Today marks the 3 month point since I started learning Mandarin!
I won’t be uploading a video today (simply because I couldn’t find someone willing to be recorded on camera with me in Shanghai this week, and Youtube has enough monologues as it is!), but will have several videos in Mandarin, interacting with others, from next week, and plenty more throughout my upcoming travels.
As I mentioned earlier in the week, this wasn’t about leading up to one single 3 month video, but preparation for something much greater.
One confusion people have when they arrive on my site is this non-existent “claim” that I’m here to prove that fluency in 3 months is possible, which I’ve never made. But I find the question itself (asked generally) quite silly: of course it’s possible. When a savant can learn enough Icelandic to be interviewed on television in it after just a week, then of course he would be fluent by anyone’s definition after 3 months (or actually much less).
When a 16 year old can speak 23 languages to various extents (including fluency in several), then there’s no doubt that he’d be speaking C1/C2 of whatever you throw at him if he gave it his full-time attention for 90 days.
And in my own personal experience, I have met dozens of people who have genuinely reached high level fluency in a language in 3 months or less, thanks to a combination of passion for the language, full time immersion, and a general good knack for learning it. You simply can’t argue with me that “fluency in 3 months is not possible” because I’ve seen it happen.
The name of this site (as I’ve said it many times before until I’m blue in the face) is based on my objective to reach a useful level of a language in as short a time as possible. I’m not a savant, and I’m not someone who has a knack or enjoyment for learning languages – I actually dislike learning languages, but I’m trying anyway.
But I have found that aiming high and timeboxing it into a tight deadline, and having both being as specific as possible creates much better results than “try your best” does. “Fluent in 3 months” is an example of a specific deadline, and a specific timeline, and is an important part of my learning philosophy, and so an appropriate name for the site, especially since I’ll be trying the same target again later. If you don’t like it, and would prefer if I had a less ambitious blog name, tough luck
Do you actually even NEED to?
But getting back to the question of “is fluency in 3 months possible?” – I know when it’s highly unlikely to ever be possible: when you don’t need it.
Really think about that: “Do I need to speak a language fluently in 3 months?” That’s “need” as in, your basic quality of life actually depends on it. Most people would be very quick to say that they want to speak a language as quickly as possible, as well as possible. But actually needing it, is a whole different world.
I get so much grief from people online, who really need to use their Internet time more efficiently than for complaining and nitpicking (I’d recommend 10 hours of the nyan cat as a comparatively more productive use of your time), that I’m misleading the Youth of Tomorrow with my snake-oil promises of fluency in 3 months. That’s not the point of the site, and if you bother to read past the URL, you’ll see that I never once in 3 years blogging made such a vague one-size-fits-all promise.
A few people have asked me why I am getting all this grief and trolling that I mentioned in earlier posts. I see it as boiling down to 3 things: 1. I’m a confident guy and a bold writer, and language learners “should be humble”, 2. I earn a living online (apparently, earning from your work or writing a book means you “deserve” aggro from people who will never even buy it) and the most important one: 3. Their goals are different to mine.
Let me say this clearly so there’s no confusion: Not everyone needs to speak a language fluently in 3 months, and if you don’t need to, then that goal is a terrible one for you.
Perhaps there is this presumption that I’m telling the entire world “You all need to learn your language in exactly 3 lunar rotations, or you’re a sucker!” – but nothing could be further from the truth. Most people DO NOT NEED to learn a language to a high level in a few months.
For people who enjoy the language learning process, and have taken their time to investigate ancient literature, understanding advanced topics that they may not even be able to follow in their native language, learning advanced vocabulary and the like, then the idea of reaching a useful level in just a few months sounds nothing short of absurd or arrogant. And that’s fine.
If you learn a language for passion, then there’s no hurry and you should take your time. If you’d like to visit the country “some day”, but have other priorities right now, then there’s nothing wrong with taking your time. Enjoy it!
