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Can Westerners become fluent in Chinese?


david1978
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Question: How many Western people have you guys encountered that are truly fluent in Mandarin?

The answer to this question obviously depends on how you define 'truly fluent'. I've met at least a few westerners who I'd say have fluent mandarin (not to mention all those you see on TV), in the sense that they could talk with ease about any subject. That's not to say their mandarin is as good as some native speakers, but on the other hand, why can a westerner not be entitled to make a few mistakes every now and then and still be considered to be fluent when many native speakers often say things which break the formal rules of chinese grammar, yet noone would consider saying they are not fluent?

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The answer to this question obviously depends on how you define 'truly fluent'.

By "truly fluent" I mean someone that can speak on any topic they want, at length, with perfect grammar and pronunciation.

why can a westerner not be entitled to make a few mistakes every now and then and still be considered to be fluent when many native speakers often say things which break the formal rules of chinese grammar, yet noone would consider saying they are not fluent?

This is a poor analogy. You're confusing colloquial speech with poor grammar skills. When Westerners make mistakes in their Mandarin communication, it stems from the fact that they don't know the correct way of articulating themselves. When a native speaker breaks the formal rules of grammar, it's a matter of informal, colloquial speech. However, colloquial speech is a systematic form of communication which is even harder to learn than formal language.

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This is a poor analogy. You're confusing colloquial speech with poor grammar skills. When Westerners make mistakes in their Mandarin communication, it stems from the fact that they don't know the correct way of articulating themselves. When a native speaker breaks the formal rules of grammar, it's a matter of informal, colloquial speech. However, colloquial speech is a systematic form of communication which is even harder to learn than formal language.

I agree with you to a certain extent, but a lot of this so-called 'informal, colloquial' speech stems from the speaker not knowing the correct way of articulating themselves. Native speakers can speak in this way without raising an eyebrow, but if the same words were to come out of the mouth of a westerner, they would be labelled as having bad, or at least imperfect chinese.

By "truly fluent" I mean someone that can speak on any topic they want, at length, with perfect grammar and pronunciation.

What is perfect pronunciation? On the basis of your definition, I guess only a small minority of native chinese speakers have 'truly fluent' chinese.

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By "truly fluent" I mean someone that can speak on any topic they want, at length, with perfect grammar and pronunciation.
I'm not sure I'd agree with this definition of truly fluent, especially as it precludes some native speakers from being truly fluent.

I've always liked the Interagency Language Roundtable definitions of language fluency. Based on these rankings, I would count level 3 or above as fluent, and probably 4 or above as truly fluent.

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What is perfect pronunciation?

I have been down the semantic road before and I don't wish to visit it again. Trying to define and redefine basic concepts is a defense mechanism to compensate for short comings. In other words, when a person is not fluent in Chinese they will make statements such as: "What is perfect pronunciation? ... Native speakers make mistakes yet no one questions their fluency ... etc" This is not constructive or productive, and I wonder if you will hold the same criteria if and when you achieve fluency.

The question I pose is simple: how many Westerners have you encountered that are truly fluent in Chinese. Perhaps the word "truly" is superfluous, but there should be little doubt about what is meant by the question.

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BTW, I do believe that a native speaker can have poor command of their mother language thus precluding them from being considered fluent. I'd argue that if one's extent of language skills is limited to utilitarian purposes, they are not fluent.

I pulled a few dictionary definitions:

flu·ent

1. Able to express oneself readily and effortlessly: a fluent speaker; fluent in three languages.

2. Flowing effortlessly; polished: speaks fluent Russian; gave a fluent performance of the sonata.

2. Flowing or moving smoothly; graceful: a yacht with long, fluent curves.

3. Flowing or capable of flowing; fluid.

lu·ent /ˈfluənt/ Pronunciation Key - Show Spelled Pronunciation[floo-uhnt] Pronunciation Key - Show IPA Pronunciation

–adjective

1. spoken or written with ease: fluent French.

2. able to speak or write smoothly, easily, or readily: a fluent speaker; fluent in six languages.

http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/fluent

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If you don't want to consider a person who can speak fluent Mandarin Chinese, as defined above, "perfect" then that's certainly your prerogative. In my opinion, smooth, effortless, and polished language skills constitutes perfect.

Anyway, the reason I am asking my question - How many Westerners have you encountered that can speak fluent Chinese? - is because in the last few years there has been an unprecedented number of Westerners studying the Chinese language and I'm interested to know their approximate success rate; especially in comparison to the success rate of Westerners studying other non-tonal languages.

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Below are definitions linked to imron earlier, reformatted for easier reading. Note that the comparison is to a "well educated, highly articulate" native speaker, not an average native speaker.

http://www.govtilr.org/ILRscale2.htm

Speaking 4 (Advanced Professional Proficiency)

- Able to use the language fluently and accurately on all levels normally pertinent to professional needs.

