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Benny Lewis' 3-month quest to become fluent in Mandarin


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#1 share Stephenson

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Posted 05 January 2012 - 10:10 PM

So, I've followed Benny Lewis for a while and quite like his attitude and what he writes. However, many of his strategies and tips are related to the fact that the language he has learnt previously are of the same family as another language he knows. So, Mandarin is not in the same family, it's got wildly different pronunciation and so on (yeah, you all know, you study Chinese). He also plans to learn to read, at least to a certain level. Within three months.

He's detailed his mission more on his blog (see this post). He defines fluent as being able to participate in multi-party conversations in a social context without slowing down the pace for native speakers, either because he can't express himself or because they have to change their speaking to let him understand, as long as the conversation is about non-specialist topics. He also refers to the C1 level in case your into that kind of stuff.

So, what do you think? I just know I've studied for many years and native speakers still have to slow down sometimes.
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#2 share imron

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Posted 07 January 2012 - 04:03 PM

Admin Note: Letting this one through despite being a link to a random blog from a first-time poster, as it may be of interest to some readers, especially in light of recent discussions on how much Chinese you can learn in X amount of time. Please let's not get into another definition of fluency though -the guy mentions quite clearly what he will be aiming towards as *his* definition of fluency. Either way, it'll be interesting to see where he ends up in 3 months.
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#3 share xuefang

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Posted 07 January 2012 - 05:05 PM

I haven't been following his blog before, but got interested when he anounced he'll try Mandarin Chinese this time. I have same kind of feelings like you Stephenson, been studying for some time and still haven't reached the level Benny is aiming for in just three months. So I'm quite sceptical about his changes to success, but it will be interesting to see what happens and where he gets.
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#4 share anonymoose

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Posted 07 January 2012 - 05:41 PM

So, what do you think?


I haven't read his blog, but...

If he thinks he can reach that level in 3 months, then he's a jackass.

If he proves me wrong, I'll graciously accept the mantle of jackass myself, but in the meantime, I won't be holding my breath.
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#5 share roddy

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Posted 07 January 2012 - 07:12 PM

He's setting himself the high-faluting goal of C1, which is

Can understand a wide range of demanding, longer texts, and recognise implicit meaning. Can express him/herself fluently and spontaneously without much obvious searching for expressions. Can use language flexibly and effectively for social, academic and professional purposes. Can produce clear, well-structured, detailed text on complex subjects, showing controlled use of organisational patterns, connectors and cohesive devices.

but then proceeds to chuck out the bits that would actually be difficult. He's not going to do any actual tests, he seems to be skipping the reading and writing bits, and I can't see he's going to do anything academic or professional. So basically he's going to spend three months studying full-time, with a ton of language learning experience under his belt, in-country - and get to the point where he can appear socially fluent in some short Youtube videos. Whoopdedoo. I'd be more impressed if he aimed for a lower level and took a decent assessment.

If you get something out of following these people, fair enough. It's like personal trainers - you could do it yourself, but if you want or need a role-model and cheer-leader (and the psychological committment of having spent money on something), on you go.
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#6 share Shelley

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Posted 07 January 2012 - 07:27 PM

3 months? Is he going to sleep,or eat or anything else? IMHO this is an impossible task. If he has some kind of "thing" for languages he may be able to pull it off, but will he really have learnt chinese or just what he needs to meet his target?

I have not read his blog, I don't think it would change my opinon because as said earlier chinese is so different from other language families that if this is what he bases his method on, i think he is in for a shock:)

As anonymoose says (in is own way:) if he proves me wrong, I will eat my hat.

P.S. Are we going to be to know how he does at this task, have we got some kind of ajudicater, judge, or other competent person to be able to inform us of his progress and success or not. Because of course now i know about this I want to know the outcome:)
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#7 share Meng Lelan

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Posted 07 January 2012 - 07:56 PM

high-faluting


I am seriously impressed you know that word.

have we got some kind of ajudicater, judge, or other competent person to be able to inform us of his progress


The Chinese Forums will gladly perform this role.
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#8 share rezaf

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Posted 07 January 2012 - 08:14 PM

I can't access his website but based on what you guys have been saying I also think that he doesn't really have an idea about the difficulty of learning Chinese and 不自量力. I am sure there have been many extremely talented people and polyglots who have tried this before but so far the only well-known people who can actually be called fluent without 討價還價 about the definition of fluency are people like Zhulian, Dashan, ... who are smart but not genius and have worked hard for more than ten years to achieve that level.
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#9 share realmayo

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Posted 07 January 2012 - 09:18 PM

Haha he's a funny guy. He reckons that no one he has met speaks English, because:

every single time I ask "Ni huishao Yingwen ma?" I'm given a blank look


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#10 share renzhe

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Posted 07 January 2012 - 09:46 PM

Fluency (of any kind) in Mandarin in 3 months is not going to happen, period.