But the truth is that this is NOT the situation for everyone. While some people can get angry at my audacity to urge some people to hurry up a little, I get equally angry with statements like “It takes years to speak this language”. It boils my blood!! The reason is that I get to meet thousands of people abroad who have not learned the language at all because of this “take your time” philosophy. These people need a kick up the ass and some serious pressure to improve.
“Take your time” does work – it works if you are a language enthusiast, it works if you dream of moving to Italy when you retire, it works if you only plan to devote a couple of hours a week to the project. But it does NOT work if you are in the country right now, plan to move to it, or have any other sense of urgency in your language learning project.
I don’t care how many PhDs he has – if anyone makes a sweeping statement that “it takes years to reach a useful level in a language”, as if it applies to absolutely everyone, then he’s an idiot. The logical retort to this is that you would be right to think that I’m the idiot if I were to demand that people without the urgency I described are learning too slowly.
The speed at which you learn the language should depend on the urgency involved. I am going to be over 2,000 km (that’s about 1,250 miles in old money) from the Engrish filled cities of Shanghai and Beijing, trying to live my life, making friends, interviewing people on camera, possibly facing very dangerous situations and trying to stay safe, all with no tour guide or interpreter to take care of me. So how quickly do you think I shrugged off the incredibly useless “it takes years to learn Mandarin” discouragement I’d get online, when the fact of the matter is that I just have about three months to prepare?
I’m not interested in anyone imposing their limitations on me. I may not be a savant, or have a background that would lead to being a good language learner, but despite just being an engineer, I’m going to try my damndest to learn any language that I have to use as quickly as possible. My reality distortion field ignores all discouragement, and that’s why I can actually get something useful done.
Forget him, forget others, forget ME – this is your story
The real question – and the only one that matters, is the one we should ask ourselves: “Can I reach this objective?” Whether Benny Lewis can do it, or someone you’ve seen on Youtube can do it is irrelevant. Such stories are nice soundbites for prime time TV, but prove nothing when it comes to your situation.
My “power” is that I’m very pragmatic – despite not liking learning languages, I’ll go through hell and spend far more time out of my comfort zone than most learners would because I focus on the short-term gains. These 3 months have been a really shitty experience to be honest because of that, but of course the reason I went through it all was due to the pressure of a trip where I absolutely must speak and read good Chinese looming over me.
So, if you’ve asked yourself “is fluency in x months possible for me?” then ask yourself the follow up question of do I really need to even learn so quickly? If in 3 months and one week you are going to be trying to have a nice conversation with the Chinese person sitting next to you on the train for 7 hours, then you should probably stop all this needless speculation and get busy, ignoring what’s possible or what isn’t, because such discussions are wasting your time. If in 3 months and one week you’ll still realistically be using English all day long, then why on earth would you need to be fluent in 3 months??
I’ve ended many days this year with a headache and incredible frustration that I can’t begin to describe. I wouldn’t wish this on anyone, and think that it’s a terrible “one size fits all” way to learn a language. But if you are in the country now or going there soon, then grow a pair and deal with it – have a shitty time (but do it efficiently; getting out of your comfort zone with a good plan of action) and do it intensively so that you can come out the other end with something useful as quickly as possible.
If you aren’t going the country any time soon, or don’t have this pressure, then skip over any parts of my blog posts where I tell people to stop being so lazy, because they simply don’t apply to you. I don’t see enough people lighting a fire under the asses of those who genuinely need to learn a language as soon as possible, so I’m not going to waste time in every post prequelling who needs to pay attention and who doesn’t.
But if you are learning slowly, (and good for you, as it’s a very effective way to learn and absorb a language when you do have the time to do it over the long term) then don’t worry I’ve got plenty to say that might help you! For example, if you think the concept of “fluent in 3 months” is controversial, wait until you see the posts I have lined up specifically explaining how I feel people should tackle learning Mandarin…. and reading Chinese.
