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jkhsu

What level of Chinese can you achieve outside of China?

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yellowpower

Being in China and which region and whether you can understand the 'local' conversations and be a part it depends on the situation and purpose: yes and no.

Yes: sticking to generalities and using the Mandarin (common core, idiomatic phrases, vocabulary) one has learnt from overseas, most people should be able to understand you.

No: because other chinese dialects are spoken in China, in addition to Mandarin. And this has a spillover effect/influence on how locals speak Mandarin. Shanghai has Shanghainese, so there will be certain words,expressions from this dialect common only to this region which the locals use ; Beijing has their northern dialect, Guangdong has Cantonese, and others; all which have enriched Mandarin with their dialect influences.

These nuances/cultural references due to lifstyle of Mandarin are influenced by different dialects, even native speakers from China cannot be fluent in all it's different varieties, but they can pick it up quickly. These language nuances have to be learnt by spending time there, living there, etc.

Think the question JKHSU is posing is: how 'local' sounding can one be having studied Mandarin outside of China and whether one can reach that level.

It depends on which region you want to focus on and how localised you want to sound/be. So for example, you can interact mostly with a group of overseas Shanghainese or Beijingers in your community if there are such groups available, etc and learn the 'nuances' and cultural references due to lifestyle which is peppered in their manner of speaking (tone, etc) and understand that these unique features belong to that region only..so don't expect to go to Zhejiang, etc and speak with all these localised lingo from one region, and expect everyone to understand you.

Good source would be to watch TV dramas, TV programmes, or listen to radio channels from those regions that interest you to pick up and spot some differences from 'standard' Mandarin which has dialect influences.

Most textbooks focus on 'common standard' Mandarin which is 'neutral'..this is the basic building block, so fluency in Mandarin does not mean that you have to know and use all the different linguistic nuances and cultural references from all the different dialect speaking groups.

Maybe some native speakers from China can share their thoughts and ideas.

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jkhsu

I had a classmate at school who did it (he won regional Chinese-speaking contests, too), and I firmly believe everyone can do it if they are serious about it.

Can you give us some more details about your classmate? Is he a heritage learner? How many years has he been learning Chinese? Does he go to China often? Please provide some more details.

I like everything that you said and in spirit you are correct but in reality, once you get beyond a certain level, it's more difficult to get into the types of immersion environments that would significantly add to your learning. Before we go too far into another discussion topic, I urge you to read my original post on this thread. You'll see that I'm really talking about a part time learner with limited resources. Yes, hot pot in Ann Arbor with recently arrived Chinese is similar to hot pot dinner in China but how many people who have families and jobs can just find these opportunities? Plus, pretty much every Chinese person in the USA can speak some English whereas if you were in a hot pot dinner in China, you might be in a situation where none of them can speak English to you at all.

For those of us who cannot make it to China, this also potentially becomes a crutch or an excuse for why they cannot speak Chinese well. "If I could only go to China, I would be able to learn Chinese." This kind of thought process is self-defeating and detrimental to your success as a student of Chinese.

I agree with most of your statement. In another post link, I actually suggested that you should create your own immersion environment, especially if you are just a beginner. Although in theory, it is better to be in China to learn Chinese, I believe you can learn most of your Chinese outside of China. [using the USA as an example] I also believe that it is actually advantageous to do your first 2 years of Chinese in the USA because most teachers can help you understand words and cultural terms in context. They can make comparisons with your daily life in the USA that can help you better relate to what you are learning. They are also better at preparing you for multiple Chinese environments such as the one in the USA among heritage Chinese, China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, etc. However, there is a reason why programs like IUP and ICLP are around. Those programs are for people who want to get to near native level fluency. And even if you finish IUP with passing grades, you are just at the start of your near native level journey.

Here's where I think you really need to be in China (let's just use China as an example). There is a part of learning Chinese that is no longer taught in schools and that is in the work environment. Imagine that you are a sales or marketing manager for a consumer products company in China. Your job is to travel to various parts of China to understand the market conditions there, meet and dine with business and government officials and give reports and presentations in Chinese. You can't really create these conditions by going to a Chinese church in the USA.

