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Can Westerners become fluent in Chinese?


david1978
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I've always wondered why both Westerners and Chinese alike are so impressed with the phenomenon of Westerners speaking fluent Chinese. It's just as difficult for a Korean, Japanese, or Asian-American with no Chinese background to learn this language, but we get almost zero credit no matter how well we speak. Just to add another data point, I've never met a Westerner who could speak fluent Chinese, although I have met several who had been studying the language for over 10 years, some married to native speakers, and a few who were experts in Classical Chinese. I put it up to not getting corrected on pronunciation(esp. tones) in the early stages and the bad pronunciation "fossilizing." But then again, I've never met any Koreans or Japanese who could speak fluent Chinese either.

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Just my 2 cents:

Although knowing Chinese is important - it's hasn't become a fashionable language (yet?), since China hasn't got competitive movies (cf. Hollywood), cartoons (cf. Japanese anime's) or songs, which are popular with the general public, Chinese TV programs are not so popular in the West either. I am not saying negatively, you mostly interested in these things, if you are also interested in Chinese language and culture. I wish China could create real competition in these areas.

Another demotivating factor (for some) is that not all Chinese themselves use one both written and spoken language - the areas in China where business is booming are usually not where Mandarin is commonly spoken.

As for mastering Mandarin, I think any person can master it with enough time, efforts, exposure, etc. I actually see a lot of Western people getting interested in Chinese.

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Perhaps a more apt question one ought ask is whether those with weak command of their native language can even dream of being fluent in a second language, let alone Chinese. My money is on no.

Sure they can. There are plenty of speakers of non-Mandarin Chinese "dialects", who can only use their native language in everyday conversation and who possess no technical or literary vocabulary in that native language, who become fluent in Mandarin. Not all of them live in China, either.

The same can be said for people who migrate before receiving an adequate education in their mother tongue.

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I think a good definition of fluency for our purposes here would be having roughly the same communication ability in the second language as one has in the first. That way education level and knowledge of particular subject matter don't come into play. Someday if I get to the point where my command of Chinese is close to my command of English, I'll consider myself fluent. That doesn't mean I need to be able to speak fluently about astrophysics in either language.

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"HJ, I think your post is suggesting what I'm suspecting to be true: the novelty of hearing a laowai speak fluently, despite so many Westerners desperately trying to learn Chinese, has not worn off. Why? Because the success rate is pathetically low. You can digest this empirical observation in two ways: 1) you can brush it off and dismiss those Westerners as not trying hard enough; or 2) You can try to see if there is something going on."

There aren't nearly many westerners studying Chinese as study Spanish, French etc., so the raw numbers of fluent laowais will naturally be lower than with those languages. As to to whether the success rate is any different than for other languages, I kind of doubt it. How many students try Spanish in the U.S., and how many actually become fluent? The success rate is abysmal.

If we limit discussion to adult self-studyers, would there be a difference in the success rate between Mandarin and, say, Spanish? Well, first of all, I'd say the failure rate (eg., giving up before becoming fluent) would be amazingly high for either language. It would not surprise me, necessarily, if Mandarin's failure rate was somewhat higher for English-speaking westerners, because it is a little tougher to learn the pronunciation initially and that will scare a lot of people off in the early stages.

I have studied both Mandarin and Spanish. I would not say that Mandarin is any tougher than Spanish over the long haul, if we are only considering the speaking aspect. I do not find the tones of Mandarin to be a major sticking point, and I think a lot of people here feel the same way. I do, however, find the conjugations of Spanish to be a sticking point.

In terms of reading and writing, of course Mandarin is harder. But that's not a conceptual difficulty, it's a rote memorization issue.

In short, I do not believe there is any intrinsic reason a westerner can't learn Mandarin the same as a westerner can learn any language, though the reading and writing may take more hours of labor. I think the real reason it's rare to find a laowai fluent in Chinese is that not enough people have started trying yet.

A closing thought: If I could change anything about Mandarin in order to make it easier for me to learn, I would not necessarily choose the tones. My first choice would be the writing system; I'd give it an alphabetic system. My second choice might be something like eliminating measure words, or adding a few more initial-final combination so as to reduce the number of homynyms. How about other people, what would you change?

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I think a good definition of fluency for our purposes here would be having roughly the same communication ability in the second language as one has in the first.

I buy this. I was thinking along similar lines when I said earlier that a person with poor communication skills in his native language is unlikely to achieve fluency in Mandarin. Nevertheless your definition of fluency as the proportional correlation of abilities between one's first and second language is a highly useful and appealing one.

