“How to learn any language in six months”

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Human learning capability is tremendous, but can you really learn ANY LANGUAGE in 180 days?

Chris Lonsdale’s language learning principles

The man who makes this bold claim is Chris Lonsdale. He is a New Zealand psychologist, linguist and educator who adopted the Chinese name 龙飞虎 or “flying dragon tiger” (or something like that).

The title of his TED talk sounds like some shady language school’s advertising pitch. Then again, he did manage to catch people’s attention (over 18 million views on YouTube).

Chris Lonsdale on how to learn any language in six months…

Lonsdale’s approach in a nutshell:

Things that don’t matter in language learning

  • Talent
  • Immersion (per se)

Why immersion isn’t a necessary factor: “A drowning man cannot learn to swim.” (We need comprehensible input)

What does matter is Language modeling

  • Attention
  • Meaning
  • Relevance
  • Memory

Five Principles of Rapid Language Acquisition

1. Focus on language content that is relevant to you.
We master tools by using tools; we learn tools fastest when they are relevant to us.
2. Use your New Language as a Tool to Communicate, right from Day 1.
3. When you first understand the message, you unconsciously acquire the language. “Comprehensible input”; comprehension works; comprehension is key. Language learning is not about accumulating lots of knowledge. In many ways it is about
4. Physiological Training. “If you can’t hear it, you won’t understand it, and if you don’t understand it, you are not going to learn it. You have to be able to hear the sounds… Speaking requires muscle; if your face is hurting you are doing it right.”
5. Psycho-physiological states matter, and you need to be tolerant of ambiguity.

Seven Actions for Rapid Language Acquisition

Action 1: Listen a lot. “Brain Soaking”
Action 2: Focus on the meaning first. Get the meaning first before you get the words. Use body language. (Understanding through comprehensible input.)
Action 3: Start mixing. “It doesn’t have to be perfect, it just has to work.” Action 4: Focus on the core (high frequency content). For English, 1000 words is 85% of anything you are going to say in daily communication; 3000 words gives you 98% of anything you are going to say in daily conversation.
Week 1 Tool Box (in the target language):
– What is this?
– How do you say?
– I don’t understand…
– What does that mean?
– Repeat that please.
Week 2-3 Pronouns, Common Verbs, Simple Nouns
Week 4 Glue Words: and, but, therefore, even though
Action 5: Get a Language Parent. Language parent creates a comprehensible input environment.
1. Works hard to understand what you are saying
2. Does not correct mistakes
3. Confirms understanding by using correct language (feedback)
4. Uses words the learner knows
Action 6: Copy the Face
Action 7: “Direct Connect” to Mental Images

My thoughts…

First, Lonsdale delivers a great speech on what he thinks is the best strategy to learn ANY language and he deserves credit for motivating and inspiring people as well as for offering practicable advice.

A question I had straight from the start though, is what does he mean exactly by ”learning any language”? What level of proficiency is he speaking of? Which language skills is he talking about? Is he referring to the highest achievable level? According to the Common European Framework that would include the following:

C1
Effective operational proficiency or advanced
Can understand a wide range of demanding, longer clauses, and recognize implicit meaning. Can express ideas 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 organizational patterns, connectors and cohesive devices.
C2
Mastery or proficiency
Can understand with ease virtually everything heard or read. Can summarize information from different spoken and written sources, reconstructing arguments and accounts in a coherent presentation. Can express themselves spontaneously, very fluently and precisely, differentiating finer shades of meaning even in the most complex situations.

And for that you would need to study at least 1000 hours or at least 8 hours a day in six months…

I also couldn’t help noticing the contradiction that he learned Chinese (to a very impressive level) by immersion. Doesn’t he tell the story that he stayed in China, “soaked his brain” in Chinese and gradually started making sense of the language? Basically, he is telling us that this combination of immersion and “survival” from day one worked out pretty well for him.

This leads to the question if you can apply the same principle when you are not “immersed” and not in “survival mode”, say you are learning Chinese in Brazil or Canada. Can you really recreate that kind of experience?

Another issue: Lonsdale believes you should start speaking from Day One and use the language as a tool for real communication (no simulation stuff). In a way, I think he’s right about this. It’s the most natural thing to do (in the right environment). BUT many people are extremely uncomfortable with this. It’s a big step out of their comfort zone. Other high profile language learners like Steve Kaufmann argue you should acquire basic vocabulary first and read, read, read, before you can have a meaningful conversation. Not everybody is going to be comfortable with communicating in Mandarin from Day One, so that’s an issue.