Again, although I generally agree with your post, however the viewpoint does seem to come from someone who is perhaps a heritage Chinese or with good connections to heritage Chinese in the USA but someone who has not really spent a good amount of time in various parts of China.

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jkhsu

Think the question JKHSU is posing is: how 'local' sounding can one be having studied Mandarin outside of China and whether one can reach that level.

@yellowpower thank you for the response. I just want to clarify that I am not concerned with the "sound" as in pronounciation and I am also not concerned with different dialects such as Shanghainese, Hangzhounese, etc. etc. in the context of Mandarin comprehension and composition. But you are correct that even the Mandarin spoken in the various regions have local dialect influences. For example, calling a taxi is different in China, Taiwan and HK.

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Mike N
Can you give us some more details about your classmate? Is he a heritage learner? How many years has he been learning Chinese? Does he go to China often? Please provide some more details.

Gladly! He's not a heritage learner (he happens to be African American), and at the time of the competition he had been studying Chinese in class and on his own for 3 years. He had been to China once for a short-term, two-week program. His success in Chinese comes from an incredible amount of personal dedication and passion for the language. However, his Chinese was still not as good as mine was after spending a year living in Beijing (I took 20 hours a week of Chinese class during that time in addition to other work and exposure).

I like everything that you said and in spirit you are correct but in reality, once you get beyond a certain level, it's more difficult to get into the types of immersion environments that would significantly add to your learning. Before we go too far into another discussion topic, I urge you to read my original post on this thread. You'll see that I'm really talking about a part time learner with limited resources. Yes, hot pot in Ann Arbor with recently arrived Chinese is similar to hot pot dinner in China but how many people who have families and jobs can just find these opportunities? Plus, pretty much every Chinese person in the USA can speak some English whereas if you were in a hot pot dinner in China, you might be in a situation where none of them can speak English to you at all.

You make some important distinctions here, and I agree with what you're saying. Once you become an advanced learner, things do get more complicated as you hit the "plateau" in your ability and struggle to push through (this is the space I am currently occupying myself). I am also speaking from the position of a young man without the responsibilities of a wife, a family, and an all-consuming job (though I am employed full-time), and this does afford me other opportunities that learners which do have these responsibilities may not be able to take advantage of.

Here's where I think you really need to be in China (let's just use China as an example). There is a part of learning Chinese that is no longer taught in schools and that is in the work environment. Imagine that you are a sales or marketing manager for a consumer products company in China. Your job is to travel to various parts of China to understand the market conditions there, meet and dine with business and government officials and give reports and presentations in Chinese. You can't really create these conditions by going to a Chinese church in the USA.

This is irrefutable.

Again, although I generally agree with your post, however the viewpoint does seem to come from someone who is perhaps a heritage Chinese or with good connections to heritage Chinese in the USA but someone who has not really spent a good amount of time in various parts of China.

I am not heritage Chinese, nor do I have any heritage Chinese friends. Actually, I am woefully bereft of Chinese-speaking friends in general (even more so now that I just relocated for work). While I have spent a year living and studying in Beijing, I suppose whether or not you can classify that as "a good amount of time" is relative.

I did go back and read your original post and I'll write another post to address your original questions. I apologize for derailing the discussion a little bit. I had originally intended to respond to that post but I got derailed myself after I read through some of the other responses. Thanks for entertaining the discussion, though!

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jkhsu

While I have spent a year living and studying in Beijing, I suppose whether or not you can classify that as "a good amount of time" is relative.

That's a good amount of time and you are certainly very aware of the conditions in China. For some reason your post "sounded" like someone who is very active in USA based heritage community when you mention things such as Chinese church, Mahjong, etc. Anyways, great discussion. Would love to know about your level of Chinese and any tips to help those who are learning outside of China.

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jkhsu

I have a suspicion the whole "immersion" thing comes down to quantity/quality. Some people think that the quality of study you do while "immersed" will be better than that which you do while not: ie a 30 minutes skim of a newspaper while "immersed" will be of greater benefit than a 30 minutes skim of the same newspaper sat behind a desk in your home country.

