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Can Westerners become fluent in Chinese?


david1978
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yes, might not be a good idea to quote Wikipedia in a dispute like this, but let me do it as well (from the article Standard Mandarin):

Standard Mandarin, or Standard Chinese, is the official modern Chinese spoken language used in mainland China and Taiwan, and is one of the four official languages of Singapore.

The phonology of Standard Mandarin is based on the Beijing dialect of Mandarin, a large and diverse group of Chinese dialects spoken across northern and southwestern China. The vocabulary is largely drawn from this group of dialects. The grammar is standardized to the body of modern literary works written in Vernacular Chinese, which in practice follows the same tradition of the Mandarin dialects with some notable exceptions. As a result, Standard Mandarin itself is usually just called "Mandarin" in non-academic, everyday usage. However, linguists use "Mandarin" to refer to the entire language. This convention will be adopted by the rest of this article.

I don't dispute the term "Mandarin" is ambiguous. But that als makes flameproof's statements ambiguous. I myself did a double take when I read a post by him elsewhere on this forum that there's only 10% native speakers of Mandarin in China. If you drop a statement like that in an otherwise unrelated discussion I think it would be better to be more explicit (you could say "Mandarin language" vs. "Standard Mandarin").

Also we get to the problem of what is a native speaker. Standard Mandarin is by definition (although some definitions might vary) a standardised variety, which needs to be studied in school, which leads to the question whether it would have any native speakers at all. I mean do Beijingers speak Standard Mandarin natively, or is it Beijing dialect they speak.

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As a result, Standard Mandarin itself is usually just called "Mandarin" in non-academic, everyday usage. However, linguists use "Mandarin" to refer to the entire language.
The question then comes down to, do you consider flameproof's post to be non-academic, everyday usage, or do you consider him to be a linguist?
which leads to the question whether it would have any native speakers at all
According to the article linked to above, the figure will be somewhere below 17.85%.

As for Beijingers, I would say (based entirely on my own experience and not any hard statistics) that a large number speak the Beijing dialect natively, and not Standard Mandarin. In fact when speaking with Chinese about the 普通话水平测试, I've heard that Beijingers have more trouble with the test than people from other areas that have a more distinct local dialect, because people from other areas have long treated standard mandarin and their local dialect as two separate entities in their mind compared to Beijingers who don't have such a clear distinction, which then trips them up when taking the test. This implies that although the Beijing dialect and standard mandarin are similar, they are not considered the same thing.

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All I'm saying is that the term is ambiguous in colloquial usage in English, and one should be aware of it.... I think most discussions on these forums are at least of partially academic nature.

imron, where in the article does it say "native speakers"? Edit: OK I overlooked "below" in your post. But since I wrote this down already, I'll let it stand...

然而,根据调查,我国民众在家庭生活中只有17.85%的人使用普通话,集贸市场使用普通话的人占23.15%,到医院看病使用普通话的人占26.29%。到政府机关办事使用普通话的人占28.80%。单位里谈工作使用普通话的人占41.97%,即使在单位里也有一半以上的人不用普通话。此外,一些学校反映,虽然国家积极扶持进城务工人员子女进城上学,但一些孩子因为说不好普通话,也容易产生自卑情绪。

It says that 17.85% use Standard Mandarin at home, whatever that means exactly. I'm not a specialist in Mandarin dialectology or Chinese sociolinguistics, but my impression is that Standard Mandarin used to be an artificial variety based on the Northern vernacular in general, and as for phonology on the Beijing dialect in particular, and as such did not have any native speakers as such. But migration has attracted a lot of people with diverse backgrounds to the capital and the coastal regions, and I'm sure there are nowadays parents raising their children in Standard Mandarin, who then would become native speakers of it. But we don't know the numbers.

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my impression is that Standard Mandarin used to be an artificial variety based on the Northern vernacular in general, and as for phonology on the Beijing dialect in particular, and as such did not have any native speakers as such

This is also my understanding. When Standard Mandarin was introduced, it was a language that wasn't spoken anywhere in exactly that way.

