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Benny travels China: the real point of the mission to speak Mandarin as quickly as possible

| 43 comments | Category: mission

It’s time to announce my next 3 month project, while clarifying what the real motivation behind my Mandarin 3 month project has been!

I am going to travel deep into China – beyond 1,000km inland – by land (no flights), over the next two months, and then travel through Taiwan (outside of Taipei) for several weeks after this. (I’ll also visit Hong Kong for a few days.)

While three months is nothing near what is needed to get to know the unimaginable vastness of land that spans the home of Chinese culture, I hope to understand the Chinese people a little better by July. Not so much by taking photos of their walls and temples, or sampling all their food, but by talking to as many of them as I can.

You see, the point of the last three months was not to simply add Chinese to some list of languages I speak, not to prove any non-existent “claim” about the magic number of how many days/months etc. it takes to learn a language, not to work towards a win or fail of a final video, and absolutely not to impress armchair linguists.

The point of these 3 months was actually to force me to learn as much Chinese as possible as quickly as possible so that I’d be better equipped to have as authentic a cultural experience as I could in this time that I’ll be travelling.

My upcoming China travels

Last year, when I was thinking about how to plan for this coming year, I saw that I could devote up to six months to a single project before I had other engagements. I could have had a “fluent in 6 months” project, while getting to know Chinese culture as best as I could simultaneously, but I found it more efficient to slice it in two: 3 months just for the language, and 3 months just for the culture and people.

While I’ll definitely continue to improve my Chinese over the next 3 months, as I’ll be practising it a lot and of course still studying (maybe an hour or two a day), the priority is to actually use it. I’m not hopping on trains to random towns only to have my head in a book the entire time while there!

This map shows the preliminary (very flexible) plan of the small slice of China I’ll be investigating on this trip: (Edit: I may end up going as far as Chengdu, which is actually 2,000km inland).

I’ll be slowly making my way to Xi’an, which I’ll base myself in for a week or two. It’s one of the oldest cities in China (over 3,100 years old) and where you can find the famous Terracotta army. While I have no problems with being a tourist there and in other on-the-beaten-track places (but at least doing it in Mandarin), the real fun will be in going off in other random directions, and in stopping in many places on the way, to get to hear people’s stories.

If I can convince them, I’d like to ask the most interesting people to share those stories on camera for the blog (as I’ve done elsewhere), so I can share what really makes me passionate for travel with the world; using the local language to see a side of a culture that only speaking English never lets you see.

Afterwards, I’ll make my way up to Beijing, probably diverting from the map towards the coast – likely arriving at the end of May.

Nothing here is written in stone. I don’t have any agencies organizing this for me. The whole point is to attempt to travel this part of China solo, so I’ll be open to spontaneous changes in plan.

Of course, I will check out the Great Wall, but it will be one of the last things I’ll see before I have to leave China (2 month-visa), so by then I’ll have some kind of a real impression of the country, rather than what I might see just on the air conditioned bus to the Great Wall from Beijing with an English speaking guide…

In the third month, I’ll check out the rest of Taiwan – a country I’ve neglected unfairly with my focus entirely on just improving my language abilities. I’ll check out the coastal cities, and then see what all the fuss is about regarding the sun-moon lake and maybe hike the central mountains for a couple of days (doing it in Peru was a worthwhile experience!)

THIS, ladies and gentlemen, is why I’ve had a shitty 3 months only focused on learning the language as efficiently as possible, at all costs, and why I was in such a hurry. The more I learn, the richer the following experience will be!

Of course, there are many dialects in China that are unintelligible with Mandarin, so I won’t be able to eavesdrop on random conversations, but the people I’ll be speaking directly to (as well as formal announcements I’ll hear and anything I’ll be reading) will be manageable in the standardised version that I’ve been learning.

I do plan to learn the very basics (maybe just an hour or so study) in each dialect of a place I’ll be staying in – not so much to aid communication, as to help break the ice, as people always appreciate when you say something in their dialect!

And of course… the better I’ll be able to survive and stay safe, and take care of myself, while still being able to actually talk to people. THAT’s the real reason I was learning quickly; not to impress the Internets ;)

More on the language learning experience, and the point of trying to learn so quickly and what I have to show for it coming up in a later post this week. As you can imagine I have a LOT to say about the topic of specifically learning Chinese and will be writing many posts about it ;)

Hopefully I’ll find someone in Shanghai to help me record a 3 month video – although as you can see there will be many more videos coming up in Mandarin, with content way more interesting than what I’ve uploaded recently.

This is something I’ve been looking forward to and can’t wait to get started! I hope you’ll enjoy reading along ;)

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  • http://www.free-range-humans.com/ Marianne Cantwell

    Love this! Awesome mission, and what better motivation could there be for learning a language? Kudos.

