Does Dating a Native REALLY Help Your Chinese?

(The reports of this blog’s death have been greatly exaggerated. )

To quote myself (again), I once said:

“As cliché as it sounds, the two ways people usually learn Chinese the fastest are:

  • Get a Chinese boyfriend/girlfriend
  • Go to bars a lot”

But since I haven’t had a (very long) romantic relationship with any Chinese girls, I decided to invite an American friend of mine (using her Chinese name) to do the first ever guest post! She’s engaged to a Chinese guy and has learned quite a bit of Chinese so far. But was it because of him…?

==== Begin Guest Post ====

By Xiao Yi (小一)

So you’re in China, you’ve been studying Chinese, and now you’ve even got this great Chinese boy/girlfriend who can teach you. You’ve got it made! You’ll be fluent in no time. Right? Not necessarily.

While it seems to make sense that having a Chinese signifiant other would quickly cement your language skills, my experience tells me differently. My fiance, Mr. X, is a talented linguist and a patient teacher, and being with him has certainly boosted my motivation to learn. But there’s a long list of people I would rather study Chinese with than him. Now, I realize that every relationship is different. It’s important to note what your default language is. Mr. X’s English far outstrips my Chinese, so our default language is English. That being the case, I find it counterproductive to use him as my primary language informant for three main reasons:

  1. The roles can get mixed. While I appreciate Mr. X’s occasional tips on pronunciation, I do not appreciate him correcting my grammar when I’m trying to vent my frustration about a bad day. When you spend too much time in teacher/student mode, it can be difficult to snap out of it and back into relationship mode. Good teachers consistently correct grammar mistakes. Good boyfriends do not.
  2. You turn into a zhongwen bandit. Just like you hate those random students who come up to you while you’re doing your shopping, trying to steal bits of English practice, your partner could end up feeling used. Interactions need to be primarily about building the relationship, not the language acquisition.
  3. The message is more important than the medium. We’re trying to build a life together here. We need real communication to happen, so we go to our default language: English. Neither of us want to waste our precious moments together waiting for me to fumble through an oversimplified Chinese sentence just because I need to practice passive voice.

This is not to say that we never speak Chinese together. On the contrary, we frequently have basic conversations and send text messages in Chinese. I’m quick to try and impress him with every bit of new ability I acquire. But I acquire it elsewhere. Your experience might be quite different, especially if your partner doesn’t speak English or your Chinese and her English are at about the same level.

==== End Guest Post ====

Any laowai-s out there with a Chinese significant other with anything to add to this discussion? Please feel free to leave a comment. If you ask Xiao Yi a question she might even reply!

Comments

  1. Syz,

    You’re on to me! And thanks for reminding us to go back and look at that classic post (one of your best ever). Especially number 1! Now I’ll have a good solid day of chuckling around the house again.

  2. What helps your Chinese is hard work (which can be fun, depending on the way you do it). Dating a native speaker of Chinese is just one possible way, but is not necessarily better than any of the other methods.

  3. I think they are valid points but a lot depends on which is the relationship’s primary language.

    If the learner’s Chinese must improve just to handle delicate situations and convey emotion, because the partner’s English can’t/isn’t, it’s a radically different experience.

    I would say that it’s certainly one of the most effective ways to improve spoken Chinese when just starting out. After a certain point / seriousness, it may be best to get a tutor. But again, it really depends on what is the relationship’s dominant language. Changes the experience.

    -Brandon

  4. Good post and nice to see this blog alive again!

    My Chinese boyfriend doesn’t speak any English so we are forced to use Mandarin Chinese. First when we met my Chinese was quite bad and I was asking shenme (what) all the time. In a year my spoken Chinese have imrpoved a lot because I’m no fortunately forced to speak Chinese everyday.Even when I don’t know the words, I have to find a way to explain things even it would take a while. Sometimes I feel like a kid when telling my boyfriend “look at me, I’m trying to explain something that I don’t know how to say, so just look at what I’m doind”.

    But now when I’m in this level that our communication is ok and I can understand pretty much everything he’s saying, it’s harder to further improve. I’m getting lazy because I can explain things and then don’t learn the correct words. Also my boyfriend’s putonghua (Mandarin) isn’t that good because he’s native language is one other dialect really different from putonghua.

    And even having my Chinese better half have improved my spoken Chinese, it doesn’t have any effect on my reading or writing. I’m soon going to know more characters than him. But that is absolutely ok, as he is my boyfriend, not my teacher.