@realmayo - I think you've hit one of the central points I was trying to figure out with this post. I think the "quality" of reading a book is the same whether you are inside China or in an airplane flying over Hawaii. However, I think the "quality" of an environment where you are forced to understand conversation and compose thoughts quickly all the time is mostly missing in a non-native Chinese environment. And you can't make that "quality" up with quantity over time. Let's take an example of crossing the street in China. Everytime I come back from China, I am really alert crossing streets but after a while I forget that alertness even though I walk several blocks to work everyday in the USA. When I go back to China, crossing the street becomes scary again. Actually, it's always scary as I have to constantly watch for turning cars and bikes, but it does get better over time.

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realmayo

Well, I'm not sure I buy that. I mean, if you had an hour session every day or so with a native speaker who fired a load of intense questions at you, you're probably being worked harder to come up with tricky Chinese than you would be spending a few hours going to the shops in downtown Tianjin, prattling to a taxi driver and phoning a couple of friends about where to go out later on in the evening.

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jkhsu

Well, I'm not sure I buy that.

I think that's where we disagree. At some point, you really can't (realistically and practically) create the real life scenarios you would encounter in China on a daily basis with an hour of supervised learning from a tutor or native. One is a real life scenario and the other is a made up scenario. Your taxi scenario is interesting because I was in a taxi in Bejing one time and even the native speaker from Shanghai whom I was with was asking about Beijing Mandarin terms that were difficult to understand. You can never predict the topic of discussion but you know it's real. It was a learning experience. Other examples I can think of are in a work environment where you can encounter situations from small talk with office workers about random topics to presentations and formal meetings where you are constantly thinking on your feet to argue your point. And then there are situations where you know what you need to say but you have to tailor it differently based on particular scenarios, perhaps to make sure someone else's feelings are not hurt, etc. I can go on and on but you can not recreate real life experiences you would encounter in China with the one hour with a tutor.

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Scoobyqueen

@ jkhsu

It sounds like you don’t want to believe that it is possible to learn Chinese to a very high level outside China. Many people here have offered you answers to your question, but I think you are adamant, for whatever reason, that you cannot achieve this idealistic sense of fluency no matter how talented the individual. And even if this is the case, you will probably exclude these people from your equation since they do not fit your numerous conditions, criteria and above all exceptions.

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realmayo
One is a real life scenario and the other is a made up scenario.

So what you're saying is the only successful conversations you can have in Chinese are ones which you've already had once before? That's unusual, I think most people would say that language is all about using existing words and patterns to create new sentences and deal with new situations and so on; otherwise we're little more than parrots!

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imron
So what you're saying is the only successful conversations you can have in Chinese are ones which you've already had once before?

I think what he's trying to say is that a situation you encounter with a tutor pretending to be say a taxi driver, who can slow down their speed, and who can repeat what they say, and who is using an expected sentence structure/pattern and has a familiar accent, is completely different from encountering a taxi driver in real life, who will probably speak quickly, who may change what they said slightly if you ask them to repeat, and who may throw other unexpected questions or use a different unexpected way of replying to what you were asking, all of which with a probably non-standard accent, will be two completely different experiences.

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realmayo

Yeah but someone from say the north of England who hails a taxi for the very first time, and happens to be in London at the time, could easily have a touch of trouble too. But if they're fluent in English they'll get by.

You're close to suggesting you need to have experienced a ride in a Chinese taxi to ever have good Chinese, which can't be true.

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anonymoose

I think the original question "What level of Chinese can you achieve outside of China?" is too ill-defined to have a meaningful answer.

If we assume that "outside of China" refers to a specific learning environment, then surely the factor that will determine what level of Chinese can be achieved depends on the motivation and ability of the learner, or in other words, is different for each person.

From my experience, after having lived in China for several years, I have encountered very few foreigners who I would consider to be truely fluent. I know a girl from Kazakhstan who's parents are Chinese translators, and have spoken with her in Chinese since she was young. For everyday conversations, her Chinese is practically indistinguishable from a native speaker's (to my ears, as a non-native speaker). I have also met a handful of other foreigners (mainly in university environments) who have very good Chinese indeed, but are still readily distinguishable from native speakers. However, the vast majority of foreigners I know have what I would deem to be intermediate level (being fully conversational, but not fluent) or below. And this is all in China.