  • http://ourtastytravels.com Erin De Santiago

    Glad to see you are coming back to explore Taiwan more…I’ve loved living here.  Sun Moon Lake is pretty amazing although there are other places I find myself more drawn to (coastal regions). It will be interesting to see your experience outside of Taipei as many smaller villages and remote locations speak primarily Hakka or other aboriginal dialects (I think there are something like 14 or more different registered ones).  I did a press trip last summer in some of the remote villages and there are some incredible places when you venture off the beaten path.  

    And good luck with that hiking idea…you haven’t experienced a true Taiwan summer yet, right? It does cool down some…during a typhoon. ;) 

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

      Yes, looking forward to bouncing around Taiwan a bit!

  • http://www.facebook.com/Vortarulo André Müller

    Great trip! Too bad you’re not going to see southern China. Kunming and Lijiang are really great places to be. But I also liked Xi’an and Wuhan. I disliked Shanghai though, people are always in a hurry, always styled-up, always too busy.
    By the way, when you visit the Forbidden City in Beijing, they have one of these small audio take-along thingies which tell you the history of what you’re standing in front of. They have them in Esperanto, too! I don’t think you like these electronic guides, but maybe you want to try; ask them for 世界语 and they’ll give you. :)

    Can’t wait to read (and hear!) your reports!

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

      Not going to travel the south THIS time, but I can always come back :) I need to be a little restrictive, or I won’t really get to know anywhere.

      Do they really have audio in Esperanto??? That’s fantastic :D I’ll look out for it!

  • http://www.facebook.com/aldysgone8 Kamerön J. Alderson

    The amount of time that it took you to learn basic Mandarin was very impressive. Within 2 months, you were already excelling past those who study on their own for years. However in all honesty, I think that your fans would really just like to hear you say one thing.. That being, you were unable to reach the level of fluency that you claimed.. Which isn’t at all a problem, considered the amount of effort that was placed into this on your part. You’ve proven your point, so why are you embarrassing yourself now? Why are you making these claims that you never had an original goal of obtaining fluency in Mandarin? And why are you stating that these supposed “armchair linguists” are making claims that you didn’t take part in, even though everyone can watch you make those claims in your first video..? Why are you claiming that obtaining fluency was neither claimed nor desired? The title up at the top of this page is “Fluent in 3 months”. You are more fluent than most others that I know, so please, stop with these pretentious excuses.. I understand that this arrogance is part of the key for obtaining languages quickly, as you can’t allow others to hold you down.. However, it’s a terrible representation of your own personality. I think that what I’m asking you as a dedicated fan is that I would like to see more humility and less fluency. If you can do both, even better.. I wish you the best in your travels on the Mainland.

  • balou67

    The link to /runasimi (“as I’ve done elsewhere”) seems to miss the “http://”

    Great mission, have fun and thanks for the wonderful pictures and stories you’ll share ;)

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

      Whoops! Thanks for pointing it out. Fixed! ;)

  • Fabiogduarte

    Hi Benny, I discovered your blog 2 weeks ago by a link from livemocha, and I work in a Chinese company and I´m studying madarim too (also French and German, but it´s autodidatic), and I wish good luck in your quest, but just warning you, that the most difficult thing that you will see there is the accent and others languages (cantonese and wu) that should mess all you´d learned. I´m sorry any english mistakes, i´m just a boy from Brazil who never went to another country but my passion for language studies increase every day.

    Greetings from Brazil – Fabio Gomes Duarte.

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

      People have confirmed for me that anywhere that I’ll be going will indeed have people who can speak Mandarin to me, and will very likely start speaking Mandarin when they see my white face (since they can’t use English). I can’t eavesdrop other conversations, but I can interact with people. Learning more than standard Chinese is not possible with my time constraints.

      • http://sarajaaksola.com/ Sara

        Yes they will speak to you in Mandarin, but the challenge is that all of them have a different accent influenced by their native language (dialect).

        In Xi’an I recommend you to visit the Muslim Quarters, in my opinion it’s one of the most interesting spots in the city. And in Beijing I recommend to wander around the old hutong streets, even though most of them have been demolished, there are still some left.

        p.s. Hope we get to hear your 3 month video soon!

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

          I’ve already been exposed to several differences from the standard, such as Taiwan’s tendency to replace ‘sh’ with ‘s’ sounds, and the use or lack thereof of the 儿/兒 sound at the end of many words. The way I learn any language is not so rigid to one use, so I accept such differences quickly enough, and are actually the kind of differences I have had to deal with between dialects in other languages, such as Spanish’s ‘c’, or the Rio “chiado” in Portuguese.