    So they key is to get a Chinese boyfriend/girlfriend that doesn’t speak English 😉

  5. NO! It doesn’t help….. I have married now for 5 yrs to a Chinese girl, whom I met in Australia, and my Chinese sux . She wants to keep her English in good shape, so we don’t have opportunity to converse in Chinese…it’s a battle of the wills…..then if you go to get hired help , Chinese teacher, you get massive greif from her, because she doesn’t want to loose face , in front of her family ( her mother gave her heaps, ” you should be ashamed , that your husband should need to go to pay someone, when you my daughter should be teaching him” !!!

    Can’t win!

  6. Completely agree with the Brandon and Sara’s viewpoint that you need a Chinese girlfriend/boyfriend who doesn’t speak English if you really want to improve your Mandarin. If their English is better than your Chinese, there is very little chance of learning, because it simply doesn’t make sense to be talking in broken Chinese, when you can communicate perfectly well in English. In some cases, having a Chinese partner (who speaks good English) may even be a hindrance, as they will do all the Chinese speaking during conversations with other locals, and you will be embarrassed to say a word.

    When I first arrived in China, I had exactly the same problems – a poor level of Chinese, wanting to find a Chinese girlfriend or even just a friend to practice with. Hardly ever worked. What did work though, when I was at Fudan, was to find Asian friends (Japan/Korea etc) who wanted to learn Chinese, like you, and had no interest in English (or just not confident enough). Although the Chinese you learn is not the best (more like kindergarten Chinese), as a beginner you get more opportunity to speak, and your fluency improves. Unlike natives who are a little less patient (understandably) than other learners, Japanese/Koreans let you away with silly mistakes – and in some cases you can correct each other as you are both on the same page.

    Once again, the key here is that the other person is not interested in learning Chinese, but I found it more common amongst other Asians to be primarily focused on Chinese.

  7. First I want to say, there’s a very similar post to this for the Japanese learners over at Tofugu (http://goo.gl/JQiFZ)

    It absolutely DOES help, but only to get you past the beginner stage and into the intermediate stage. I dated girls when I was in Shenzhen, and yes, it was amazing to come home from a date and say, “Wow, I just spent the last 3 hours speaking Mandarin.. I’m exhausted, but.. what a breakthrough!”

    Here’s the thing: day to day life is very repetitive, and alot of the same terms and phrases will be used. So there is a very real plateau from ‘chatting up girls’ or even being in a serious relationship. It just is. That’s why we go to school in the first place (eg. High School) because talking to our friends and family does not an education make!

    So even though I’m perfectly comfortable dating and chatting with people in Mandarin, I got a tutor last year and dropped a 财经 magazine on her desk, “I want to be able to read this.” She was a little confused, “But what woud you ever want to read such a boring rag as this?” .. I explained to her that I didn’t NEED to, but I knew it would push my Language learning to new heights.

    Eventually we got bored of the Caijing and I’m now preparing for HSK by writing essays, etc, and that does push me.

    Bottom line, for newbies, yes of course, it will get you to the intermediate level, but beyond that, you will actually have to do some serious work. Memorizing Chinese characters, learning how to write, learning all new usage patterns, will take you way way way beyond day to day conversations, and it’s hard, but it’s worth it.

  8. Another thing that I found is that even when your SO speaks no English, he/she gets used to your way of talking/mispronounciations.
    I used to know quite a few guys who spoke Chinese with their girlfriends all day every day, but weren’t understood when talking to other people.

  9. Indeed, it doesn’t help the relationship when your girlfriend/boyfriend constantly corrects your grammar.

    That is to say, language exchange is a good excuse to start the relationship – but usually it doesn’t go further than initial intention.

  10. My wife of 4 1/2 years (whom I often call “Xiao3 niao3) is from Changsha, and she and the rest of her family here in the US are quite fluent in English. Xiao niao herself was a professor of English literature in China, and her knowledge of grammar, both English and Chinese, is extensive. A little over a year ago, I decided to return the linguistic favor by recommencing the study of Mandarin (I had studied it many years ago).
    In my experience, having a native speaker as a significant other can be a useful adjunct to serious study after you’ve reached a certain level of proficiency, but cannot take the place of planned, graded lessons, and could be a very bad idea for a beginner. There are a number of reasons for this, but I would say that a principal one is the fact that your SO is not your language teacher, and may not know exactly what skills your current lessons are trying to build; second, there are an at least indefinitely large number of ways to say something in any language, and what you as a student are learning to say at a given time may be ridiculously awkward from a practical point of view, but may be intended to build grammar, vocabulary, and tone skills.
    Xiao niao is extremely useful to me when I test new sentence constructions, when I’m puzzled by some grammatical oddity, and of course in cases when I need a word. Asking her specific questions is much better than taking up time in a class, and is quite a bit less embarrassing. It’s also enormously rewarding when she compliments me on my speaking ability (she’s ruthlessly honest). But she is a full-time University employee by day, and a full-time realtor by night, and hardly has much time to be a private tutor. And, as the guest columnist pointed out, the relationship is primary.