Of course, since then, people were raised with Standard Mandarin as their first language. My girlfriend speaks Standard Mandarin as her mother tongue, and not the local dialect.

As for Standard Mandarin vs. Mandarin, I think that clarification is needed when there is potential for ambiguity. Around 60% of Chinese speak some variety of Mandarin, and any statistic that implies that Sichuanese or people from Xi'an don't speak Mandarin is dubious.

A much smaller percentage actually speaks (or can speak) proper Standard Mandarin.

The question then comes down to, do you consider flameproof's post to be non-academic, everyday usage, or do you consider him to be a linguist?

I think that the context of this thread is not a non-academic, everyday one.

In everyday, non-academic usage, "Chinese" is generally taken to mean "Standard Mandarin", and schools all over the world advertise "Chinese" language courses, and they clearly mean Standard Mandarin.

Yet, we would all be surprised if a statistic claimed that only 17.8% of all Chinese speak Chinese :mrgreen:

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In everyday, non-academic usage, "Chinese" is generally taken to mean "Standard Mandarin", and schools all over the world advertise "Chinese" language courses, and they clearly mean Standard Mandarin.

Yes and no. It depends on the place and people. In HK, when people do say chinese, they typically mean cantonese, whereas mandarin will be 普通話. Personally, any chinese dialect is chinese, and mandarin is just one of the many.

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Yes, and that's why I always use "Sinitic languages" on this forum :mrgreen:

For the big groups, I also like the term "regiolect". So "dialect" can be used for local variants that form part of dialect chains...

But the old "language-dialect" question of course has a political component to it, and thus linguists use a dual definition, with a political side and a linguistic side :wink:

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The question then comes down to, do you consider flameproof's post to be non-academic, everyday usage, or do you consider him to be a linguist?

I think that the context of this thread is not a non-academic, everyday one.

Ok, I agree. Now if it's clear from the text which Mandarin is meant, no problem, but often flameproof throws it in as a one sentence statement along the lines of "remember, only X% of Chinese are Mandarin (native) speakers....". In such a case I think the relative lack of context calls for differentiating what is meant by "Mandarin".

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Around 60% of Chinese speak some variety of Mandarin, and any statistic that implies that Sichuanese or people from Xi'an don't speak Mandarin is dubious.

I just feel I have to throw my two cents in here as before this was talked about as the difference between 普通话 and 官话 which are both a mistake in what we are referring to.

普通话 is a made up language based on much of the "mandarin dialect". Now when we refer to "some variety of mandarin" (ie sichuan) this is where we make a mistake. it is NOT let me say again NOT a mandarin dialect. It is however a part of the same LANGUAGE GROUP that mandarin (in any form) exists in. Ie it is part of the 北方方言. Not mandarin. Just want to clarify that- they are closely related but it is not considered 官话 or 普通话, it is only a part of the same dialectal group. I hope that makes sense.

edit: and I know that linguists call that entire language group mandarin but that is a mistake in my opinion: it would be better to refer to it as the northern dialectal group.

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muyongshi, AFAIK, 官话 and 北方方言 are used interchangeably in Chinese linguistics (Edit: which also holds for the English terms Mandarin and Northern), however some scholars might draw some distinctions between the two.

Linguistically speaking, if we had a series of dialect chains from the Southwest to the Northeast and up to Xinjiang, and all the neighbouring varities were to be mutually intelligible, but not the ends, then we could still be justified in calling it the Mandarin language with different dialects. But as I said I'm not a Mandarin dialectologist.

But to be on the safe side, I'd think it might be better to call it the Mandarin regiolect, or the Mandarin group (but group can have a different meaning in linguistics, in terms of a subgroup of a language family and might also be confusing). As far as I understand, the issue is far from settled, and as in many regions, you get lumpers and splitters among the specialists.

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Ok, I understand what you're saying...I have never heard 北方方言 referred to as 官话 but I can live with being wrong (I usually am) but this...

