Did I Really Learn to Speak Chinese in 3 Months?
The big question regarding my Mandarin project that a lot of people have been asking is How well can you really speak it Benny?
I've been saying it's about a B1 (lower intermediate), but I'm sure self evaluation (even though I have indeed sat so many CEFRL examinations ) can lead to some scepticism, so today someone else will give an honest opinion; Andreas, who is the director of the LTL Mandarin School in Beijing, and Fiona, the teacher I had a two hour session with (pictured).
My thoughts on the fair and unbiased evaluation and how it came about, after their report! (This is an unedited version of LTL's blog post).
How far did Benny get to learn fluent Mandarin in Three Months?
Benny Lewis (“Fluent in 3 Months”) came by LTL Mandarin School last weekend for two hours of Chinese class and we spent about an hour chatting in Chinese afterwards (well not the whole time – I was cutting vegetables for a BBQ also).
He is leaving the mainland tomorrow and it seemed there are quite a few people around on the Internet who are interested to know how far he actually could progress. He didn’t sit any exam or something like this but based on what we saw, our school teacher and I wrote a quick review of his language skills:
Very good. Sometimes using the wrong tone on a word, but I would say that happens to any non native speaker. He has got the concept right, uses them consistently and clearly.
Also very good, though for someone with mother tongue English who studied intensively for three months this is in our experience to be expected.
Makes some mistakes, for example
得: 我说汉语说不好 instead of 我说汉语说得不好
比： 今天比昨天很热 instead of 今天比昨天热很多
有点儿／一点儿： 这个一点儿贵 instead of 这个有点儿贵
Overall knowledge of sentence structures definitely good enough for pretty much any day to day conversations and social occasions, however I do not think for business or advanced level conversations.
He knew the rather subtle difference between 咱们 and 我们 which I don’t think most learners after 3 months would know, especially when studying in Taiwan, as 咱们 is mainly a northern expression.
He focuses only on character recognition without writing by hand at all, which does make sense up to a point if you want to quickly progress. Overall his character recognition is a lot lower than his spoken ability though – this was obviously not a focus of his studies. Also, he studied in Taiwan, as a result being more familiar with traditional than simplified characters, which is obviously not that helpful on the mainland.
Very good. He obviously spent a lot of time listening to people talk in Mandarin and that has improved his listening ability beyond what he knows in vocabulary, being able to get the meaning of sentences in most cases even if he does not know all the words/sentence structures used.
Very motivated and not afraid to speak which is what in my experience gets people ahead in mandarin, with impressive determination.
We spoke for an hour in Chinese and he did not try to switch to English a single time, which many people after three months of studying would still do, especially when speaking to another “European”. He obviously feels comfortable to communicate in the language and is able to do so. I think from the way he uses the language in every situation possible and forces himself not to use English a lot of other learners could benefit – you can clearly see the results with him or other people who studied that way.
Speaks at good B1 (European Framework) level, but a lot of work left to get to fluency, which I think shouldn’t really surprise anyone who is involved in studying/teaching Chinese.
If you look at his progress for someone who was in a full immersion program for three months and partly worked in English while studying (blog writing in his case) it is overall very impressive though. I would say it if he hadn’t been blogging in English while studying and had a few more grammar lessons with a good teacher he might have made it to spoken B2 level. To further progress he would need to start to focus more on Chinese characters though.
HSK/European Framework of Language Definition
For the European Language Framework I would say he definitely reached B1 level. For the HSK, HSK 3 is supposed to be B1, though most people think HSK 3 is a lot easier than B1 (a lot of discussion about this – will not get into details here). In any case, I would say he would pass HSK 3 for the spoken part without problems, though he would struggle with the characters. HSK 4 he might pass on a good day for the spoken part, definitely not for writing/reading though.
LTL is an immersion Chinese language school based in Beijing that offers full immersion language programs and home-stays in the capital city of Beijing and the summer capital of Chengde. The philosophy centers around the idea that to learn a language, students have to live the language. Students need to speak and use Mandarin every day, all the time. Immersion opportunities between Beijing and Chengde differ but can be combined. Beijing offers full, partial, or no immersion opportunities while Chengde programs are fully immersive. Full immersion means living with a Chinese only speaking home-stay family, a study plan which allows contact only with native Chinese speakers, and using Mandarin 24/7.