Conclusion

On the whole, I really like what he has to say about language learning. He’s got a powerful message that’s all about learning a new language the “hard and uncomfortable” way, telling us to “get out there and do it”. We need people like Lonsdale who develop their own ideas about language acquisition.

Does this method apply to everyone? Well, he overgeneralizes his own learning approach and success a bit, but he knows what he’s talking about. The thing is no learner is the same. Language learning depends on so many personal circumstances and preferences. At the end of the day, I guess you’re free to try his method or parts of it. I personally like the “leave your comfort zone” part as it’s essential to any kind of growth.

By the way, if you want to hear Chris Lonsdale speak Mandarin, check this video from Mandarin Corner where he tells all about his method, covers Chinese characters (what about them, right?) and explains why Mandarin class is a waste of time.

Let me know what your thoughts are on this topic. Can you be fluent in Chinese in only six months? Please leave a comment below.

Getting fluent in Mandarin: Underestimating the four tones

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In the process of Mandarin learning you’re never “done”. That’s especially true for the four tones. This video by Mandarin expert LeLe Farley reminded me that the mā-má-mǎ-màway people typically think of the four tones is wrong. LeLe reveals some other interesting things as well.

Mastering the tones

In this first episode of LeLe Linguistics, LeLe Farley walks you through “the first step” to achieving fluency in Chinese: mastering the tones.

LeLe Farley is a rising star on YouTube. What he has to say about learning Mandarin should be taken quite seriously, since his fluency in Mandarin and accurate pronunciation are outstanding and he doesn’t beat around the bush as to how he got there.

Who is LeLe Farley? In his own words: “Grew up in Texas, college in ATL, post grad in Beijing. Now, I’ve come to LaLaLand to try and make a name for myself as a Chinese English bilingual rapper and comedian. Banned in the PRC, but hope to return one day.”

He’s an interesting and wildly creative guy. Let’s examine his take on the four tones in Mandarin Chinese. He starts off debunking a common “misunderstanding” about them…

1. “Don’t think tones aren’t important”

YouTube comment: "I always loved those people who said they speak Chinese without the tones"

LeLe notes that many learners of Mandarin seem to think that tones aren’t that crucial to becoming fluent or that 差不多 (“almost right”) is good enough. Don’t believe Chinese people who complement you on your excellent 中文, he adds, most of the time they are just being polite – they might hardly understand what you’re saying.

Bottom line: hitting the tones right is essential for comprehension. You may not hear the difference, but they do. I don’t think LeLe means to say that you have to hit EVERY single tone a 100 percent right, but rather that you should put some real effort into it.

2. “Tones are not for beginners only…”

YouTube comment: "98 % of the foreigners learning Chinese can't get their tones right"

I argued in earlier post that it’s best practice to get the tones right from the start in drill-like fashion, meaning repeating nothing but tones and Pinyin for at least two weeks. While I still think that’s extremely helpful and necessary, it’s just as important, as LeLe explains in his video, to keep at it. Instead of gradually lowering “tone quality standards” once you’ve finished base camp. I couldn’t agree more with his message that if tones don’t come natural to you, you have to learn them the hard way. A long-term endeavor that will involve getting your ego hurt from time to time again. This of course is not something that learners want to hear, but it’s the truth anyway.

3. “Don’t learn tones, learn tone combinations instead”

YouTube comment: "You just taught me more about the tones than my mainland Chinese teachers"
(16 tones = tone combinations)

LeLe emphasizes you shouldn’t just learn the four tones in isolation, but learn their frequent combinations. As most words in Mandarin consist of two syllables, this makes a lot of sense. These “basic units” keep coming back.

Although I don’t like this kind of diagrams much – they remind me of similar ones for German grammar – , the point is to memorize these tone patterns and – over time – store them as little soundbites in your brain. New vocabulary can be shaped and pronounced accordingly.

Mandarin tone patterns 16 + 4

The next step to sound even more native-like would be to put these words in a sentence, since they too typically exist in a larger unit.

4. “The third tone is the tricky one”

LeLe explains why the third tone and the 3-2-combo in particular is the nastiest one to most learners. Even many Chinese teachers seem to be confused about the exact pronunciation of the third tone. They may pronounce it correctly; explaining how it changes in certain combinations can be a problem though. As a student you probably don’t get the relevance of this at first. That’s why you have to keep at it while you advance, record yourself and mimic native speakers.