  11. As humans we will always take the “path of least resistance”. So if your Chinese skills are not on par with your romantic interest’s English, naturally you will speak the language that flows most smoothly between the two of you. And, like others have said, the relationship is more important than your or his/her language skills – You can always outsource that. That said, if you want to get the wonderful advantages of being with someone who speaks another language then 加油!Get your skills up to his/hers and enjoy the world it will open up to you and your romantic interest. Then you will reap the benefits and understand each other on a deeper cultural level.

  12. “In my experience, having a native speaker as a significant other can be a useful adjunct to serious study after you’ve reached a certain level of proficiency, but cannot take the place of planned, graded lessons, and could be a very bad idea for a beginner”

    So you use a Chinese woman who has possibly the best English of any Mainland Chinese on the planet as an example? When I was in Shenzhen, I spoke Mandarin all the time because no one could speak English. That’s the point. Out of necessity, you speak Chinese all the time, and that’s where people are seeing massive gains in their confidence and fluency.

    It’s precisely because you didn’t need to utter a single word of Mandarin to a woman who can quote Shakespeare that she wouldn’t be much of a ‘kick in the ass’ to your Chinese learning.

  13. Michael,

    The “sink or swim” immersion approach is certainly extremely effective at acquiring a functional knowledge of a language; however, not all of us attempting Chinese are in that sort of situation. Just as many of the folks who visit this blog are Westerners in China, I presume that others here are in a position like mine, living with a Chinese SO in some other country, and I was really trying to present my experience, living in the latter sort of situation.

    This reminds me of a story told to me by a colleague at my University. This fellow is a Westerner, but has been a Professor of Chinese Language and Literature for decades. He told me that, early in his career, he actually felt more comfortable with Japanese, but his skills in the latter eroded with disuse over the years. At one point, he struck an agreement with his wife, who is Japanese, to speak only Japanese at home, in order to help him recover some of his fluency. This arrangement lasted all of one week, when they both gave up in frustration. The reason is, of course, because they live in the US and are both English-speakers. Clearly, in his case, even with substantial residual ability in Japanese, having a native-speaking SO was not terribly helpful.

    So, the oft-repeated “if you want to learn language X, get a native-speaking boyfriend/girlfriend/spouse” really should come with qualifiers.

    In fact, I would be interested to know if this common wisdom has ever closely to determine under what conditions it does or does not hold.

  14. I do find that being with a Taiwanese has improved my listening tremendously but now I find that I understand girls much better than boys and I would say that it has prevented improvement in speaking as I do not have to bother speaking correct Chinese, she will understand anyway as I always make the same mistakes.
    Now she complains that she is starting to speak french Chinese…

  15. I did not get a lot of progress out of dating Chinese girls when I was in the beginner/intermediate stages of learning, but YMMV. Once at a point where you speak (understand) Chinese better than your partner speaks English, it will be your default language. At this point, however, you may not pick up much new stuff. Still, dating is a different context and you will have conversations you wouldn’t have seen in media or in a classroom.

    For people who are visible minorities with a Chinese partner in China, did you find service staff / anyone you interact with when out and about will look at / talk to your partner and not you? I certainly did.

    Corollary: for a good time, go out on the town with a Japanese or Korean friend that can’t speak Chinese at all. People listening to you but looking at and talking to your confused friend, and other absurdities, may ensue.

  16. It’s funny to read these comments. Some say It DOES help, some say it DOESN’T help at all. That just proves that there’s no right answer to this question. Everyone of us has a different experience, a different relationship, a different partner and a different level of Chinese proficiency or eagerness to learn.

    I’m dating a Taiwanese girl for over a year and my Chinese improved a lot, but I have to say I learn a lot by myself, especially writing and reading. But when I have questions, I ask her, usually more at a time and then write them down. Yesterday she even taught me calligraphy and I have to say I am not as bad as I thought.

    I think generally you can’t expect anyone who’s your friend or lover to be a language teacher all the time, it’s exhausting. So I recommend to learn by yourself and then when you encounter problems, write them down and ask your boyfriend/girlfriend, if they can spare 15min and help you. That’s how I do it lately and it works.

    Greetings from Taipei.