Back to Benny: how the evaluation came about
After spending the first three months of the year uploading videos of me talking endlessly, (with someone to bounce questions off me) where the main focus was just to show my current level (and as such, the content of the video itself was a little boring), I wanted to make it more cultural once I really could speak some Mandarin and was travelling in China, and that's why you've seen me use it to do things like make friends on trains and learn a little Kung Fu. I intentionally edit my videos to make them as interesting and entertaining as I can, and as such their purpose is not for evaluating my level.
I could see that those of you who enjoyed the purely linguistic part of the mission (which to me personally is less interesting than what I can actually do with the language), had wanted to see maybe more interviews or for me to sit the HSK exam.
The thing is, if I were to sit an exam then that would take a huge amount of time because every test is unique and requires preparation for that test's layout and bureaucracy (that's a mission in itself), which I don't really have time for or any interest in right now. Luckily, this interesting opportunity came up over the weekend which has led to me being able to share an unbiased evaluation of what level my Mandarin is really at.
Live-the-Language school's evaluation
When at an Internations party in Beijing (where I ended up speaking French, Spanish or Portuguese most of the night), I ran into Andreas, who suggested that I could get use out of a lesson with his school, so I went the next day. I hadn't gotten any lessons for a few weeks, so I figured my Mandarin could do with some fine tuning.
I had a little trouble finding the place and ended up walking around in the strong unshaded Beijing sun for a half an hour. This meant I was a little irritable and tired when I did get in, but my teacher Fiona (in the photo) was patient and let me rant a little, and I let off steam about some things that had been bothering me, both in China and over my stressful 3 month period in Taiwan. All in Mandarin of course.
Then we chatted about other things, such as cultural differences that I've found between the Chinese and other countries. She was leading the direction the conversation was going in, and I could see that she was phrasing questions in such a way that I would have to use a certain grammatical point or set of vocabulary. Since this wasn't a test I didn't mind much and just kept talking normally.
She took a few notes about some mistakes I was making and then explained them well to me. I had seen the explanations before in grammar books, but needed someone to drill them into me so that I could actively use it correctly. After class, I hung around to eat barbecue with Andreas and a few of the school's students.
It was a nice afternoon and I didn't think much of anything else of it until Andreas emailed me afterwards that he was interested in putting an evaluation of my Mandarin level online (with my permission)! I was not expecting this evaluation at all to be honest.
The good thing about this is that I wasn't trying to please anyone for evaluation purposes and used the language as it comes to me naturally. I find with some types of language tests that being evaluated in itself makes the person nervous enough to change the results, à la Schrödinger's cat. It's like someone watching you pee – normally it comes quite naturally, but with a scrutinising audience, stage fright can rear its ugly head!
In this way, a surprise post evaluation was actually a good idea! I hope this satisfies the more technical of you out there who wanted more precise details of where I am at, level-wise.
Continuing to improve
I've just got back into Taiwan and will continue to work on my spoken Mandarin to try to bring it up a notch. After this, I'll be in Singapore and Macau, Guangzhou and Hong Kong. At that time, I'll switch to focusing much more on the characters, since I'll continue to have them surrounding me, even though I'll be hearing more Cantonese (which won't be the next mission, sorry! That's announced in the email list soon!)
I do indeed have some useful amount of character recognition, but its mostly in the context of writing text messages and emails, and recognising signs. I haven't added much structure to this, so with a bit of work I could bring it all together nicely.
Of course, the point of this project wasn't to “master” Chinese in 3 months, but to force myself, through intensive immersion, to get the best possible level that I could in the shortest time possible, which was necessary if I was to truly enjoy China, as I have done!
I made a few mistakes, which was a great opportunity to learn to polish up my technique a bit, but otherwise I'm very happy with the results! I would consider a solid high B2 or a low C1 to be the point where you can reasonably call someone “fluent” (the next level being “mastery”), so I know that if I push myself that extra bit harder next time, I have a real chance at it!
However, this is just the beginning of my Chinese learning journey; while the most intensive part of it will soon be over, I will continue to tweak and improve it, albeit at a slower rate due to other projects, and get more lessons and practise it on the road. Your work is never done when learning a language (I'm still learning things in my C2 languages of course, as well as in English!), although it is my belief that you can give yourself a solid, safe and very useful level if you dive into it at maximum drive, over a specific shorter period of time. In the end, I got to one level below what I'd be happier to call fluency, but at least in this sense, the mission has been a complete success 🙂