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Are you problem minded or solution minded? My 1.5 month level of Chinese [video]

Full disclosure: This post contains affiliate links. ?

Since we are at exactly the half-way point of my three month mission to speak fluent Chinese, it's time for another video update! This time, it is 100% unprepared, unscripted, and unrehearsed 😉 Check it out:

[Subtitles in traditional & simplified Chinese, as well as in English; enable Youtube's closed captioning to see – mistakes are maintained and equivalent mistakes are given in English translation to convey what I'm saying sounds like. Watch this video on Youku if Youtube is blocked for you]

One thing that I've talked about in SFD1+LHG as well as the TEDx talk is that I like to make “at least 100 mistakes a day” when speaking a language, because that means I'm really using it. Generally, I make way more than that though – especially since I recently decided to start speaking Mandarin for three hours straight a day, to give my progress the boost it needed.

Because of this, I've made tremendous progress in the last two weeks (since the last video) in things that are very hard to measure, like my comfort in listening to others speak and distinguish their words, the speed at which I do that, and my ability to participate in real conversations. This has taken me up to a whole new level and I have made some real friends, entirely through Mandarin!

This is something that I'm very proud of, but sadly I won't be talking about that in this post because I know the reactions I'll be getting from this honest video and based on the way I am starting to see so many people react to my project to simply speak Mandarin as well as I can, as quickly as I can, I have to justify to some confused readers why this level of Mandarin riddled with so many mistakes is actually something I'm quite happy with right now.

While some readers might congratulate me on being able to actually speak a language like Chinese in the way I've done it, others will be absolutely focused on informing me of many my mistakes, and impossibility to reach my goals based on these. This mentality is something I am trying to put a stop to, so hopefully I make it clearer in this post.

The non-academic problems I've been focusing on

When I think of an “academic” way of tackling a language, I always see an approach far too focused entirely on vocabulary and grammar. These are indeed important aspects to deal with if you want to get fluent, and I've been working a lot on vocabulary (without words I wouldn't be able to understand or say much), but it hasn't been my focus as much as it will be over the next weeks.

I had in mind a road-map of the stages I wanted to be at each week and aimed for that until I got there. Each time I was being realistic, while also being very ambitious. Each video I've uploaded has shown an important point of progress on this road, although you'll miss the point of the videos if you are only looking to see how many mistakes I'm making.

Based on the way I'm speaking in this latest video it may seem to some who focus only on the quantity of mistakes like I've barely even begun, but don't forget that I have reached an excellent level in several languages (like C2 in Spanish, according to the Instituto Cervantes) so I'm not doing this as haphazardly as many are suggesting.

I've fixed my major problems in Chinese, which are not the kinds of things ever discussed in many classrooms (comfort, confidence, familiarity, instant understanding rather than slowly translating, an appreciation of Chinese characters as being simply the best possibly way to express a sound/concept rather than “weird symbols”, ability to stretch my limited vocabulary into a genuine conversation by speaking much quicker than I was at first, and ability to understand the replies based on picking out key words I do know and extrapolation when I don't, and so on).

And now, all that really remains is learning vocabulary, improving my sentence structure, ironing out my pronunciation problems and lots more practice to improve my familiarity so that I can participate in way more complex situations than what I can do now, and of course dealing with any unforeseen problems should they arise.

Yes, “that's all”.

These academic problems are just information assimilation. Memory and practice – the kinds of things that (unfortunately) tend to be the entire focus in most traditional courses… minus the practice in most cases. In my opinion, focusing on nothing but information is worthless if you don't have a good relationship with the language in other ways. I can finally say that I've reached that level in Chinese, although the academically minded will think that I'm talking hot air since this isn't something that you can test me on.

But I've been saying this all along – I'm not interested in tests, I want real results. A huge number of words learnt is a useless landmark to reach if you still haven't had lunch/dinner/Skype call with a native. Eventually when you learn a language the natural communicative way you reach a stage that would probably satisfy the academics, since you would have a high level of communcative abilities in a wide range of situations, but more importantly: it will also satisfy your objectives with the language.

So anyone telling me that my pronunciation, limited vocabulary and poor sentence construction makes my Chinese worthless, seems to be missing the point entirely; I can socialise in the language now and interact spontaneously with natives. If you only see the mistakes then you miss the entire point of the language in the first place – to use it with people!

Starve problems and feed opportunities

A nice quote from Stephen Covey goes like this: “Effective people are not problemminded; they're opportunityminded. They feed opportunities and starve problems.”

This is the way that I tackle learning a language.

So when I started with Chinese, I didn't give in to the many scare tactics that so many people were “kind” enough to inform me of, so that I was made aware that I'd definitely fail. From the start I've had an approach that focuses on progress and how I can make it. When I come to challenges, I have tried my best to find ways around them (specifics of how I'm dealing with components of Chinese will be explained in due course).

Every mini-goal I have is focused entirely on a positive goal of achieving some real world objective, rather than tackling “problems” like learn even more vocabulary and the like.