Further reading

The way the four tones are being taught is evolving as are the linguistics behind it. Equally important, in my opinion, are intonation, stress and rhythm which determine for a large part whether you sound “native” or not (imagine a foreigner speaking Mandarin with a French intonation). How much time did your teacher(s) spend explaining these “musical qualities”?

By the way, LeLe Farley is not the first to come up with all this:

Learn tone patterns on YouTube

Good for practicing: In this video not merely the 4 tones are introduced, but the 16 frequent tone combinations are also covered at some length.

I hope you enjoyed this short article. Feel free to let me know your take on the four tones in the comments.

Affiliate links

Reading and Writing Chinese - A comprehensive guide to the Chinese writing system
Mandarin Chinese Picture Dictionary: Learn 1,500 Key Chinese Words and Phrases
Chinese short stories for beginners
Classical Chinese for Everyone: A Guide for Absolute Beginners (English and Chinese Edition)
Chinese For Dummies
Essential Mandarin Chinese Grammar: Write and Speak Chinese Like a Native
Graded Chinese Reader 1000 Words: Selected Abridged Chinese Contemporary Short Stories
Chinese Flash Cards Kit Volume 1: HSK Levels 1 & 2 Elementary Level: Characters 1-349

Disclosure: These are affiliate links. They help me to support this blog, meaning, at no additional cost to you, I will earn a small commission if you click through and make a purchase.

Lingosteve’s wisdom on learning Mandarin

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Steve Kaufmann is one of the world’s most experienced language learners and a well-known polyglot. What is his best advice on learning Mandarin?

Polyglot Steve Kaufmann

Steve Kaufmann alias Lingosteve grew up in the English-speaking area of Montreal, Canada. He was a graduate of L’Institut d’Etudes Politiques in Paris, France (1966), and a Canadian Diplomat. Until the age of seventeen he spoke only English. Today he knows 16 languages and speaks at least half a dozen of them quite fluently, and he is determined to add more. He wrote a book called The Way of the Linguist, A Language Learning Odyssey and has his own channel on YouTube.

What I like the most about Steve Kaufmann is this:

  • Motivation: Watching his videos is inspiring as he’s probably one of the most experienced language learners currently alive and he tells you about what methods actually work.
  • Realistic: Steve doesn’t tell you nonsense like how to speak language X fluently in 12 weeks. Language learning is a long-term endeavor and hard work about which he doesn’t lie.
  • Old vs new school: Kaufmann didn’t grow up with the internet like my generation, but he appreciates and makes use of the tools and options from the digital age.
  • Excitement for new languages: For him learning foreign languages is a lifelong intellectual journey. The scope of his interest goes way beyond the language itself (history, culture, philosophy, literature etc.)
  • Polyglot experience: He is one of the few people who is able to compare the difficulties of learning – for example – Mandarin to other languages. His experience shows that the more languages you master, the more language learning itself becomes a skill and a “reproducible process”.

Can you learn Mandarin in six months?

  • 1:49 Language is a lifelong journey.
  • 3:37 The goal is to get comfortable.
  • 4:56 Listen to dialogues and lay off the characters.
  • 7:49 Listening and reading is the most effective method.
  • 9:18 The biggest waste of time.
  • 9:47 What books and materials should be used.
  • 10:26 I would start to write as soon as I can.
  • 12:38 Don’t worry and just speak.
  • 13:23 6 months are over. What’s next?
  • 14:03 Your languages are always with you.

We discussed this question before, but I think Steve gives a more honest answer. You can achieve a lot in 6 months, but you won’t be “done”…

To initially focus on listening and reading and to get as much (suitable) input as you can makes sense. Two things Steve Kaufmann mentions in this video strike me as interesting:

  • Start speaking when you feel ready. Get comfortable first. This is interesting, since most teachers will challenge you into speaking, right from the first lesson. Is this a bad thing? I don’t think so, but I agree with Kaufmann that it’s more fun to engage in intelligent conversation instead of drilling sentence patterns and silly dialogues. But that doesn’t mean the latter can’t be useful or necessary. It’s just not very enjoyable and may turn some people off.
  • Don’t waste your time in the class room listening to the mistakes of others. This is another point many people will recognize. I always preferred to share the class room with people “better” and more fluent than myself just for this reason. But it’s not that you can’t learn from others. You’re likely to struggle with the same things (although with different nationalities that’s not always the case). Maybe it’s also Steve’s way of saying you should find your own approach and focus on those things that interest and motivate you rather than passively follow the teacher and other classmates.