Therefore, outside of China, where the opportunities for learning Chinese are much fewer, as other contributors have described, I think it would be very hard to achieve a truely high level of Chinese. Of course, not impossible, technically, but realistically, I cannot imagine anyone actually managing to do so. At least not to a better level than those who have spent more than a couple of years in China actively working at their Chinese.

(And for those of us who have spent several years in China, I'm sure most of us would agree that we still have a long way to go before really achieving a fully satisfactory level.)

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renzhe

I agree with anonymoose. Maybe it's not impossible to achieve high-level fluency by learning outside of China, but it will be very hard. I tried my best and I didn't manage to achieve the level I had hoped for.

But I'd say that you can get quite far in a few years of concentrated effort. At this point, if you are really serious about being fluent at a level approaching or resembling native speakers, it would be a good idea to spend a year or seven in a Chinese-speaking country.

In the meantime, I'll keep on plodding, trying to disprove that hypothesis.

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yellowpower

maybe grade & high schools should start offering Mandarin as a first language immersion programs...and University Programs should consider moving away from Chinese as a Second Language/Chinese as a Foreign Language teaching methods and materials....maybe textbooks used should be the same as for native speakers in China, Taiwan, etc? But all this will depend on having a critical mass of people who will sign up for such a deal, and long-term committment to see Mandarin as a mainstream language in any country.

Being able to achieve fluency in Mandarin outside of China? There are limitations and having realistic expectations of reaching what level is part of it living in an English speaking country or otherwise. Besides, if any language is not part of the national psyche or commonly used, how realistic is attain any 'native fluency' of any chinese speaking country?

Just enjoy your journey of learning Mandarin and its rewards, and do your best. Too much comparsions and holding on to rigid defintions of who and what is fluent,etc is a never ending circle. It's learning and functioning to your abilities and capabilities , not about becoming or existing as a native of whatever language it may be.

Set your own goals and try to achieve it. Enjoy the journey too!

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Glenn

Would living with well-educated Chinese roommates who speak Chinese to each other all the time and spending lots of time with them be an acceptable condition for this question? For example, what if you lived in Chinatown in some major city and spent the majority of your time there with Chinese-speaking friends? That seems probably as close to being in China without actually being there to me, although for someone married with kids to a non-Chinese and with a full-time job this wouldn't be feasible.

It seems to me that more than anything jkhsu is trying to figure out what level he can achieve, which is why he keeps putting all these constraints and conditions on the question.

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jkhsu

You're close to suggesting you need to have experienced a ride in a Chinese taxi to ever have good Chinese, which can't be true.

I think @imron's response captured exactly what I wanted to say. It's important to have real life language experiences with people who have different accents and who might say something that is not exactly book correct. I will say that someone who has only been studying standard Mandarin with tutors who speak perfectly will have a more difficult time understanding Chinese people in different parts of China when compared to a store clerk in Shanghai who has to deal with people from various parts of China on a daily basis. I've found this to be true in many examples. One that comes to mind are people who are completely fluent in Mandarin Chinese from Taiwan who end up working in China. There is an "adjustment" period where new word usages need to be "learned". I'm not talking about traditional vs simplified text; I am talking about just the speaking and listening part. I will venture to say that because China has so many dialects and accents, someone who learned Chinese outside of China will have a more difficult time in China when compared to an American moving to England or Australia for work.

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jkhsu

It sounds like you don’t want to believe that it is possible to learn Chinese to a very high level outside China.

