Language Learning is Messy II: Talk a Lot

I’m often asked:Q: “How long should it take to become fluent in Chinese?”

I think the best answer:

A: “As long as it takes.”

This is one of those messy aspects of learning a new language that we can’t put in definite terms. Each learner is different. How quickly and easily you learn a new language depends on your:

  1. Natural skills and talents. Although someone born with a photographic (and phonographic) memory, genius for grammar, and the elusive “good ear” probably will have an advantage learning a new language, I don’t think natural ability and genetics are the most important factors.
  2. Linguistic and cultural background. I met a Japanese student during my second year in China. He’d been studying Chinese for only 3 months and he was just as good at speaking and listening as I was after 12 months. Besides that, he knew almost every hanzi character we encountered. One obvious advantage he had was: the Japanese language uses Chinese characters. English doesn’t. I’m also told there are cognates between Japanese and Chinese. The most help we can expect from English is “typhoon” (táifēng 台风), “kowtow” (kòutóu 叩头) and “ping pong” (pīngpāngqiú 乒乓球)! But I’ll bet I could learn French or Spanish faster than he could.
  3. Exposure to the language. So why did that Japanese guy’s listening and speaking improve so fast? He had a Chinese girlfriend for at least 2 of those 3 months, and he took Chinese classes full time. I didn’t, and I didn’t. He must have spent far more hours each day speaking Chinese and understanding Chinese (which is different than just listening to Chinese) than I did.

We can’t really control our genes or background, but we can do something about our exposure to the language.

As anyone who’s lived in China will tell you, just being in China does not automatically give you a lot of useful chances to speak and understand Chinese (see “Is China a good place to learn Chinese?“). You’ve got to find your own opportunities and contexts in which to speak Chinese, and once you do, you’ve got to speak a lot.

As Jim Mahler pointed out in his comment on the first article in this series:

“By the time a child is six years old, he or she has been exposed to at least 21,900 hours of language (using a conservative estimate of 10 hours per day). To get that same exposure, an adult who spends two hours every weekday studying and attending foreign language classes would need over 42 YEARS.”

Of course the child hasn’t spent all those hours talking. But those figures do take a bit of the “magic” out of a child’s language learning ability. We know that children talk a lot, we know they learn languages well. Perhaps we can assume:

Those who talk a lot, get better.

How quickly you progress in learning Chinese relates directly to how much you speak Chinese. This may seem like a pretty basic concept, but it doesn’t only apply to learning languages.

A New York Times article on athletic talent said pros at chess and tennis have talent, but they’ve also put in the hours. Even the genius Mozart did his time:

“Mozart studied some 3,500 hours of music with his instructor father by his sixth birthday, a number that places his musical memory into the realm of impressive but obtainable party tricks.”

While I don’t feel terribly comfortable saying “Mozart” and “party tricks” in the same sentence, there is no getting away from the fact that people who are good at doing something have spent a lot of time doing that thing.

Immerse Yourself

The best way to learn Chinese is to eat, drink, and breathe Chinese. This has been particularly difficult for me, even though I’m in China, because I teach English, and people want to practice their English with me. Of course there are the commerce situations (buying bananas, etc.), but I needed more. I had to branch out and find people who either didn’t want to speak English or just couldn’t. For me that meant:

  1. teachers I met in the teachers’ cafeteria on campus
  2. ping pong buddies
  3. musicians
  4. commuters on the bus (sometimes)
  5. some super helpful informants

If you can’t find anyone to talk to in Chinese, feel free to talk to yourself. I spoke to imaginary friends (I can’t believe I’m admitting this) and replied in a different voice (where’s the delete button?!) all in Chinese.

One of the reasons I translate songs is it’s just another chance to immerse myself and get my hands into the language in a way I enjoy.

The bottom line is: do whatever you’ve got to do to speak a lot of Chinese.

No talk, no learn.

See also the other posts in this series:

8 Replies to “Language Learning is Messy II: Talk a Lot”

  1. From my experience and bias, exposure in the vein of “Just Do It” is the only thing that really counts.
    Learning a language is not an intellectual process. If it was all of the stupid people in the World, and we, I believe, make up the vast majority, would have never learned a language. People who are born mentally retarded usually learn a language well.
    However, if you are an adult in China for the first time, perhaps the best way to get that exposure is to get yourself a live-in boyfriend or girlfriend that does not speak
    English. It is fun, can be emotional, and you are guaranteed to learn. Otherwise, you will starve, do all the cleaning yourself and take all of your showers alone. Just make sure you have a good dictionary. A friend of mine gave me a small one we call “Cubby,” and it was the most used item in my apartment.

  2. The lack of cognates (words derived from the same root) makes Chinese difficult for Westerners. Equivalents (words with different roots but similar meanings) also create problems, because the apparent equivalency can be misleading.

    For example, my Chinese-English dictionary says (shui3) and water are equivalents. However, when a Chinese host asks you 想喝点水吗 (xiang3 he1 dian3 shui3 ma, literally would you like some water) he’s really asking if you want something to drink. If you say yes, you’ll almost certainly be served tea, not water. Similarly, 茶水 (cha2shui3, literally tea water) refers to brewed tea as opposed to leaves; 汽水 (qi4shui3, literally aerated water) means soft drink, and 酒水 (jiu3shui3, literally alcoholic water) means grape wine or beer. (At first I thought 酒水might refer specifically to American beer, but it doesn’t.) In these uses, the meaning of is closer to “a beverage” than to “water”.

    And remember, as hard as these nuances may be for us to learn, they’re just as hard for Chinese learning English. Whew! Just thinking about it makes me break out in a sweat (汗水, han4shui3).

  3. One thing that’s really helped is choosing to live in an older, all-Chinese community. We’re the only foreigners in the neighbourhood, and it’s more of an old-school, out-doors kind of community, so we see the same people on the same corner every day, the same “neighbourhood characters” everyday, and that means that every time we leave or come home, we have a chance to talk (or eat, drink, play chess, or whatever) with people.

    It has it’s drawbacks – mostly that it’s not as nice or convenient or private or quiet as all the other foreigner’s places we’ve been to. But we came here to learn Chinese, and for us, living in a Chinese neighbourhood is totally worth it, and a lot of fun if you’re into the people.

  4. I’m a Chinese native speaker,and i just wonder can you guys read Chinese?I ofter hear that some foreigners can speak Chinese but cannot read or write.If you can write,you may send me your writings at and i can correct them for you.:)

  5. Albert, I read that you translate songs. Is there a popular Chinese song that is also a popular American song (that is, the tune would be recognizable to Americans). I’m a vocalist, looking to add a song in Chinese to my repertoire. Can you suggest one, and maybe where I could download it? Thanks!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.