          I just need to find someone interesting and willing to get on camera for the 3 month video. I have several chats lined up next week though, although those videos will be to discuss something specific rather than show my level, so I won’t take over the video as much as I have in previous ones. Obviously, ideally I’ll record and upload the video for Wednesday, but it may have to be a day or two late if I can’t find someone quickly.

          • Myles Creed

            I think the accent differences might be more than you are expecting.  It can sometimes seem like a completely different language with really different sounds and especially vocabulary differences.  This is obviously not to say you can’t handle it, but I would recommend reading up on the accent before heading to each city.  Even provinces right next to each other can have wildly different accents.

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

            Are you sure you aren’t mixing up “accent” and “dialect”? I haven’t had trouble adjusting between Shanghai, Taiwan and Beijing accents of Mandarin so far, although I know that the *dialects* are vastly different. The different versions of Mandarin do indeed have different vocab, and I’ve learned the southern vs northern version of several words (e.g. taxi, software, etc.)

            Although yes, I will be reading up on both the local dialect and the local twists to Mandarin before going to each area.

          • Myles Creed

            No, I’m not mixing up dialects and accents.  But people who speak different dialects (they really should be called different languages, but yeah politics) do speak Mandarin as a second language, so that could definitely cause some consternation.  I would also say that Taiwan and Shanghai probably have the best Mandarin speakers outside of Mandarin speaking areas, and Beijing is of course very close to putonghua.  It looks like you are not venturing too far from Mandarin speaking areas during your trip, but it never hurts to be prepared!

          • Jeremy

            I will say that after spending 5 months in Taiwan speaking and learning every day, then moving straight to Chengdu I had and am still having a lot of trouble with the local dialect (Sichuanese). For the first month it seriously sounded like hisses and grunts interspersed with some strangely pronounced Putonghua. After attending some classes on Sichuanhua, and learning some commonly used phrases, I am slowly starting to get what people are saying, but I still cannot carry on an extensive conversation with the ones who don’t know any Putonghua (there are quite a few here and it sucks because they’re all super super friendly, a lot like the Taiwanese imho). This is dialect apparently, one related to Putonghua, and of course has quite a bit in common with the standard, but if you do stay here, just keep in mind, it’s going to be a little more difficult to carry on anything more than official conversation with a number of the older folks. Shit, the other day I saw a couple of girls from Beijing who were lost; when they asked the nearby policeman for directions, he answered in heavy local dialect, to which they both said “哇!听不懂” 
            Also, a friend from Wuhan told me that Wuhanhua and Sichuanhua are somewhat similar, so if you do those in order, it’d probably behoove your listening.

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

            Thanks for the tips! I just got a Lonely Planet “China phrasebook”, which gives an overview of 14 of China’s languages, including Sichuanese, so at least I’ll have some pleasantries and numbers and the like!

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

            I’ve got some details on the actual different languages, so I’ll research them, and based on those differences, any influences over their versions of Mandarin might be a bit clearer. So yes, will prepare as best as I can, but just try to wing it otherwise ;)

  • David Reece

    Way to go Benny. Keep it up! How much better will China be if you can speak to natives. You’ll end up with a more enriched experience. Enjoy. How will you cope with the internet restrictions in China though regarding video uploading and blogging generally?

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

      It turns out so many people do it, and do it publicly, that it’s a non-issue. (I’ve been following twitter and Facebook accounts of other people in China for a while now).

      Although the only workarounds I need are to update Facebook, twitter and Youtube. I won’t be saying anything controversial or political, so it won’t attract much attention. My site is not blocked so actual blogging is clear!

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

    Yep – that worry was unnecessary. It was still practical to choose Taiwan for less things to worry about and a chance to stay 3 entire months (it’s just 2 in China), so I’m glad of the order I did things!

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

    I’ll make sure to add it to my ever increasing to do list :D Thanks for the suggestion!

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

    Thanks!

  • McFlame

    Definitely head down to Kenting when you’re back in Taiwan, it’s amazing in the warmer months, superb beaches if you want a moment to cool down and relax. 

  • Matt

    Hey man that trip sounds awesome. I must recommend Jiuzhaigou. It’s about as close as you can get to Tibet without requiring special arrangements, and it’s beautiful.

    Also if you happen to come to the Shenzhen/HK area, I’d love to hang with you. I’m not a Native but I am a learner so your time wouldn’t ENTIRELY be wasted- we can speak Chinese ;)

    Anyway good luck!

  • Ben Shearon

    Benny

    Try to get to Chengdu if you can -it’s a wonderful place with great food, beautiful women, and lots to see and do…

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

      A few people have recommended Chengdu to me so far, so I may indeed go that extra bit deeper, since it wouldn’t mess up my general in and out plan so much. You’ll see as my travels develop!