My 3 month point
Sorry again that I’m not demonstrating my level exactly at the 3 month point (hopefully 3 months and one week will suffice!) but just to be clear, I’ll quickly mention where I’m at:
I won’t be speaking C1 Mandarin this month, but that’s quite OK! Whether I got that or not was never the point of this endeavour – it was a great point to aim towards, and forced me to listen to content that dragged me up (kicking and screaming) in that general direction. So now I can follow B2 level conversations and get the general gist, since I forced myself to listen to a lot of them, and follow B1 conversations almost entirely. And while I’m not speaking so articulately, I do actually know a lot more vocabulary than I let on. I’m still trying to think quicker to remember them in a conversation though, and am working on tidying that up for the next week or so that I’m in Shanghai before I hit the road.
So in general I’d say I’m a comfortable B – a very safe B1, and dipping my toes into B2 on occasion, i.e. “intermediate” speaker. Whether I’m fluent or not depends on your definition. My ultimate goal of “high level fluency” of being able to do what I do in English in the language, is still a bit off, but I’d be happy to call what I have “conversational fluency”, not right now, but likely some time this month, since I’ll continue the annoying intensive learning experience while in Shanghai, and be studying a lot of the time while on trains over the coming months, even if the purpose will be to speak most of the rest of the time.
I’m very proud of what I’ve done in this time – if you decide that the 3 months is a “failure” because I didn’t get the C1 target, then that’s your own sad problem – some of us don’t live in a pass or fail black and white world. That wasn’t the true mission – the point of all of this was to prepare myself to be ready to have as a worthwhile experience and as deep conversations as I possibly could in this short time while travelling in Chinese speaking areas for 3 entire months. And I think I might indeed be ready for that!
There were some things I would have done differently, which I’ll be blogging about of course, and with that in mind, not only do I not regret aiming for C1, but I’ll very likely be doing it again When I do, it will be for a similar concept of focusing on learning the language first, and on the cultural experience second. This has been the first time that I’ve genuinely put 3 entire months into such an intensive language learning project (I’ve otherwise reached “pre-fluency” in 2 months, or fluency in 6 or more months), and I’ve learned a lot from the experience!
Last year’s very fast travels (2 months in a country while learning the language) were an anomaly for me – I’ve had different styles of living in countries for an entire year, or 6 months, or 3 months over the last 9 or so years travelling, but for at least the next year, I’ll focus more on this style of language first, then travel – depending on how I feel after my time in China.
So I hope you’ve enjoyed following along over the last 3 months! I’ve made many notes during this time and have so much to say about learning Chinese!! I’ve been light on the details up to now. For example, I was successful in my objective to be able to read Chinese on signs, menus, getting the gist of some articles, and went beyond that by being able to chat with someone online or via SMS entirely in Chinese. I use a dictionary to understand what they write sometimes, but can write most of what I want to say independently. In some cases I actually prefer the Chinese over the English if it’s available, such as metro stops – as they jump out at me much better.
And the coolest thing of all: I can do all this for both simplified and traditional Chinese – the reason being that my next 3 months will require both. Based on what I’ve learned so far, I’ve got a LOT to say about Chinese in upcoming blog posts.
Of course, I still have plenty left to learn in Chinese, and I will continue to study it for a very long time, but these 3 months will have been the most important and crucial of my time with this language. The next 3 will be the most important in terms of understanding the Chinese people, but also of course essential to improving my language skills!
I really feel that more people, especially those who are abroad or going abroad soon, should aim for “Fluency in 3 months”, or something as concrete, even if not quite as ambitious. It’s not guaranteed that they’ll get it, but the point is that they’ll end up with something very useful for having pushed themselves so hard. If I was aiming for the level I have now rather than above it, then I wouldn’t have pushed myself as hard, as I’d see it in sight and ease off at some point.
But because of all this pressure it certainly hasn’t been a pleasant experience. More should try it… but if you do it, be ready to wish you hadn’t many times during the intensive experience. Language learning can be lots of fun when you take your time, but the best way to make progress quickly if you truly need it, is to be out of your comfort zone most of the time – it’s unpleasant, but it’s very effective.
Thoughts on all this welcome below as always!
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This article was written by Benny Lewis
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