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I have studied both Mandarin and Spanish. I would not say that Mandarin is any tougher than Spanish over the long haul, if we are only considering the speaking aspect. I do not find the tones of Mandarin to be a major sticking point, and I think a lot of people here feel the same way. I do, however, find the conjugations of Spanish to be a sticking point.

I agree. There is different varieties of difficulty but in the end they all work out so they are all hard.

A closing thought: If I could change anything about Mandarin in order to make it easier for me to learn, I would not necessarily choose the tones. My first choice would be the writing system; I'd give it an alphabetic system.

I wouldn't change either. That's the beauty of languages. I actually like the characters and while they are at times difficult, I rather enjoy them and do not find them any harder than a Chinese learning the English writing system.

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David1978, comparing that definition to the ILR scale that I linked to previously, would you say that a person at level 3 (or even level 4) was not fluent? (assuming of course they were a well educated speaker of their native language).

This is someone who is "able to speak the language with sufficient structural accuracy and vocabulary to participate effectively in most formal and informal conversations in practical, social and professional topics".

I don't think it's reasonable to suggest that such a person was not fluent in the language, even though their competency in that language might not be anywhere near their level of competency in their native language.

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Personally, I have met a few non-native speakers who I would consider to be "fluent". One, a guy from South Africa, a woman from Vietnam, and a few Koreans. So, it certainly is possible.

As far as "why are there so few Westerners who are fluent"? I would posit the following guesses:

1) They haven't been studying Chinese long enough and they started late.

Ask most foreigners in China how long they have been studying Chinese, and I bet they will say only a few years, if not a few months. I agree with imron that it probably takes somewhere in the ballpark of 5-10 years of studying a language on a daily basis to start to slide into, and up the spectrum of "fluencies" (it is not like crossing some sort of magical line, after all.)

Also, many Americans start learning a foreign language in middle school (age 12), and quite a few continue it through college. In my case, I started learning Spanish at 12, and continued throughout high school, and then in college. In my junior year, I studied abroad at the University of Chile and the Catholic University of Chile, being able to directly enroll in real classes (not just language courses) with real Chilean students. That year, my program had eight people who ended up staying the whole year. To a person, we were shocked at how bad our Spanish was when we first got there, and how difficult classes were, and how little we understood of common everyday speech. But, by the end we were all somewhat "fluent" (perhaps at different levels on that continuum though). The reason why we were able to get there was because we all had a huge foundation solidly built over 8+ years of studying, albeit in the US. Many college exchange students in China, in contrast, have been studying for 2-3 (if that) when they come over to China. Clearly, it is amazingly difficult to make it to "fluent" with such a weak base, even if you have the huge advantage of being on the ground in China.

As more high schools in the West start to offer Chinese, I wonder if the next crop of Chinese learners will be significantly better. I bet so.

That's the biggest difference, but to a much lesser degree:

2) Chinese has no similarities with English vocabulary-wise, unlike French, German, Spanish, Greek....etc. That just means the language will take longer to learn.

Also, what background knowledge (including proper nouns, and specialized words, knowledge of historical events, social events, literature, pop culture...etc) would a "fluent" person be required to know, and what would he or she be not required to know? In any case:

3) The background knowledge required to become fluent in Chinese is almost all entirely new to Westerners, unlike a lot of the background knowledge that is shared by the countries and languages that comprise Western Civilization.

4) Structurally and unfortunately, there just isn’t much incentive for native English speakers to learn foreign languages. For example, let’s take two people. One is American, one is Chinese. They both are equally interested in foreign languages and cultures, and are both equally smart, with equal access to educational resources. The Chinese person has to learn English starting at a young age. English is a significant component of the “High School Exam” the “College Entrance Exam”. An English certificate (Band 4) is needed to graduate. English (Band 6) is needed to transfer one’s hukou to modern cities like Shanghai. English is a component in getting many jobs, even ones that are unrelated to English. English is often needed to switch jobs, climb the corporate ladder, or get an MBA. It’s also a component of getting a Master’s. English is obviously emphasized to a crazy degree in China, but it isn’t dissimilar to many other countries.

On the other hand, although most high schools in the US require three or four years of foreign language study, and most colleges require a year or two, few universities require four years of study. In fact, it might hurt your schedule to do so. Graduation doesn’t require having a certain level of proficiency, and although many employers would see knowledge of a foreign language as a plus, it is far from being required. I’m just saying all this because for most intelligent people who are native speakers of English and who are interested in learning a foreign language, unfortunately, you may find that pursuing your interest in another language would become more of a time-consuming “hobby” than an actual necessary thing that would automatically validate any time spent doing it.