Linguistically speaking, if we had a series of dialect chains from the Southwest to the Northeast and up to Xinjiang, and all the neighbouring varities were to be mutually intelligible,

I can't agree with. Well I actually agree with it in principle but not in reality. Sorry that I always use Sichuan but that is what I am most familiar with. It is NOT at all, by any stretch of the imagination able to be classified as "mutually intelligible". I know so many people that come to uni here in Sichuan (or for other reasons) that are blown away by how much they cannot understand sichuanhua (not 川普 or 交言普通话). Basically only a SMALL percentage of outsiders READILY understand sichuan. Yes, they can pick it up fast and that is a larger percentage but it is not able to be classified as "mutually intelligible". It's structures and "word" choices are similar and that is why it is beifang but not mutually intelligible.

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Muyongshi is right. Linguistically, this is how it goes - 北方话 -> 官话 -> 普通话. 北方话 is one of the seven major dialect groups. These dialect groups roughly correspond to the different language families in Europe - Romance languages, Germanic languages, Slavic languages, Greek etc. 官话 is the variety of 北方话 spoken in Beijing (like you have different "versions" of Romance languages - French, Italian, Spanish...) - it was the official language used in the court during the Qing dynasty. The official definition of 普通话 is "the standard form of Modern Chinese with the Beijing phonological system as its norm of pronunciation, and Northern dialects as its base dialects, and looking to exemplary modern works in 白话 (vernacular literary language) for its grammatical norms."

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yes muyongshi, I understand where you're coming from.

A dialect chain works like this: say you have 5 villages A-B-C-D-E, they're geographically adjacent in that order.

If A and B understood each other, and B and C, and C and D, and D and E, then you could still call it a dialect chain, if A and E no longer understood each other you could still call it a dialect chain.

Examples from Europe include Dutch and German, French and Italian, and of course "Scandinavian".

Now I'm not sure if this principle could be applied to Mandarin or not. How about Southern Sichuan dialects and Northern Yunnan dialects (provided there's Mandarin speakers in Northern Yunnan, there are some non-Sinitic languages in that neck of the woods), what about East Sichuan/Chongqing dialects and West Hubei, what about Northwestern Sichuan dialects and Southeastern Qinghai dialects (of course it might be wrong to just classify stuff by province, but as I said, I'm no Mandarin dialectologist)

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Don Horhe, there's no right or wrong in this debate. Scholars don't always agree. Etymologically your description might be correct, but some scholars use them interchangeably, and some don't. As an indicator, take the first paragraph from this Wikipedia article:

官话,又称北方方言、北方话,[注 1]是汉语的一个分支。现代的国语、普通话,也就是由官话演变而来。现代标准汉语(即台湾的国语、现在中国大陆的普通话和马新地区的华语),即以官话中的北京话语音为基础。

the note refers to the following:

^ 官话的名字:有官话和北方(话)两种,对于认为官话属于方言而非独立语言的人,可附加方言两字,即官话方言、北方方言。其中:

历史上在汉语方言学界,“北方话”这种说法的使用频率比“北方方言”低得多,而在非汉语方言学界,如通用的大学汉语教科书、现代汉语词典则有所采用。另“北方话”一词(不含“北方方言”一词)亦可指北方部分地区的官话,具体是北方哪些地区,各家定义不同。

从1980年代后期起,中国大陆的汉语方言学界的期刊和专著已统一使用“官话”这一称呼,“北方方言”“北方话”这些词汇事实上已退出学术领域。

The note claims that

  • 北方方言 is used in Chinese philology (and accordingly also in textbooks and dictionaries), but not by Chinese dialectologists
  • 北方话 can refer to many different things depending on the exact definition of "North"
  • 官话 is the standard term Chinese dialectologists have been using since the 80s

And I'm certain you will find scholars using it differently.

Edited by chrix
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  • 4 months later...

This threads original theme posed a very good question: "Can Westerners become fluent in Chinese?"

The fact is that I can’t find one academic paper (using Google Scholar and the www) on success rates for fluency for any people, westerners or otherwise, learning Mandarin. (If you find something please post a link.)

It annoys me that some people advocate that young people should learn Mandarin when the cant speak it themselves - linguists, academics or professionals, included.

