so-called linguists who attack you could show such progress in three months. Looking forward to your final video from China in another three.

  • Dave@ChineseHacks

    Good going, Benny, sounds like the Chinese is coming along nicely.
    I’ll be really intersted to hear your thoughts on how you find all the different accents and dialect usage around the various parts of China, you’ll have to post about this after your travels.
    Also, make sure to get in touch when you are back in Taiwan!

    • Benny Lewis

      Will do!

  • TLH

    You sounded like you had a pretty good rhythm there.  Of course, I know nothing about Chinese, so I’m sure it’s slower than how most native speakers speak.  Actually, even the “ums” and “uhs” were in good places, if that makes sense (it wasn’t even used too much; and it seemed pretty natural).  Looks like you’ve really accomplished a lot!  

  • Rtsundberg

    Hi Benny,
    I’m wondering if you’ve ever taken the MBTI (Myers Brigg’s Personality Test)? I’m just curious. ENTP, etc…

    • Benny Lewis

      Nope. Please keep questions relevant ;)

  • Kevin Iga

    Good job,  Benny!

  • Benny Lewis

    Having a bad day? That’s quite the illogical rant.

    It’s not just abstract, it’s ludicrous. It’s liberating when you realize how people actually spend most of their time worrying about their own little problems and hang-ups, and assess, analyse or criticise nothing about you apart from a fleeting comment perhaps.

    Sorry to be the one to tell you this, but maybe you aren’t as much the centre of attention as you think :P If people give you a funny look, maybe they’ve actually had a bad sandwich.

    • Randybvain

       You have forgotten that I am Polish, one of people about which you have written: ” I’ve found the Poles are among the worst at this “our language is the hardest” nonsense.” :) We tend to spend most time speaking of others, assessing them and showing that we are better than them. “Funny looks”? What about the verbal abuse and threats to lynch? Well, I know that is ludicrous, I agree with you, I hadn’t realised that however until I moved to UK (and that is one of the reasons I did it).
      I write this not just to show that you are wrong, to contradict you or to troll but I have one reason in my mind: I just want you smash such a comments with your positive mentality, to do exactly what you did: say that it is ludicrous. I admire deeply your growing mindset and I would like more people have this.

      • Benny Lewis

        Fair enough! ;)

  • Sum Dum Gai

    That John speaks well, good pronunciation.

  • Benny Lewis

    My book is specifically written for people NOT in the foreign country actually. I presume that from the offset, and have never written a single blog post saying that being in the country is necessary.

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    • Benny Lewis


  • Benny Lewis

    Press ‘CC’ on Youtube. All of my videos have had subtitles for a year. Recent ones have three versions of subtitles.

  • Matthew Ho

    Excellent job Benny! I was very impressed with what you have achieved in a few months

  • Steve Wheeler

    Fluent or not, well done! You’re having meaningful conversations in a language that I thought (due to tones, writing etc) was practically impossible. I’ve read a lot of hot wind from people discussing whether or not you’re at ‘C1′ level or whatnot. However, the fact of the matter is that you achieved more than what I am sure most people feel is possible in 3 months. Thank god you’re thick-skinned enough to survive all the demotivating, negative, naysaying comments people post beforehand (though I am sure that if you weren’t thick-skinned then you wouldn’t be a polyglot). I think in the future I will try to see how well I can learn Korean in 3 months, I did a similar thing when I started to learn Spanish (with just a grammar book and the people of Barcelona as my teachers).. immersion really, really helps. Anyway, well done again, I hope you aren’t getting so many ‘learning headaches’ now (I am getting them a lot by learning Lithuanian at the moment…).

    Un Abrazo!

  • Noel Kelly

    Yep! Fully agree. I’m learning Polish right now, and I’ve been told God knows how many times that it’s the hardest language to learn and “good luck!” (in the most patronizing way). It irritates people to no end whenever I say Polish really isn’t that hard, at least I really don’t think so. Thankfully, my girlfriend (who is Polish) is very supportive and doesn’t share this mindset. Thanks to her feedback I know I am making much faster progress than anybody imagined. I don’t care how much harder Polish is to other languages, would knowing that information really help me to learn Polish at all? I don’t think so. As you said, you just gotta work at it. :)

  • Benny Lewis

    Yes, I know that patronizing “good luck”. I’ve found the Poles are among the worst at this “our language is the hardest” nonsense. Good on you to have the patience to put up with it so consistently!

  • Randybvain

     Jeśli chodzi o ścisłość, to większość Polaków ma duży problem ze zdaniem egzaminów z polskiego na każdym poziomie edukacji. Problem jest tak duży, że od czasu, kiedy ja chodziłem do szkoły, obniżono próg zdawalności do 30%, jak mi się wydaje. Nic dziwnego zatem, że traktujemy polski jako bardzo trudny i nie chcemy uwierzyć, że jakiś cudzoziemiec może nauczyć się języka, którego sami nie możemy się nauczyć. Ale jest jedno ale. W szkołach jest uczony polski język literacki, którym prawie nikt nie mówi, no, może krakowiakami, jak sądzę. Polski mówiony jest o wiele mniej skomplikowany, połowa słownictwa pochodzi z innych języków, między innymi z angielskiego, gramatyka jest uproszczona, więc biorąc pod uwagę, że Benny nauczył się podstaw czeskiego podczas swego pobytu w Pradze, tak samo można się nauczyć polskiego w tym samym czasie.

    As a matter of fact, the majority of Poles has a huge problem with passing their language exams on every level of their education. This problem is so big that from the time I was going to school, the threshold of passing was decreased to 30%, I suppose. So it is nothing strange that we treat Polish as very hard and we can’t believe that a foreigner could learn a language we cannot learn. But there is a but. In schools the literary Polish is taught, not spoken by Poles but the people from Cracow, I think. The coloquial, spoken Polish is much less complex, the half of the vocabulary comes from other languages, among them English, the grammar is simplified, so if Benny learned basic Czech when being in Praha, it is possible to learn Polish in the same way in the same time.

    (I love both languages!!!!)

  • Ken Seeroi

    Benny, great job on learning Mandarin.  You worked hard and it’s paid off.  I kind of wish you’d stay with this language longer though, just to see where you’d be after six months or a year, but I know you’re off to other ones.  (Polish, really? Wow.)

    Following Veronica and Andreii’s comments, I’d also like to know what this “really easy way to learn kanji is.”  After diving in and learning to speak fluent Japanese (similar to what Benny has done in Mandarin), I found it essential to also learn the written language in order to expand my vocabulary.  If there’s something you’d consider “easy” or a shortcut, I’d like to know what it is!

  • Benny Lewis

    What? I’m not learning Polish – I am staying with this longer – please read recent blog posts; I’m devoting 3 months to travelling in Chinese speaking areas.

  • Ken Seeroi

    My bad.  (I see now where I misunderstood.)  Actually, I’m glad to hear you’ll be traveling deeper into China, because I’d love to hear your take on the culture there, and to see how your language skills progress.

    Feel free to come to Japan next.  There’s a whole country of people waiting to speak English with you!