Anyway, as far as Mandarin's particular major difficulties (the writing system and the tones), they certainly are formidable challenges, but if one has spent the thousands of hours studying needed to get into the ballpark of fluency, then I somewhat doubt that tones and the writing system will remain significant barriers towards comprehension/ being understood

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I agree with what wushijiao has written, and I would like to expand slightly upon the point that "Chinese has no similarities with English vocabulary-wise, unlike French, German, Spanish, Greek".

I think there are (at least) two levels of similarity that have to be distinguished. One is based on cognates, where a word in one language will bare some phonetic similarity to the corresponding word in another language. For a speaker of English as a native language, the cognates in French, German, et cetera will obviously constitute an advantage when learning vocabulary over other languages such as Chinese where cognates are relatively few.

On the other hand, there are many cognates between Japanese and Korean and Chinese, which may be one factor explaining wushijiao's experience of having met a few Koreans (as opposed to few westerners) with fluent Chinese.

I think, much more significant than cognates, however, is the level of correspondence between words in one language and another, which will heavily influence one's ability to become fluent in the second language.

Any native speaker of English who has learnt some French or German and many other western European languages will probably have noticed that for any word in English, there is usually an equivalent word in the foreign language. By 'equivalent', I don't mean that the word is neccessarily the same phonetically, but that it's meaning corresponds very closely with the English word, and that its range of applications is very similar. Therefore, as a learner of the foreign language, all you have to do is memorize that one word, and then you can use it in any situation where the corresponding word would be used in English. Of course this is a generalization, and there are many exceptions. But I think the level of correspondence between such different languages as English and Chinese is vastly lower, and is a significant hurdle to overcome (at least in my experience) before being able to reach a good level of fluency. The range of uses of a particular word in English may only overlap slightly with the range of uses of a particular word in Chinese. To phrase this in another way, I mean that a word that may correspond in one context may be entirely inappropriate in another context. Therefore, for a native English speaker, a lot more effort has to be put into learning the contextual relevance of vocabulary items in Chinese than other languages such as French and German that have some relation with English.

I'm not a linguist, and I don't know if this phenomenon is widely recognised or has a standard name, but in my personal experience of learning French, German and Chinese, I think this is one of the most significant differences that makes Chinese a much harder language to speak with fluency.

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but if one has spent the thousands of hours studying needed to get into the ballpark of fluency, then I somewhat doubt that tones and the writing system will remain significant barriers towards comprehension/ being understood

Yep, thousands of hours sounds about right.

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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.

Here is an (I suppose) an impromptu interview with Dashan done at 新浪。

http://ent.sina.com.cn/j/2006-06-14/17231122754.html

As for who is fluent, I think you should avoid using the word perfect. I know that in my native language I make mistakes all the time. Unless you are a professional actor you are bound to make countless pronunciation and grammar mistakes in normal conversation. I would say that you are fluent when in conversation with a native speaker, the native speaker feels that it is as easy to talk with you as with another native speaker. I.e.the native speaker can speak at full speed without worrying that you don't understand, and the native speaker understands anything you say without straining.

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yep I agree with several previous comments:

there's no big mystery:

Chinese is harder for Westerners to learn, and a smaller proportion of Westerners in China (versus Westerners in, say, a European country) have either (i) been in the country for more than a year, or (ii) studied Chinese much before arriving.

I don't think there's any freaky or sinister additional reason for the low % of fluent (or, okay, almost-fluent) Chinese-speaking Westerners in China.

I mean, how would that % compare against, say, Westerners in Vietnam or Egypt or Korea or Finland?

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Here is an (I suppose) an impromptu interview with Dashan done at 新浪。

http://ent.sina.com.cn/j/2006-06-14/17231122754.html

Wow, he definitely sounds like a native. But I'm troubled to learn from the interview that he's playing Edgar Snow in a stage version of "Red Star over China," which is likely to be a propaganda play.

http://www.amazon.com/Star-Over-China-Edgar-Snow/dp/0553262394/ref=pd_bbs_1/103-0535625-6701436?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1182868151&sr=8-1

Red Star Over China (Mass Market Paperback)

by Edgar Snow

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Oh man, what is it with discrimination against those of us who us mac platforms. Especially in Chinese websites! (I am complaining please don't give me an answer about how little macs are sold here...)

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Can you rip it and send to me (sh) :mrgreen: (sh) ?

Well the other discrimination is from Microsoft. They stopped development on IE for mac just over a year ago. So which means when it comes to almost ALL Chinese sites the graphics and formats are all messed up so I just have to slosh through it all.

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