- The individual's language usage and ability to function are fully successful.

- Organizes discourse well, using appropriate rhetorical speech devices, native cultural references and understanding.

- Language ability only rarely hinders him/her in performing any task requiring language; yet, the individual would seldom be perceived as a native.

- Speaks effortlessly and smoothly and is able to use the language with a high degree of effectiveness, reliability and precision for all representational purposes within the range of personal and professional experience and scope of responsibilities.

- Can perform extensive, sophisticated language tasks, encompassing most matters of interest to well-educated native speakers, including tasks which do not bear directly on a professional specialty.

Speaking 4+ (Advanced Professional Proficiency, Plus)

- Speaking proficiency is regularly superior in all respects, usually equivalent to that of a well educated, highly articulate native speaker.

- Language ability does not impede the performance of any language-use task. However, the individual would not necessarily be perceived as culturally native.

Speaking 5 (Functionally Native Proficiency)

- Speaking proficiency is functionally equivalent to that of a highly articulate well-educated native speaker and reflects the cultural standards of the country where the language is natively spoken.

- The individual uses the language with complete flexibility and intuition, so that speech on all levels is fully accepted by well-educated native speakers in all of its features, including breadth of vocabulary and idiom, colloquialisms and pertinent cultural references.

- Pronunciation is typically consistent with that of well-educated native speakers of a non-stigmatized dialect.

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What is perfect pronunciation? On the basis of your definition, I guess only a small minority of native chinese speakers have 'truly fluent' chinese.

To be useful, the comparison should be to a native Mandarin speaker, not of just any Chinese dialect. Many dialect speakers learn Mandarin as a second "language."

See below for a video of Dashan doing a Chinese stand-up comedy routine. Judging from it, he would probably qualify as a "5." But because these comedy routines are heavily rehearsed, it would be better to hear how he sounds when doing an impromptu interview.

http://www.tudou.com/programs/view/8QPiR0QHBQ8/

大山-一样不一样

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in the last few years there has been an unprecedented number of Westerners studying the Chinese language and I'm interested to know their approximate success rate;
I think the success rate compared to the number of people learning Chinese, is probably not so high simply because people start learning Chinese without realising how long a process it is, and then either give up, or become satisfied with having functional chinese and decide not to make an effort to become really fluent due to the diminishing returns involved with further study. If you're going to further limit that to people I actually know, then the number becomes even smaller.

However, there are many westerners here with what I would define as fluent, and even "truly" fluent Chinese, and I don't just mean the ones on TV. For example, in the legal profession, many of the western lawyers working in China have excellent Chinese, and although they might make occasional mistakes in pronunciation or grammar, they can communicate freely and easily both in every-day situations, and in highly technical situations that require a level of understanding of certain language terms that many native speakers will not have a clear/precise understanding of.

These are people who have spent a large amount of time not just studying Chinese, but also living and working in China. Personally, I don't believe that reaching that level of fluency is something you can achieve in a year or two, and will more likely take 5-10 years, with a large part of that time spent in China. The same is true of other languages though, and not just Chinese, because to be really fluent you need to not just understand the words you also need to understand references to popular culture and the like that are impossible to pick up without spending significant time in the target country.

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Trying to define and redefine basic concepts is a defense mechanism to compensate for short comings. In other words, when a person is not fluent in Chinese they will make statements such as: "What is perfect pronunciation? ... Native speakers make mistakes yet no one questions their fluency ... etc" This is not constructive or productive, and I wonder if you will hold the same criteria if and when you achieve fluency.

Your condescending attitude is uncalled for. The answer to your initial question "How many Western people have you guys encountered that are truly fluent in Mandarin?" depends quite critically on the definition of 'truly fluent'.

On the basis of your definition

By "truly fluent" I mean someone that can speak on any topic they want, at length, with perfect grammar and pronunciation.

my answer would be 0, and many native chinese speakers would also be precluded by this definition.

On the basis of the dictionary definitions you provided

flu·ent

1. Able to express oneself readily and effortlessly: a fluent speaker; fluent in three languages.

2. Flowing effortlessly; polished: speaks fluent Russian; gave a fluent performance of the sonata.

2. Flowing or moving smoothly; graceful: a yacht with long, fluent curves.

3. Flowing or capable of flowing; fluid.

lu·ent /ˈfluənt/ Pronunciation Key - Show Spelled Pronunciation[floo-uhnt] Pronunciation Key - Show IPA Pronunciation

–adjective

1. spoken or written with ease: fluent French.

2. able to speak or write smoothly, easily, or readily: a fluent speaker; fluent in six languages.

then the answer is several.