The debate over fluency and whether local Chinese are or are not fluent is not relevant to the core of David's initial question. If you can watch the television and understand 99% of what is being said, join a conversation on all topics that you have an interest in and read newspapers and novels - you are fluent, whether you have an accent or not.

The fact is that I believe fluency is possible for westerners. But after six years of living in Beijing and speaking conversationally quite well - I still meet few people that I regard as fluent.

Actually, the only westerners that I know that are fluent were in fact born here or have lived here 20-30 years. So David's point is relevant - What percentage of people "master" the language?

Even if we lower the bar a little and just try for some level of Mastery like a HSK Level 6 - even that is not easy - and even if you obtain that level you are still well far away from feeling comfortable with the language never mind mastering it.

We clearly need some research on how "westerners" are doing as regards mastering Chinese. Not just how many people are taking up learning Chinese. If the success rate is very low - people should be made aware of the task they are taking on or suggesting others take on.

The last point that is seemingly unrelated to the main topic was the point about 17% of the population speaking Mandarin at home. That seems obvious to me, even in Hebei 50 miles from Beijing they will speak 方言 at home. That doesn’t mean they don’t speak perfect Mandarin, it is simply that they choose not too.

Also it is true that many families don’t feel comfortable with Mandarin: regarding it as foreign and feel awkward using it. They will use it when they have to and with differing degrees of mastery - for example, when at work or going to the hospital, etc. But Chinese people, for the most part have no trouble understanding it in spoken and written form. They may sound strange (non standard) but they are fluent - if they aren’t they are illiterate or semi-illiterate.

Anyway, although the number of westerners I hear speaking Mandarin in Beijing seems to be growing, very few even get to the HSK Level 6 level. Even that’s not a reliable measure as some can’t speak well enough to be easily understood, because their pronunciation is so bad.

As for my Chinese I could write this post Chinese without difficulty - but any Chinese would spot I was not a native speaker. Furthermore, I could have this conversation in Chinese again not a problem. But when I turn on Channel 10 in a minute and watch television - well that’s the difference - and that’s why I am far from fluent.

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Since moving to HK, I've met probably 20-30 more Westerners that are fluent, to one degree or another, some shockingly so. Most work in the NGO sector, or are academics, journalists, translators, or researchers.

It's interesting to think what do these people have in common. A few things come to mind: 1) they've all been studying Chinese for quite a few years (three or four decades for some, but at least five years in general), 2) they all are very interested in content, and in following many of the debates in China right now. Many are specialists in one field or another. 3) most have a sense of passion and excitement about what they do. 4) almost all lived in the Mainland at one point, and now they've moved down to HK. There are probably other factors, but those seem to be the most important ones.

If you can draw any conclusions about that, then it seems to me that (for people who would like to become fluent) it might be more useful, inspiring, and less intimidating to think of fluency in terms of content goals, rather than time spent learning (which is just measuring trips taken around the sun), or by parsing the non-stop debates about what constitutes fluency. For example, (I'd I'm just throwing this out there), you could say that I will have become fluent once I have read X novels, Y academic/weighty/serious books, Z movies, spent a certain amount of time chatting with people, listened to so many hours of radio/podcasts, read the newspaper on a daily basis for a certain amount of time. Then, the important question wouldn't be "can Westerners become fluent?", but rather, "what does a Westerner need to do in order to become fluent"? That, it seems to me, would produce a much more helpful discussion.

But in any case, I would agree fortunatestar that it'd be nice for people to have a clearer idea of what they're getting themselves into. I think a lot depends on whether one finds the learning process to be fascinating, or a more of a chore.

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The debate of what constitutes fluency is an old one and i've devised my own definition resulting from my knowledge of English which is not my native language. To me, one is truly fluent in a language when one:

- automatically counts numbers in that language instead of resorting to one's native language;

- uses it when very mad and some bad language, i.e. swear words, is called for;

- uses that language even in one's dreams. For instance, in dreams involving my childhood, the language used happens to be English.

