No pain no gain

I’ve spent 3 hours today looking like this, and currently have a splitting headache.

To contrast with yesterday’s post, where I talk about comfort in the language in the pre-fluency stage, I thought I’d give you another glimpse into the huge amount of discomfort I’m also going through a lot of the time.

Since I know from pre-fluency experience that there IS a lot you can do in the language at that stage, it’s tempting to take things easy and just stick to the friends who are patient enough to speak to me slowly, and know that being able to do what I can now (which is a lot) is enough. But there are too many limitations of this stage, so I’m of course charging forward.

One point I really need to fix and jumped into immediately was the fact that I only understand if people speak to me slowly. And in-person meet-ups (with one person) and casual chats are fine, since a lot of visual cues can help me quite a lot, so over the last week I’ve started getting more lessons online entirely by audio calls. I hate audio calls – I even have a policy of almost never answering my phone if it rings, even when in an English speaking country.

The first one last week was really hard without visual cues or seeing the person’s expressions or body language to help me, so even though they spoke slowly it was a rough hour. But in the spirit of progress I stuck with it, and after lots of daily lessons with different patient teachers, I can handle audio only conversations with a slow speaker in the same way I can when there are lots of visual cues.

But today, I started with new teachers (info on resources I use to find them coming later; suffice it to say, it’s super easy to learn online, and it actually has advantages over in person lessons!!) and requested that they speak normally to me. One of these teachers was from Beijing and their “normal” speed sounds like an auctioneer on Red Bull… in a very different accent I’m not familiar with.

For an entire hour I had to be incredibly focused and it was exhausting. Infuriating actually. They don’t speak that fast on Taiwanese radio, and unlike with the radio, I had to react and interact immediately – I felt like I had to process a dozen words a second, and was doing a pretty poor job at it, but scraping through to try my best to keep some form of conversation going.

Even two whole months into learning the language as intensively as I’m doing, I’m having these very difficult periods because of pushing myself out of my comfort zone. Once again, my brain felt like it was melting, and despite the comfort in doing the kinds of tasks I talked about yesterday, I feel like an idiot once again.

After the first hour-long class I was at the point where if I was the kind of person who smoked or drank, I’d be going for a puff or a shot. Instead, I opted to bang my head against the wall a few times.

The frustration of individual sessions like this isn’t helped by the overall frustration of two whole months not being able to socialise at the deep level I can in my other fluent languages (although I am socialising with patient listeners), since I’m sticking to the plan of keeping everything in Mandarin, and still dealing with cultural adjustment issues. But rather than give up, this frustration has me even more determined to keep at it until I can get to the other side and be able to have deep natural conversations in Mandarin too.

An entire hour of Mandarin that’s way outside my comfort zone felt terrible, my ego is destroyed (again), my head really hurts (from over thinking, not the wall banging) and I feel like my brow will be permanently furrowed… so despite (or actually because of) all this, the last thing I did in the class was to book the teacher for her next available slot this week.

The only way I’ll move forward through this tricky stage is by lots and lots of painful exposure. I accept that many parts of language learning are really annoying and that you don’t have to enjoy it all, so I’ll keep putting myself through these frustrating tasks, so that I can come out the other end that little bit more comfortable. I’m not looking forward to my next Beijing auctioneer teacher lesson, but I’m going to have as many frustrating sessions like this as I can until they aren’t frustrating any more.

No pain, no gain.



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  • Joop Kiefte

    Eu ainda hoje em dia me sinto assim quando falo com portugueses, seja na vida real ou no telefone. O sotaque é tão diferente que preciso me concentrar muitíssimo para entender o que estão falando. Imagino que seja mais ou menos assim para você, já que tantas pessoas falam Mandarim que não é possível que todos falem igual… Mesmo assim, posso dizer que se com dor consegue entender, já é muitíssimo. Eu já comecei a aprender Chinês e consigo usar em bate-papo, mas tô bem longe do seu nível de agora, com certeza!

    • Benny Lewis

      Eu recebi alguns Couchsurfers de Portugal – o primeiro foi bem difícil entender, mas agora dá pra entender e posso falar com eles sem problema (ainda não tão rápido que faria com brazucas). Eu esqueci – vc fala espanhol da Espanha? Eu acho que isso me ajuda um pouquinho com os portugueses (mas do que o espanhol de América do sul).

      Saudades do Brasil!! Vc pode ver que tenho que pagar muitos professores pra treinar o meu mandarim – é por problemas culturais e porque eles são mas tímidos aqui. No Brasil eu festejei até falar bem a língua :P

      • Joop Kiefte

        Falo Espanhol da Espanha, isso já ajuda mesmo, mas falo Português do Brasil melhor do que Espanhol da Espanha… Mas a ultima vez que usei Espanhol até falavam que tinha demais sotaque americano :(.

  • ash

    “No pain no gain” or rather “Language learning sado-masochist”, you seem to enjoy your frustation way too much ;)

    • Benny Lewis

      Trust me, I’m not enjoying this frustration at all :P I’d rather be partying on a beach in Brazil haha

      But I’m sticking with it, because I know from past experiences how much it’s been worth it, and I can feel the progress in little chunks every time. Since Mandarin is a life long investment, I’ll never regret these 3 months if it gives me a means to communicate with so many interesting people that I couldn’t have talked to before. That indeed is something to enjoy.

  • David Cheney

    I know the pain is real, but continuing through the pain is so much more bearable when one realizes that, only two weeks ago the pain came so much sooner.  Like the marathon runner in training, you know you will reach that 21 mile marker.  Thank you so much for presenting your Mandarin training in such detail.  It certainly has inspired me, and many others.

    • Benny Lewis

      Precisely. The whole point is that even 2 weeks I go, I couldn’t have even HAD this chat with the Beijing speaker. It would have been too far beyond my capabilities. Now it’s within my capabilities, as long as I don’t mind all the frustration.