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Even with Dashan, there are people who say they can tell his accent has a tiny foreign influence and doesn't sound 100% like a native speaker, and others still who will point out tiny mistakes he makes in pronunciation.

The fact is though, his Chinese is amazing, and you couldn't really say he wasn't fluent.

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Even with Dashan, there are people who say they can tell his accent has a tiny foreign influence and doesn't sound 100% like a native speaker, and others still who will point out tiny mistakes he makes in pronunciation.

Yes, just as many children of immigrants who grew up in English-speaking countries may speak English with a bit of a non-native accent but would still be considered native speaker of English. There are places where Dashan's pronounciation sounds a little unnatural, but I would guess that he would qualify as a "5" in your rating system. It'd be helpful to see him speak in a more impromptu situation, but I would guess that he'd do fine even without rehearsing.

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Hi Anonymoose,

I want to respond to your post but first wonder what the intention was. If it was to find the characteristics of those few westerners who got up to that level? Or perhaps it was to reassure oneself that there are so few around that our half-decent Chinese is very marketable. (When I see job advertisement that require English : native level and Chinese :fluent I think of functional fluency in the work place and give it a broader definition. )

But responding to you I would say 4 that I can think of off the top of my head. I will name them and give them nicknames and some background description

1. Josh "The language Genius" :- I met Josh the second year studying at Nanjing University. He had skills he could speak 8 languages very well and 6 or more passably. Orignally from some western Europe country like the netherlands or Germany, he found he could learn languages easily . Some of the languages included Russian and polish which has some tonal issues with it I am told. When I spoke with him he would try to answer every other sentences with a Chengyu idiom, Dashan like in it precise accents. Ridiculous. Though a little chubby he wasn't the most social guy but then he was only like 24 at the time I think. Definitely could be able to go to the UN and talk with everyone.

2 . James- "Dog entrepreneur" This a good, australian friend who is living in Nanjing with me. His wife of 2 years relationship of 4ish ? years majored in Chinese in University and doesn't speak much English. He also spent a year in the booming but foreigner scarce town of Taizhou where he used to solely use Chinese. He has download chinese dragonball Z methods and at the beginning learned new words and pronunciation at the bar. Great Tones and large vocabulary, though only uses Chengyus occasionally which I prefer..With his wife he opened a dog accessory and food store here. It is doing quite well.

Jack: " NZ good student" Jack came from New Zealand on two government to government chinese scholarships and studied to HSK level 10 . He was reading books for fun when I last saw him in 2004. But Love is blind and he fell for a sweet Korean Girl and followed her back to Korea. Let's just say her parents didn't think marrying a foriegner was such a good thing and let him know it. After a year or two they broke up and last heard he was back in NZ.

Ian : "the long term Expat" Pronounced eye-an , is an older 34 ish? Expat I met in Shanghai playing frisbee. He was and still is I think the head of some CHina-US buisness board. He majored in CHinese in the nineties came over to China while there were only a few westerners, did more language study . Then got a job In Shanghai where he and his American -Chinese ABC wife Anita were thinking of settling down last I heard. He said he used CHinese about 50 % of the time at work I think. When not injured his ultimate Frisbee skills were sweet. Also a pretty smart cookie.

Anyway these are the folks who came to mind when you asked the question. Some of them Like Jack and Josh could even switch to dialect if they met someone whose putonghua was not that good.

Anonymoose is your answer 0?

have fun,

Simon:)

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Anonymoose, it wasn't my intention to be condescending to you or anyone else for that matter. I sincerely apologize if you feel offended.

Hi Anonymoose,

I want to respond to your post but first wonder what the intention was. If it was to find the characteristics of those few westerners who got up to that level? Or perhaps it was to reassure oneself that there are so few around that our half-decent Chinese is very marketable. (When I see job advertisement that require English : native level and Chinese :fluent I think of functional fluency in the work place and give it a broader definition. )

@simonlaing:

Are you confusing myself with Anonymoose? It was I who posed the initial question above. Anyway, if your inquiry is directed at me, my intent is to try and get a general impression of how many Westerners achieve fluency. The reason I am curious is because some studies have suggested that there is a genetic predisposition toward tonal and non tonal languages which may make it particularly difficult for non tonal speakers to master tonal languages.

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There are plenty of children of western parents who have grown up in China and speak Chinese like a native, plus a growing number of westerners who moved here as adults and speak it without any real difficulty, or where the tones aren't the source of the difficulty, which to me indicates genetic disposition isn't the most important factor when it comes to learning Chinese.

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some studies have suggested that there is a genetic predisposition toward tonal and non tonal languages which may make it particularly difficult for non tonal speakers to master tonal languages.
This (= the studies) is a complete bull* intended for the gullible :D .

As regards the main question in this thread, the answer is of course, they can, but whether this can be easily seen depending on many factors.

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