There seems to be a double-standard about fluency between native speakers and foreigners. Native speakers having poor knowledge of their own language are still considered fluent. Foreigners, on the other hand, have to possess an extraordinary level of perfection, except for accent, before they are deemed fluent in that language.

I could imagine Westerners living in China, having an exquisite knowledge and appreciation of Chinese literature and academic writings, knowing the ins and outs of the language but speaking the language poorly because of accent and whatnot. Then, there's a Chinese farmer (let's ignore the dialect issue here) who has limited vocabulary, limited knowledge of grammar, doesn't read much beyond the headlines of the tabloids. Guess whose level of "fluency" in Mandarin I would prefer?

In conclusion, i find the exercise about what constitutes fluency (in Chinese or any other language) an exercise in semantics more than anything else.

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There seems to be a double-standard about fluency between native speakers and foreigners. Native speakers having poor knowledge of their own language are still considered fluent. Foreigners, on the other hand, have to possess an extraordinary level of perfection, except for accent, before they are deemed fluent in that language.

There is a sort of double standard as far as fluency. But, it's kind of my impression that it's foreigners who seem the most concerned about defining "fluency", whereas Chinese people tend to be less concerned about it. Since there's no magical line that separates "fluent" from something else, I agree that it can be just a semantic exercise. Or at the very least, it's not the most useful issue to debate.

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The layman's idea of fluency is a bit mixed up with what the applied linguist who designs speaking assessments and rating criteria would consider as somewhat distinct aspects of oral language performance.

In the design of most speaking tests, the starting point for defining the construct of what constitutes spoken language proficiency is usally three more or less equally weighted aspects of performance: fluency, accuracy and complexity.

Fluency is simply the ability to keep moving in speech. Some people are quite fluent in their second language without being accurate.

Accuracy is pretty self explanatory. It encompasses syntactical accuracy as well as accuracy in both segmental and suprasegmental pronunciation features, and then accuracy and appropriacy in use of vocabulary.

Complexity is how wide a range of vocabulary and syntactical features someone can use. Does the speaker use mainly simple sentences, or does he use subordinate features and connecting devices to form longer chains of speech?

When a non-examiner layman listens to someone's oral performance, he will usually be impressed first by fluency. Fluency keeps the listener's attention, and if a speaker can keep the flood of ideas coming, then inaccuracies and the relative choppiness of what is being said won't be noticed as much by the listener. Examiners for IELTS, ACTFL, Cambridge suite or whatever speaking assessments are trained to also pay attention to accuracy and grammatical and lexical range, but even trained examiners can occasionally be fooled by fluency into giving a higher rating than what somebody deserves according to the marking descriptors.

If you think about your own speaking abilities according to the above three aspects of speaking performance, it can be useful for your own learning. I know that I am fluent and accurate, but after years of living in Hong Kong and not having to use spoken Chinese in a variety of situations, I notice that I simply don't have the range that I once had. I've certainly not gotten better in this regard. Over the years, understanding this about myself has helped me better deal with teachers who want to beat my brains out with reading aloud and recital in order to perfect my already strong pronunciation. When they hear a foreigner who has 100% accuracy in tones, their next thought is "but he doesn't use erhua and neutral tones according to PSC standards, so I better help him fix that," while I personally know that the thing that most inhibits my ability to communicate (and annoys listeners) is my constant, long-winded circumlocution that results from a narrow active vocabulary.

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The definition of proficiency as the mix of fluency, accuracy and complexity, as described in the previous post, is an excellent one. I've struggled with the term "fluency" as i was unable to pinpoint that it might not address the other two aspects of proficiency. People love to say that they are fluent in another language but what exactly they mean by that is often anyone's guess.

In the US, for instance, there are many Americans who are, of course, fluent in their native language but their accuracy and complexity leave much to be desired. In the past, i visited a forum that had nothing to do with language but that had English as its only language. The posts by a number of the American members were riddled with grammar and spelling errors (way beyond the norm for unedited posts), whereas those of some Scandinavian members were precise and accurate. In this forum, the posts by non-English members are generally excellent as well.

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