But it will be nice to see how far somebody motivated can get if they devote 100% of their effort towards it, and have some talent. I'm guessing that A1 is a more realistic goal than C1, though.
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#11 share imron

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Posted 08 January 2012 - 04:23 AM

But it will be nice to see how far somebody motivated can get if they devote 100% of their effort towards it,

I think this is the noteworthy thing. He says himself that this is only a goal and he doesn't know whether or not he'll even come close, but better to aim high than aim low, and either way he'll keep people up to date with how things progress.

It's also interesting that he has decided to document the process, which will serve as an interesting data point for others in the future.

Personally I don't think C1 is going to be possible in that time and it will be interesting to see how realistic his assessment of his progress is after three months or whether he just declares himself "fluent" by adjusting the definition and moves on.
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#12 share drungood

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Posted 08 January 2012 - 05:28 AM

I don't get the point of these polyglots who seem to be mediocre in many languages. I would rather be an expert in Chinese than know a little bit of German, French, Italian, Russian, Japanese, etc. But to each their own.

I would be more interested in seeing the least amount of time someone could go from beginner to passing the highest-level HSK.
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#13 share renzhe

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Posted 08 January 2012 - 05:38 AM

Personally, I'd rather be an expert in all of the above :)
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#14 share irishpolyglot

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Posted 08 January 2012 - 06:05 AM

Thanks for the thread everyone! (This is Benny).

Hopefully you'll like joining me along in the journey! I can definitely understand the scepticism, but if you are somewhat supportive of me trying (I don't promise to reach the level I said, but I am going to aim for it), I'll come back in here to ask specific questions, and be happy to answer any friendly questions. Otherwise the majority of details of how much progress I'm making will be on my blog. Next week I'll outline specifically what I did in my first week to get into using the language quicker, in another week I will definitely make a video entirely in Mandarin (yes, already after just two weeks, because it will be a scripted one) so you can give me feedback on my pronunciation and tones, and then at the end I will interview a native spontaneously on camera and upload it to Youtube. As I maintain the language after this mission, I'll have other interviews on Youtube or podcasts, as I've done in my other languages.

So far, after 4 days in Taipei, I'm not discouraged in the slightest. For example, Heisig's book says:
"If you were to study them full time, there is no reason why all 1,500 characters in book 1 could not be learned successfully in 4-5 weeks"
While I'm not going to be full-time studying them (my focus is on speaking), I will be devoting a lot of time to reading, and I am already very experienced in using the kinds of mnemonics suggested in this book with other languages. Although I am confused at the order in which they are given to me. For example #17 is "recklessly". How is this priority 17?? Perhaps this book is more ideally suited to someone studying in advance, rather than someone who urgently needs to read asap.

But as someone pointed out, I am having trouble getting understood - most likely because my tones are so off. I am looking for private lessons starting tomorrow, to have someone help me drill this out. Soon I'll focus more on social interactions, rather than lessons, to improve the majority of my spoken skills.

All the best from rainy Taipei!
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#15 share Silent

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Posted 08 January 2012 - 06:13 AM

I'm guessing that A1 is a more realistic goal than C1, though.


Sure more realistic, but A1 is a breeze. If someone is in an immersion environment committed and can't reach A1 in 3 months I think he has a real talent for failing. Sure, mandarin ain't easy, but if the guy is talented, has experience with tonal languages and knows already several languages I think he should at least be able to get well into the B band.

C1 essentially means HSK5 (apart from the debate or the levels really match), 1709 characters, 2500 words. Less then 30 words a day. It won't be easy, but is doesn't sound impossible to me.

Where the guy imho fails is in what he can do with this level. C1 really isn't that high a level. But then with limited vocabulary and without any shame to make mistakes and the extravercy to 'rattle' on one can get fairly conversational with very limited vocabulary.
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#16 share imron

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Posted 08 January 2012 - 06:16 AM

"If you were to study them full time, there is no reason why all 1,500 characters in book 1 could not be learned successfully in 4-5 weeks"

This is absolutely true. However the problem lies with the fact that most written stuff is composed of words, which are composed of multiple characters, and just because you know the characters, doesn't mean you'll know the word. For example, just because you know the word "up" and the word "set" doesn't mean you'll understand the word "upset" when you see these words next to each other. That's basically what's happening with everything you see in Chinese.