  17. I’ve been with my Korean gf for about 8 months now, and we exclusively speak Mandarin (her English is quite poor). Its definitely got its ups and downs. We do have tons of fun studying together and playing around with “Chinese isms” in our daily life, and has become a real bonding experience for us to share the wonders and pitfalls of studying Chinese. However, when it comes to working out annoying logistics of setting up a new washing machine or what to pack for an upcoming trip etc., sometimes I wish I could just switch to my mother tongue.

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  18. Having a significant other who is a Chinese native is a hindrance to learning the target language. Your relationship (IMHO) is based on the language you talked when you first met. For me that was English. The language of love for us is English, although if she is rally pissed at me I’m going to get a torrent of Mandarin!

    If I was in trouble with my mother when I was young I would hear my mother call me by saying “Raymond come here!” and if I was in the good books it would be, “Ray, come here!” It’s t kind of the same feeling – My wife will switch to Mandarin if I am in the dog house. Which means I don’t get much Mandarin learning as I’m rarely in the doghouse.

    When we go out every Chinese person automatically defers to her. So when I go with the wife I have even less opportunity to speak! (Unless I am in the doghouse) In fact my wife is unsure of my Mandarin level and why should she. She does not think in those terms. She has no interest in being my teacher. It’s not the reason we are together. I have so many reasons why I married this woman and none of them stem from her nationality, language or culture. All of them stem from her personality traits and her quirky humor. The nationality ,nd culture are a happy accidental bonus.

    For example when I’m out and about speaking Mandarin it nearly always comes up that I’m married but I never mention it’s to a local. I don’t know why, but Chinese people assume my wife is Irish (just like me). However, if I do feel the need , which is rare indeed to mention my wife’s nationality – I get the usual comments. ” Ah, that is why your Mandarin level is so good” Eeek! That is far from the truth. I don’t speak Mandarin with my wife because it feels odd and strangely distant, and she has voiced similar feeling to me (in English). I can’t really verbalize why. We do joke around a bit in Mandarin but the daily nitty gritty is English.

    Same thing with my daughter. She was born here in China and is 4 years old but gets weirded out when I try to tell her a story in Mandarin. Sometimes I’ll switch when reading a story (her books usually have English and hanzi) and it take her a minute to notice. She can’t tell me why she does not like it either! However when her and I are out and I’m talking with other people she will happily babble away in Mandarin, correct my odd tonal mistakes but switch to English when addressing me. She won’t let Mama read to her in English either that must be Mandarin. So, I guess your personality is tied to language. I am just not as witty or lovable in Mandarin.

  19. Can’t comment on learning a language through an SO as my spouse is a native English speaker as well … but I can state that this line is pure gold if you wish to stay married for long: “Good teachers consistently correct [grammar] mistakes. Good [boyfriends] do not.”

  20. Dating a native Chinese speaker is no substitute for having goals or a study plan (like reading Caijing. ugh… 参考消息 is much better). And even if you date a native Chinese speaker, most of the improvements in your Chinese will occur because of the work you are doing.

    Your SO might help you or might foil you, but your progress will be controlled and guided by you.

  21. Great site and great article!

    Agree with Steven when he says: “Progress will be controlled and guided by you”

    Yes dating or marrying a local partner can help BUT:
    – First can anyone properly teach a language as far as it is his/her own mother language?
    – Second does this person speak a real correct mandarin and doesn’t mix mandarin with local/dialects expressions? (often the case)
    – Third has this person the time, method and patience to “teach” after 8 hours day work?

    If a local companion can help for tutoring and advises, it will for sure never replace a graduated pro Chinese Teacher.
    But it depends on everyone’s goal. If the target is to be able to reach a “street” level Chinese, a good book and a local partner can do.
    If the target is being able to read newspapers or movies subtitles, this is a different story…

    Finally the answer can be in this question:
    Can dating a pro musician make you a talented musician yourself? 🙂

    Cheers from Ningbo-Zhejiang!

  22. I believe that any discussion involving relationships is bound to be extremely coloured by the personalities involved. Personally, I know for sure that my fluency in Chinese has a lot to do with a certain girl I spent way too much time with when I lived in Taiwan. It isn’t about grammar, it isn’t about being correcter or anything like that.

    No, the reason why my Chinese improved extremely quickly during that time is simply that I had someone I wanted to talk with as much as possible and also wanted to talk with me. I didn’t talk with her until five in the morning because I wanted to learn Chinese. Simply but, I spoke more Chinese in a couple of months than I had done during my previous year and a half in Taiwan. This is not an exaggeration.

    So, even though this is of course possible to achieve without finding a girlfriend/boyfriend, it is very hard, simply because very few (no-one I know) is motivated enough to talk/listen that much.

    That’s my five cents, anyway.

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