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The underestimated usefulness of pre-fluency (My 2 month Mandarin video)

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[Captions in traditional and simplified Chinese, as well as in English. Youku link for those in mainland China]

Keeping up with the video-every-two-weeks plan, here is my two month point! After a bumpy start, where I hesitate a bit because of being quite aware of the camera, once I got used to it, you can see that I am much more comfortable and a wee bit quicker to use the language.

Vivian is my second teacher (I tried out a few, but now only get lessons from Dory and Vivian in person), who has been a great help and you can hear her say first hand that she's seen some serious progress even in the last week or two.

While I expect the usual criticism of nitpickers, today I want to discuss why I am actually quite happy with the current level I am at, and confident in the progress I can make in the coming weeks, even though I only have one month left for my fluency goal. I also want to talk about the many good things of an almost never discussed level in a language: pre-fluency, which is something like what I have right now in Mandarin.

There are tonnes of courses to give you the basics in a language, and an army of teachers willing to focus on the Holy Grail of speaking the language “perfectly”, but what about being able to use the language comfortably in a lot of situations, especially socially and for long periods of time, despite speaking incorrectly and still having some work to do and needing people to adjust or slow down for you? This is way more than “getting by”, but it's definitely not fluent yet. However, is it something we can aim for in itself (at least at first) and get great use out of?

The many opportunities pre-fluency opens up for you

The level I currently have in Chinese is something along the lines of what I had after two months of learning Hungarian, or Czech. For those two languages, at this two month point I had to stop learning, but I got so much out of my experience in these countries thanks to my pre-fluency level in the final weeks!

One thing that stands out for me is a time I was waiting at a tram stop in Prague and a nice old lady struck up a conversation with me. After some pleasantries, the conversation went towards Prague's past, and she started sharing her experience as a child during World War II, in Czech. I was listening intently and asking her about particular points and it was one of the most fascinating conversations I've ever had. She had to slow down for my benefit and rephrase a few things, but that didn't take away the power of our conversation.

While in Budapest, I got invited to a night out with a decently sized group of locals and after introductions, I used my pre-fluency Hungarian to assign myself to be the official organizer of where the night would go. Many times during the night, the whole table would look to me in our first bar (keep in mind that I run on orange juice on night's out like this), as I weighed out the advantages and disadvantages of going to a particular club, and asked a few of them for their feedback. When the decision was made, I rounded everyone up and encouraged the few who were too tired to join us anyway. Some groups have an obvious leader, and in this case even though I wasn't qualified enough with my Hungarian level to be that leader, I did it anyway.

In both of these languages, (unlike with Mandarin) I decided not to maintain the language afterwards (maintaining a large number of languages is hard work, so sometimes learning a language for me is for the purposes of enhancing a particular travel experience), but that doesn't change the immense impact speaking it at a not-yet-fluent level had on my interactions with natives. I made some great friends and saw a side of the country that someone getting by with a few pleasantries in the language (or just English) never would.

On the other hand, someone who waits until they were fluent before ever trying would miss out on so many of these wonderful opportunities.

It's not about what you do or don't know, it's what you can do

I really dislike approaches that are far too long-sighted in learning a foreign language, because they ignore the great potential for communication the person has right now.

For example, it's very easy to point out a few obvious flaws of the above video, like I misused ‘le' or have incorrect tones at certain places etc., and you'd be right, and as explained below I am going to be more focused on such “cosmetic” improvements to my language over the next month.

However, the point of this video is to show you how comfortable I am in engaging in someone in conversation, and I can keep up that comfort for many hours.

After dealing with a large number of languages in the field, I really am absolutely confident when I say that the amount you know is worthless if you are not comfortable in using that language. I've seen it happen countless times before that some other foreigner technically knows way more in the target language than me; they have more words, they know the grammar and syntax inside-out, and can read classical literature in the language etc., and yet when out with natives they stall if they haven't been trying to speak with them from the start, or unless they've had years of exposure.

Such learners tend to think too much, and are so afraid of making mistakes that they don't try at all.

A native doesn't care how many words you know, they care how much you can maintain some flow in the conversation. Even in my first weeks in learning a language, I get out and use what I know.

If one English language learner came up to you and confidently asked “Excuse. You know time?” followed by “Thank. And where train station?”, you would likely shrug off the unimportant mistakes and be happy to help them. If someone else came up to you and asked in perfect, yet excruciatingly struggled English “Excuse me……. could you…… tell me what…. time it is?”, while obviously sweating and looking really awkward, then their amazing BBC accent isn't going to make any difference to helping you feel comfortable by their awkward body language. I don't know about you, but I'd feel way more comfortable hanging out with the first speaker for longer periods of time.

It's taken me two entire months, but right now I can truly say that I feel comfortable with Chinese. The characters don't look so exotic anymore; they are just words or syllables of words. Someone speaking to me doesn't sound like a machine gun of random noises any more. It's a language that I have been so immersed in that it's a part of me now. I've even started thinking in Mandarin. The voiceover in my head always says it in Mandarin if I think things like “Damn it, I always forget to bring a bottle of water with me!”

But of course, there are still many problems I have, but I didn't want to have these problems consume my time until it was the right time. And this last month is that time.

My last month strategy: the logarithmic improvement curve

What has been immensely helpful thus far is that I've adapted my learning strategy to what I need to know this week, every single week. It's never been about C1 for me – that's the overall target that dictates how fast I should be learning, but I don't concern myself with that target right now. I have mini goals that I focus on to improve this week's biggest issues.