So what you'll find is that you'll have learnt 1,500 characters, and you still won't be able to read much at all, except under very specific circumstances, and even "gisting" text will be difficult.

Anyway, I wish you the best of luck with your goal, and be sure to check out the rest of this site. There is plenty of information here on how to study Chinese in an effective manner, plenty of which could be useful for you over the next few months.
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#17 share Silent

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Posted 08 January 2012 - 06:17 AM

I don't get the point of these polyglots who seem to be mediocre in many languages

I definately see an added value is basic knowledge of multiple languages. I know two fluent (dutch & English, 1 very mediocre (german) and 2 very basic (french & spanish). When travelling the basic knowledge of French and Spanish and in lesser extent german too, have been very usefull.

Imho languages are meant for communication. For professional use you really need fluency. For getting around, for travelling some basic knowledge makes things a lot easier. Makes the population more accesable which also adds value.

What I really don't see is the value of (near) native level language proficiency as many people here seem to aim for. Who cares if you have an accent? If I reach a level where I can converse freely without too many errors or hesitation and without being limited too much by my vocabulary I'm perfectly happy. My language skills may still improve through use, but I won't put any serious effort in for the sole pupose to improve further.
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#18 share renzhe

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Posted 08 January 2012 - 06:22 AM

Hi Benny.

We are skeptical because we've all been there and know how elusive it is. But I think that most posters will wish you luck, and hope that you make good enough progress in 3 months to develop a healthy appetite for more. I don't believe that you will reach a level comparable to C1 (like I say, A1 is more likely), but you can make excellent progress in this time and develop a good foundation.

"If you were to study them full time, there is no reason why all 1,500 characters in book 1 could not be learned successfully in 4-5 weeks"

I learned about a thousand in a month, and I didn't even use many mnemonics.

The dirty secret is that you will forget all of them. You're not done after 5 weeks, you need to invest a certain amount of time to cement these things in your memory, or they will be gone. And in my experience, this takes about 2 years -- if you completely forget a character, you start from scratch.

Also keep in mind that characters on their own are not that useful, and you need to learn words just like in any other language. Learning 3000 characters is very similar to learning all the letters of the alphabet. Then you need to learn words and how to use them.

For example #17 is "recklessly". How is this priority 17??

I don't know which character that is (Heisig gives incorrect meaning for some characters, so I hesitate to guess), but Chinese characters consist of building blocks, and Heisig teaches you important building blocks early, even if they rarely appear as characters on their own.

I'll give you a piece of advice here -- Heisig teaches mnemonics, and it is important to think of them as such. True etymology of Chinese characters is often very difficult, and often makes little sense from today's perspective. A lot of it is purely phonetic, which Heisig ignores. It's not a perfect, logical system like some people think. They make more sense once you get used to seeing them in words and different contexts.
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#19 share renzhe

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Posted 08 January 2012 - 06:26 AM

C1 essentially means HSK5

HSK5 is not easy. You need to have a decent reading speed, and that alone takes time to develop.

I will be extremely impressed if somebody passes HSK5 after 3 months.
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#20 share irishpolyglot

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Posted 08 January 2012 - 06:32 AM

This is absolutely true. However the problem lies with the fact that most written stuff is composed of words, which are composed of multiple characters...

Yes - but I'm learning other things in parallel. If you see the image in the blog post linked to, you can see some of my material. One of them is an illustrated dictionary, to make sure I'm actually learning to read real words that I'd actually need. It will be harder this way because I won't have learned the core characters first, but it's all part of the challenge! I'm already able to create some kind of mnemonic myself in these cases. This way I'll start to recognise characters already within Heisig's book and place them in context.

I don't believe that you will reach a level comparable to C1 (like I say, A1 is more likely),

I don't like to make promises, but presuming I don't get sick or something, I absolutely guarantee you that I will go beyond A1 & A2. B1 will be the minimum level for me to consider these 3 months as a useful experience regarding language learning, and even though I don't know any languages related to Chinese, I am quite experienced in language learning in general. Beyond vocabulary, characters and tones, there are issues people overlook like confidence, practical use of memory etc. that I can apply more than most would in 3 months. Although I will insist that this has nothing to do with a language gene or talent. I can't link here yet, but I wrote a blog post about how I had to go to speech therapy when I was growing up, which emphasises this.

Also, to be clear, I will not be sitting the HSK5 exam. I had a previous mission to sit a C2 exam in 3 months (in German) and it was stressful and way too academic, making me focus on the wrong things. The priority of this mission will be to speak very well, and have a useful (but not fluent) level of being able to read.

Thanks for the tips though - very helpful!
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