  • http://austinguidryexperiencingchina.blogspot.com/ Austin Guidry

    That’s great, man!

     I spent 6  1/2 months in Lanzhou (Gansu Province), and in Lanzhou, most people speak Mandarin all the time – hardly any dialect at all. It was a very good place for me to learn Chinese! It’s also got a strong Muslim culture and is VERY off the beaten track! You’ll be hard-pressed to find any real English speakers outside of the university, but the city itself is what some would call “real” China – it’s not polished and brand new, although it’s a sizable 4.something million people. It’s right on the Yellow River and has a rich history.

    I’d recommend checking it out – it’s very different than the other cities you’ll have been to by that point in your journey (also, the terminus of the Great Wall (at Jiayuguan) is in Gansu Province, although I haven’t been there yet….I might go this fall while I’m teaching in Gansu)

    I can’t wait to hear more of your adventures and I’m looking forward to seeing your language progress on your next video!

  • Chris Cavin

    Benny, 我很期待你下次的posts。我上個夏天住在臺北三個月,然後我覺得應該學中文更多。這夏天我要回去臺灣三個星期。我現在住在美國,已經每個星期四上一個半小時中文課,每天都學習生詞。因為你在想一想怎麼最好學中文,所以我要問你我應該這三個月怎麼準備我下次去臺灣的時候?因為我恐怕打錯了,我也給你英文翻譯。。。

    I’m looking forward to your next posts! Last summer I lived in Taipei for 3 months; now I want to continue to improve my Chinese. I’m going back to Taiwan for 3 weeks at the end of June, so I’ve got about 3 months to prepare here in America. I’m already taking class an hour and a half a week and studying vocabulary in my spare time. Since you’ll be writing some posts on studying Chinese, I hope you’ll consider the situation of someone with a 9 to 5, who already knows a fair amount, but wants to really wow his friends and get to know them better when he gets back to Taipei! (Of course, I wouldn’t mind a quick reply here in the comments to get me started).

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

    My suggestion is to get speaking asap, using online sites like italki or other exchange sites. This way you hit the ground running.

    Although how have you been to China already, and Chengdu twice no less!? Surely you’ve already got something!

    Yes, I’ll aim to head to Chengdu I think.

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

    Don’t worry, will be mentioning all my recommendations and Mandarin specific tips over the coming months! For now I’ll just say that you should NOT get the Heisig book in that image – it’s a waste of time for too many reasons (although I’m sure his Japanese one is better).

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=197802607 Paul Robinson

    Hey. I’m currently living in Jinan teaching English. I’m not sure why you’re choosing to visit here – there isn’t much touristy but I enjoy it. I’ve only just started to learn Mandarin but I’ve found your blog really motivational. I hope you have a great trip!

  • Heather Meadows

    I am really interested in your goal of experiencing culture through talking to people. (So logical ;) Are you planning to post more cultural videos? Have you thought of making a separate blog just for culture-sharing stuff?

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

      Definitely not starting a separate blog. To me language and culture are so intimately intertwined that I absolutely must blog about them together, as I’ve done in the past :)

      But yes, expect lots of cultural videos between the usual posts! :)

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1209020533 Brian Liddy

    So jealous….  So, so jealous…..

  • http://www.facebook.com/enigmagico Fábio De’Rose

    I utterly recommend you to go to Chengdu. It’s a beautiful and mysterious place, and the Szechuan Opera there is NEVER to be missed!

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

      Yes, many recommendations for Chengdu, so I believe I’ll plan to go there ;)

  • Rickard

    Sounds like a great trip and I’m sure you’re going to enjoy it.

    If you find yourself in Shiyan (between Wuhan and Xi’an) you can give me a shout.

    Best of luck!

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

    Yes, I’ll definitely arrange accommodation in advance before arriving each time. I’ve done the whole wander-around-with-a-backpack for hours thing countless times before, and since I can afford to pay a little more now (especially since I won’t be dealing with European prices) to avoid all that, I will.

    • Jamie Maltman

      Overrated. I’ve been a solo traveller to 10 different Chinese provinces and never had a problem finding accomodation at reasonable prices that allowed me to stay there.

      I do have to agree with the general push for you to visit Chengdu. It is beautiful and my trip starting there and heading through north Sichuan and south Gansu was one of the most memorable of my life to date. The different accent issue is far overrated here too. Especially with your focus on conversation, not perfection.

      Go for it, and have a blast!

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

        Yep, added Chengdu to the official itinerary – check out the new map! Still not sure where to go between Chengdu and Wuhan though, which doesn’t require a huge diversion. Any thoughts?

  • Smitha

    Wow! You do lead an exciting life, Benny!! Have a great time – looking forward to the blogs from your trip.

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

      Cheers!