Now perhaps you'll look at this video and think that I'm way off being able to fine tuning my spoken Mandarin to remove some simple mistakes, improve my pronunciation, or express myself more complexly, but I thought long and hard about my approach before starting this mission, and based on reaching genuine fluency in several other languages, I know what I feel needs to be worked on first and last. To give you a better idea of how I've been approaching this, have a look at this imaginary graph:

Basically, the amount of work that I've been doing has been intense for the first two months, and it will be equally intense this last month. But if everything goes according to plan, my “apparent” level should be improving at a much greater rate this month.

By apparent, I mean what would be viewable on video, i.e. a superficial look of how good my sentence structure, vocabulary or pronunciation is – when you talk to someone who has interacted with me in person you'll get the real story (it's really hard to demonstrate spontaneous genuine conversations on camera without forcing it a little, especially when my focus is social, and the whole point of Youtube is that you are not part of that social spoken interaction).

Based on a few strategies (that, I'm not going to write about for the moment; as said in the video, I like to be a bit secretive and keep you in suspense 😀 ), the improvement of these aspects should occur in a “logarithmic” style over the next month, since I've laid some important foundations in being comfortable in the language.

I still don't know if I'll reach my fluency target, but the point is that I am happy so far because the work I've put into having comfort and familiarity with the language, and ease in using it in social situations, means that the technical stuff that I'm getting to now is way easier than it would have been from the start.

For example, learning words initially was difficult because of the fact that I'm used to learning multisyllabic words, without worrying about tones. In fact, I've found that once I have gotten used to Chinese, learning new vocabulary is incredibly simple compared to learning new unfamiliar vocabulary in a typical European language. I'll explain why another day, but for now the point is that I am absorbing a large number of words per day, and increasing that amount every day. I can only do this now – the rate at which I can learn new vocabulary wouldn't have been possible my first month since the language was so strange.

And I've got some cool suggestions from others to help me improve my currently choppily spoken level to be more fluent (not sure which one of them will work best so I'll try a few ideas out), but these could only be applied when the language itself made sense to me. Those with more experience than me with Chinese have some very interesting ideas, but in my opinion they are better applied this month rather than my first month, since speaking “prettier” Chinese is not something I cared to prioritise in my first two months.

I've reached a certain level of comfort that I can now focus on the other curve and bring it up dramatically (or at least try to!) over the next 4 weeks. Hopefully this graph is somewhat clear in demonstrating what I mean! Once again, I have no idea if this will work, but I'm going to try 😉 Worst case scenario, I end the month with much better Chinese than what I have now, and what I have now is very useful.

Are you impressive in your language, or are you genuinely functional?

To illustrate a high level of comfort, despite clearly speaking with lots of mistakes, today I had to ask for a refund of a voice recorder. You can see in the video that I'm using a separate microphone now; this is because recording in a noisy outside environment like where we were makes it a little harder to hear when the camera's microphone is almost as close to other people as it is to us. Since I'd like to record much more interviews in future I invested in this voice recorder and microphone to add the audio separately; but the device is faulty.

One reason the video is short and some scenes are cut out is because I ended up repeating myself too much from what I said in the first video, so it simply isn't interesting. Another reason is that the sound kept cutting off because of the bad voice recorder – so I went back to get the refund. Now I had to explain that every 3 minutes there was a loss in synchronisation in the audio recording, so it messed up my video since the lips were out of synch. I showed the precise points in the audio clip to the clerk and asked if she could hear the problem. I suggested that maybe this particular device is OK for quick notes, but it's terrible for professional style longer recordings, and I'd rather just pay a little bit more for a good brand like Sony.

There wasn't a single communication issue – she understood everything I said, and I understood her replies and further questions (are you sure it's not the microphone? etc.) and got my money back. This kind of complicated issue is something I can handle fine even though I lack some key words, and my sentences sound quite weird. She wasn't weirded out, and the exchange was quick and efficient. I'm high up in the “comfort” part of the curve, despite being low in the vocabulary and sentence structure part, and can handle many situations in Mandarin.

(One of the situations I can't handle just happens to not be “impress perfectionists on Youtube”… but that's a lost cause, I've simply given up on as I have more important things to worry about 😉 )

There are many people who can impress you with a list of words they've learned and so on, but all that really matters (at least to me) is what can you DO in the language? And I don't mean what tests can you pass – can you spend an evening talking to one person casually? Can you make small talk with the taximan? Can you tell jokes in the language? Who cares if you do it with A1 or B2 or C2 vocabulary, or with a native accent, or an ugly twang, can you bloody do it or not??

With some efficient use of a heap of practice, lots of trying and failing, and study that's focused entirely on helping you do these particular things better, pre-fluency can be your key to an amazing new world of communication in the target language. It's not the end-goal for the rest of your life, but it's certainly a useful stepping stone.

If you think fluency is out of your range for now, then why not aim for this? Accept that you won't sound like a poet, but know that you can do a million things in the language, including making real friends.

I really hope those who were having difficulty understanding what I'm trying to do here are starting to get it. There is no way that I can fail this mission, because the point has always been that I've been aiming as high as possible. So far, so good. If I keep this up, I'll have a really useful level of Chinese this time next month! Reaching fluency on top of that would be icing on the cake, and my mind is on the prize!

So it's back to work 😉

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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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