Like two weeks ago I had the incredibly intimidating task of “be able to speak for an entire hour in Chinese”, which I struggled quite a bit with. After a few days of intensive 3 hours per day speaking, I could do it, but be incredibly exhausted after each effort and need the other person to speak at an unnaturally slow speed. In the second week they could speed up and I was getting comfortable enough to start to enjoy rather than dread these long exchanges.

The opportunity was long exchanges with people being possible, and I aimed for it and got it.

Now, speaking all day long is child's play, but I have other challenges to deal with, since the level at which I do it is still weak and very limiting. I could think of these challenges as annoying “problems”, or I can see them as an opportunity that will open even more doors for me to speak.

Questions about this week's video

OK, so n0w that I've clarified my mentality and approach a little more, I shall go on to specifics about this particular video! There is quite a lot of confusion about my Chinese mission, so hopefully my answers here will make my learning philosophy more apparent:

  • Benny, I'd like to help you and point out a few mistakes you made in this video!

Thanks! But I don't need it – this afternoon I had a separate lesson with another teacher and we went through my entire script. I'm well aware of every problem I made – some of them repetitively – and how I should have phrased each sentence.

Yes, there are many many mistakes, but I know what they are and am not interested in dwelling on them anymore. I'm already speaking better thanks to having analysed this video so deeply, and won't make silly mistakes like mixing the pronunciation of words like 要 (yào) and 有 (yǒu), or overusing and incorrectly using 所以 (suǒyǐ).

You'll notice that I've got plenty of tone mistakes, but this is quite acceptable for the moment as natives understand me fine.

  • I'd like to point out many mistakes you've made in this video, but not to help – to remind you that you will definitely fail and have you finally face reality.

Yes, um… thanks…

Believe it or not, I'm getting a lot of this.

It's embarrassing to have a video like this watched by thousands of people, as I generally prefer to keep my spontaneous conversations offline until I'm at a more comfortable level in a language. I'm putting myself out there for public scrutiny for the sake of transparency in the mission, but it's been incredibly annoying to deal with people who criticise in totally non-constructive ways at huge volume.

I've had to turn off comments for this video on Youtube, since unfortunately quite a large number of people are not trying to help at all and are more interested in trolling. It's an interesting thing to upload yourself making so many mistakes to such a large audience. I still think it's a great tool for learning a language, and I've learned a lot already from analysing this video even before putting it online, but when you have the number of views I get, unfortunately things start to get out of control.

Luckily, none of this trolling is ever discouraging me – that's the thing about learning languages for almost a decade. I've heard every possible type of discouragement you can imagine, including from myself. Nothing you can say can ever possibly make me say to myself “Oh, I guess he's right and I should give up!”

Not in a million years, and especially now that I'm so deep into this challenge and see how weak the scare tactics REALLY are. Mandarin is a human language with a finite amount of challenges to overcome like any other.

Although I have to admit it does make me pissed off for the entire 20 or so minutes that I devote to answering comments in the evening before shutting off my computer. It's still incredible to think that learning a language could generate such hatred from anonymous trolls, but I suppose that's the nature of the Internet! Haters gonna hate!

  • What wasn't understood in the video?

You can see from the subtitles that I was trying to say “wait”, which is pronounced “děng” (等), but what I said sounded more like understand “dǒng” 懂. I tried to expand on this by giving a time reference, but it wasn't clear enough. I decided not to waste more time on this and to keep the conversation going. 100% comprehension isn't something I need six weeks after starting to learn a language 😉

As a non-perfectionist I know when to just move on, and do it as soon as possible.

There may be many words that you don't understand if you aren't a native or aren't appreciating the context. That's too bad – I don't learn languages for anyone but natives, sorry! 😉 Luckily Dory understood everything else I said.

  • Your level here is terrible! I speak fluent Chinese and I couldn't understand you without the subtitles. You'd never get me to sit down and listen to you for an entire hour!

Lucky for me, you are not the person I am aiming to talk with right now. If you can't understand what I'm saying that's because you are only listening to my individual words and you are ignoring the context.

It's essential that I point out how different it is talking to a native and talking to a perfectionist. The latter has great trouble understanding anything but perfection, and I've experienced this many times when in initial stages of learning a language and running into this strange creature – who is nothing like 99% of the population of speakers you meet in the real world.

Unfortunately some teachers can put you off a language when you are in the early stages because of this, but please know that their insistence on correcting every single tiny mistake is not a reality of life among natives.

A week or so ago I had an interesting meeting with a fluent Chinese speaker with an excellent level in the language. He isn't a native, but he arguably knows more words than many natives, and he even sounds like one of them! He's an interesting guy that I'll actually hopefully interview next month when I'd be up for a more complex conversation in Mandarin.