      Within 2 weeks, if everything goes according to plan, I should be able to hand this particular challenge fine (apart from obvious things like lack of certain vocabulary etc.), and will find something else to annoy the hell out of me, so that I can get it out of my way to bring me closer to fluency ;)

  • Kristen Beebe

    So true! I can totally relate from my own experience learning Spanish in Spain. It only gets easier through lots of pain and frustration.

    Thanks so much for the updates–they’re really inspirational. The progress you’ve made since your first video is almost unfathomable. 

  • Alanjazz

    Benny, j’espère que vous continuez avec le mandarin après cette mission ! J’ai regardé vos vidéos et le niveau que vous avez déjà atteint est impressionnant. Cette langue, connue comme la plus grand casse-tête linguistique pour les occidentaux, est grand chose à aborder dans n’importe quelle circonstance. Courage ! (En fait, je viens de me frustrer avec une heure d’écoute en français au Journal de 7 heures et RFI ! Ça vaut la peine quand même !)

  • Benny Lewis

    I don’t see the glass as half empty, but I have to be honest about the frustration. I see it as very useful frustration, so I don’t think it’s being as negative as you are suggesting ;)

    I just bought a voice recorder (as indicated in the previous post), so I haven’t gotten into analysing conversations afterwards, but I’ll be meeting up with a native interested in helping me just with my accent, who specifically wants me to record our conversations to analyse later (one of my many changes in approach for the next weeks).

    And yes, I meant cues. People complain about Chinese homonyms, but I still have lots of trouble with some English ones. Fixed!

  • MacKensie Cornelius

    I enjoy your blog!  For me, 20-30 minute blocks of online lessons are better. Then after, I can still remember enough of the whole conversation to make notes, think about what I could have said better or differently, and plan on new words to look up or what to ask about next time.  I can do 2 0r 3 of those blocks in a day without brain-melt.  Maybe work up to an hour?   I’m a big fan of online language lessons and language exchange. Hope it works for you!

    Oh…and I had the opposite problem from you… I learned Mandarin from Beijing-based teachers and then lived in Taiwan for a year. I thought I must have been worse at Chinese than I thought, until I ran into some people from Beijing and could converse with them fine, haha.  

  • Adam Wik

    It’s nice to actually get to hear about the frustrating parts of the process for a change – not only because of the ‘Yeah, I’ve been there’ commiseration, but because of all the people with the ‘gift for languages’ line. When you spend months on end banging your head into the wall to fluency it can be frustrating to have people dismiss the accomplishment and say you’re just talented linguistically or have a head for it. Now I have someone else to point to in order to show that in every language but your first fluency isn’t something you’re given it’s something you earn.

    On a semi-related note, you’ve inspired me to dig out my Mandarin books from college, so I’ll likely have more head shaped holes in my walls before long… 

    • Benny Lewis

      Well said. At the end of this mission people will say that whatever level I have was because of my language genes (which apparently weren’t there when I was a teenager, funny how genetics works?) and it is indeed really annoying since I’m working my ass off. The ‘gift for languages’ line is nothing more than an excuse for why the person saying it doesn’t want to try hard.

      Best of luck with your Mandarin!

  • Anonymous

    Benny,  go raibh maith agat as é sin a roinnt linn. An chuid is mó de dhaoine, is dócha go stopann siad ag foghlaim nuair a airíonn siad deacair é.

    Mura mhiste leat, seo áit ar scríobh mé maidir le hobair go dian: . I bhfocail Steve Pavlina:

    “The greater your capacity for hard work, the more rewards fall within
    your grasp. The deeper you can dig, the more treasure you can
    potentially find…”

  • Jonathan Shock

    Still hugely impressed with how you’re doing here! I know that you don’t believe in comparing language difficulties, but it does seem that this challenge is, for you, the hardest/most frustrating that I’ve followed your progress on. Would that be fair to say, and does this experience change how you feel about the reality (not necessarily the usefulness) of comparing the ease of learning certain languages (clearly on an individual basis)? I still believe that the major hurdle in language learning is motivation but I also see that there exist intrinsic, specific difficulties from language to language.

    • Benny Lewis

      I definitely am NOT changing my position on the language difficulties question.

      My frustration stems the fact that I’m aiming for a tough target in a tight deadline (I haven’t blogged about the last month rush to fluency ever, only ever attempting 3 months to fluency before in Czech, and needing to stop at the 2 month point for financial reasons), which would be stressful no matter what language it was, from annoying internet trolls, cultural adjustment issues, depressing weather (which at least is conductive for lots of studying) etc.

      I’ll be writing about the “difficulty” of Chinese in great detail later. It’s one of the most straightforward and logical languages I’ve ever dealt with, with so many shortcuts that I’m amazed experienced learners haven’t written about, or at least made it easy for me to find.

      But that doesn’t change the fact that what I’m aiming for is a high objective that requires incredible focus and dedication, no matter what the language is.

      • Jonathan Shock

        Cheers for the response. I absolutely agree that there are many very logical and somewhat simple facets to Chinese. I’ll be extremely keen to hear about the shortcuts you’ve learned. I can see that people have been giving you a ridiculously hard time on the videos, expecting fluency after a month. I Look forward to hearing your summary of the whole experience…

  • Geraldo Figueras

    Hey Benny, I’m from Brazil, fluent in portuguese (doh), english and spanish, B1 in french and decided to dive deeply in japanese after reading some of your posts (great stuff, btw!)

    What I’m curious about is if you’re like that while learning different things besides new languages. I mean, do you go all “no pain on gain” with new jobs, new hobbies, sports or whatever? Or is it something you usually apply only with languages?

    Cheers mate!