@Scoobyqueen - Ok, let me clarify. First of all, thank you for providing your own real life examples. I think I've already said in another post that from the responses I've gotten, I am certain that I will be perfectly content with the level of Chinese I can achieve given continued work and effort. I also believe someone can get to a very high level of Chinese outside of China given enough time and resources to produce a "simulated" China environment. At the same time, I wanted to focus on what is "realistic" vs what is "theoretically possible". At some point, this thread started digressing into a "theoretically possible" discussion. Then I started arguing from a point of "Wait, do you really think you can achieve native level fluency in Mandarin while completely living a 'normal life' (normal life as in not working in a Chinese company and speaking Chinese all day, etc.) in the USA?" That's when I started bringing up various examples of what I would consider native level fluency. So yes, I do have doubts but those doubts are for native level fluency and not on whether I will be content with the level I can achieve.

It seems to me that more than anything jkhsu is trying to figure out what level he can achieve, which is why he keeps putting all these constraints and conditions on the question.

Yes and no. The constraints that I put are not just for me but for the majority of people in the USA who might have an interest in learning Chinese without having the luxury of having gone through formal training (college major, immersion programs, study abroad programs), extended living in China or working in a Chinese company, etc. I am actually studying on my own without tutors so I'm not using everything that I mentioned. The resources that I put in are what someone who is learning Chinese on their own has reasonable access to if they need it.

Would living with well-educated Chinese roommates who speak Chinese to each other all the time and spending lots of time with them be an acceptable condition for this question?

This is a good question. I've been scratching my head about how to answer this. I guess if your Chinese has reached a level where you are almost "fluent", your roomates can discuss advanced topics and feelings in Chinese with you. But before then, if you really are living in the USA, your very educated roomates will most likely have a much better grasp of English and they'll talk English to you instead. I've been in similar situations many times and after a while, they'll just continue their conversation in Mandarin and just talk to me in English. So what I am trying to say is, you will need to somehow get to this near "fluent" level first before your roomates will be really useful to you. For beginner to intermediate level, your roomates will be great for helping you understand words and terms, but you can probably get that with a good dictionary and this forum.

I also wouldn't "overestimate" the ability to improve your Chinese beyond the advanced level by living in a Chinatown type of environment. Even most immigrant and heritage Chinese who speak Chinese with their friends will often mix in English words. A good example is place names. There is a Chinese term for just about every city in the USA. Most Chinese people in the USA will use the English name but those in China will use the Chinese name.

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Mike N

I've been thinking about this post for a bit, and frankly I haven't come up with any solid conclusions. I have to assume this is because I'm stuck in a similar situation as you jkhsu. Even with all of my grand ideas which I listed in my earlier post(s), breaking through the barrier which separates the intermediate "conversational" speakers and those capable of more complex and advanced Chinese is at best a vexing problem.

Here are some of the ways that I'm trying to get around this problem:

1. Sina Weibo. I use Twitter to learn about the things which interest me (in English), and Sina is an equally qualified source for learning about my hobbies and my passions. This way I can learn the vocabulary and nomenclature of discussing the topic at my own pace. Moreover, I can see how the topics are discussed in a conversational way. Of course there's a lot of slang and a ton of characters I don't know, but I feel confident that most people will be willing to explain themselves (if they are able) if I ask--though I have not put this to the test.

2. Increased media consumption. I'm trying to up the amount of Chinese TV and movies I watch. It may not seem that listening to Chinese being spoken can be beneficial to your conversational skills, but if you try to shadow what's being said or at the very least repeat phrases that you find interesting or confusing, I think you may be surprised at how much this can affect your speaking. Also, the more your brain hears conversational Chinese, the better it will be programmed to reproduce it. I'm sure many of us have experienced the feeling one gets when something just seems right, even if you can't explain why.

3. Meet more Chinese people. This is probably the hardest of the three. Thankfully, the internet being what it is these days, even someone with limited time and resources can make some friends online to practice with. Check out Lang-8, Livemocha, QQ groups, Chinese social media sites, and other such internet communities to connect with native Chinese who you can chat with online or via Skype.

To be perfectly honest, I'm only just starting to experiment with these kinds of things myself, and as such I cannot attest to how successful they may or may not be. These forums will be, without a doubt, one of the best sources of learning I'll probably be able to find online due to the high level of experience among its users and also the great sources of Chinese content shared on the various boards. If anyone hopes to have a chance at reaching an advanced level of Chinese outside of China, using these boards has to be part of your strategy.

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