But one thing that I found was that when I spoke Mandarin, he couldn't understand what I was trying to say. This is because my tones and pronunciation are still quite bad. Now, if your only exposure was to such teachers in the early stages you would find it incredibly discouraging, and this is one reason why my “speak from day one” advice seems so strange from an academic perspective. But right beside him was a native, who understood me perfectly and “translated” what I said to correctly pronounced Chinese for my perfectionist foreign friend.

He was a Benny-Mandarin to Taipei-Mandarin interpreter so to speak. But the thing is, I don't need a go-between when talking directly to the natives.

This native wasn't listening out to hear how wrong I was speaking. He heard me say things wrongly and extrapolated what I meant to say, since my correctly pronounced words and the context made it quite obvious what I meant. Relying on this permanently is not a good way to learn a language, but it's a stage that you have to pass through, especially if you are learning intensively and with real people like I'm trying.

Natives understand me. And even more important: natives in the right context understand me. This is all that really matters.

If you send a clip of one of my sentences in the above video to a native, who may tell you that it's incomprehensible, this unnatural context-less exercise doesn't interest me. When I was talking to Dory she understood absolutely everything I was saying, except for one word in the entire 9+ minute exchange, which was my fault for not providing more context despite incorrect pronunciation.

When I eat lunch with natives who have no experience with foreigners (i.e. they are not my teacher, just a friend), they also understand me. When we talk for several minutes, the context makes it clear what I mean even if the tone and pronunciation makes a particular word impossible to understand in isolation. They don't have to think hard at all and we both enjoy the conversation.

As I've said before, generally I don't socialise with perfectionists. This has worked to my advantage, as they slow me down too much.

  • You two aren't conversing! It's mostly you talking and her just correcting you, and you only really asked her one question!

I initially started the video with a plan to interview Dory about her opinion on my progress over the last 6 weeks since she has seen more of it than anyone else. But the problem is that I also wanted to make sure that the video was 100% unprepared.

Generally when I interview someone I spend time in advance to think about what I want to say so that the interview is interesting to watch with well thought out questions. It's more professional this way. But if I had planned for any of this in advance I could have looked up words I wanted to use etc., which wouldn't make this completely unprepared.

Because of this I was just going with the flow – I literally didn't plan anything and just pressed record. I wanted to make sure I was doing most of the talking since the point of the video is to show my level.

I almost never make a video like this; I prefer the content itself to be the point of the video, which is why most of my Youtube channel is cultural rather than language-related, so I lost track and didn't think to ask her any interesting questions other than if she thinks I'll reach my fluency target. I was more focused on trying to keep the conversation going to think of good questions to ask.

Perhaps I'll make another video with Dory in a few weeks to let her talk way more.

In future I'll probably do a little preparation in advance so that it's more interesting and I'm not just talking randomly- a video like this goes against my philosophy of the content of the conversation being the point, which it wasn't this time, since the point is only to share my current level. From a practical perspective, preparation is necessary for an interesting video. A video of me just chatting away is too unorganised. It's incredibly hard to present the language learning process on Youtube in a natural and interesting way. Perhaps I'll figure out a way around this for the next video update.

Some people have suggested that I bring a hidden camera to one of my natural exchanges. You have to wonder if they have given a second's thought to the practical, moral, social and legal issues with this?

  • This isn't an impressive level after six entire weeks!

The whole point of my Chinese project is NOT to impress people with my “skills”. It's to show people how achievable an efficient communicative focused learning approach can be when you break it down.

I hope if I'm speaking fluently at the end of March, that many people also don't think that's impressive having seen the steps along the way, so that they'll try something similar themselves.

I don't have any talents with languages, I'm just an electronic engineer who discovered in his 20s that learning a foreign language was way more achievable than a school designed to only create possible successes for people who love the language learning process (which most of the population don't, despite the fuss some linguists are kicking up over my recent post about it) ever had me believe.

Many many many others have learned a language in a matter of months before I ever showed up. The only difference is that I have a blog with a big readership while I do it. This is not impressive – it's normal – it's beautiful and fantastic and amazing to be able to communicate with millions of other human beings that you couldn't before, but it's not impressive when you try it yourself.

I look forward to the day when being multilingual is quite run of the mill in the English speaking world as it is in many countries, and we take polyglots off their pedestal, the same way there is no awe awarded to those who can drive a car, since so many people do it, despite how “impressive” it is to learn how.

I agree that seeing a video at the end can lead to too many gaps and too many people thinking it was easy for me and just happened naturally. But if you find a video like this unimpressive all the way to the end, then hopefully you will say to yourself “why, Benny isn't as smart as I thought – I could totally try that too!”

And then I'll truly have had a successful mission.

I hope you enjoyed the video, and look forward to the second half of this Chinese project. 😉

author headshot

Benny Lewis

Founder, Fluent in 3 Months

Fun-loving Irish guy, full-time globe trotter and international bestselling author. Benny believes the best approach to language learning is to speak from day one.

Speaks: Spanish, French, German, Italian, Portuguese, Esperanto, Mandarin Chinese, American Sign Language, Dutch, Irish

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