Six hacks for learning Mandarin

  1. Listening and Pinyin
  2. Start with characters
  3. Look for patterns
  4. Read a lot
  5. Focus on listening to things you like
  6. Shadowing

Kaufmann’s main point again and again is that language learning should be interesting and meaningful. That’s why you see him throwing the 口语-book away (3:44), cause it contains so much boring and irrelevant stuff. I completely relate to that. At the end of the day, this means YOU are responsible for making your learning meaningful and fun. Read things you find genuinely interesting. This gets easier, the more advanced you get.

He also emphasizes the importance of patterns rather than learning grammar for the sake of learning grammar. Patterns that you can actually use in daily conversation, reading or writing. I agree with this. My experience is grammar patterns only stick with you when you actively use them or – in case of reading – when you meet them frequently in a sentence. Therefore, you’re well advised to look out for those elements you are really going to need and pay less attention to more secondary things like the difference between 记录 and 纪录 which get a lot of attention in the typical Chinese textbooks.

A more obvious but still very crucial point he makes is to be persistent and spend some time learning Chinese everyday. In other words, to cultivate good learning habits which automatically leads back to the first point: keeping it interesting as you’re gonna need that long-term motivation.

How Steve learned Mandarin

If you want to hear the full story of how Steve Kaufmann learned Chinese I recommend listening to this interview. Steve also speaks in more detail about his philosophy on language learning and discusses various strategies for becoming a polyglot.

Find your own way

All these tips are extremely useful, but we shouldn’t forget that each person is different and Kaufmann’s approach with its focus on characters and reading doesn’t necessarily work for everybody. Nor does every person has Steve’s intellectual curiosity and that accompanying sense of excitement. Like so many things in the world you have to make up your own mind about it.

What’s your approach to tackling Chinese? What do you think about Steve Kaufmann’s way of learning? Please leave a comment below.

Affiliate links

Reading and Writing Chinese - A comprehensive guide to the Chinese writing system
Mandarin Chinese Picture Dictionary: Learn 1,500 Key Chinese Words and Phrases
Chinese short stories for beginners
Classical Chinese for Everyone: A Guide for Absolute Beginners (English and Chinese Edition)
Chinese For Dummies
Essential Mandarin Chinese Grammar: Write and Speak Chinese Like a Native
Graded Chinese Reader 1000 Words: Selected Abridged Chinese Contemporary Short Stories
Chinese Flash Cards Kit Volume 1: HSK Levels 1 & 2 Elementary Level: Characters 1-349

Disclosure: These are affiliate links. They help me to support this blog, meaning, at no additional cost to you, I will earn a small commission if you click through and make a purchase.

The 6 biggest DON’TS mastering Chinese

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Would you do things differently today if you’d have to start learning Mandarin all over again? I would! Based on my own experience and what I know from others, here are six don’ts for learning Chinese.

01. Skip the basics of Pinyin, tones and pronunciation

Pinyin, tones and pronunciation build the first layer of your Chinese language foundation. This foundation needs to be as strong as possible in order not to subside once you progress. It’s very tempting to rush on to more interesting content like Chinese characters and new vocabulary, thinking there’s enough time to work on Pinyin and all that other beginner’s stuff later on. The truth is nobody ever regretted covering these basics thoroughly. This usually includes:

  • Writing basic Chinese sentences in Pinyin, also from dictation
  • Speaking and recognizing the four tones
  • Reading Pinyin fluently and correctly (standard pronunciation)

Although more and more resources are available for Pinyin, probably the best way to build a solid foundation is to join something like a “Pinyin boot camp” or intensive Pinyin elementary course. When I started studying Mandarin, I had no choice but to undergo a two-week Pinyin brainwash with our devoted Chinese teacher. We would go through all the Pinyin syllables and enjoyed prolonged drill sessions with our inexhaustible laoshi to the point where we would be haunted by shreds of chu, qu, chang, qiang, nü and nu outside the classroom. However, this Pinyin boot camp proofed a big help for everything that followed. In most cases, I’d say a intensive Pinyin introduction is more effective than self-studying Pinyin without qualified native speakers correcting you.

02. Ignore Hanzi

Can you learn Chinese without Chinese characters? This is an intensely debated question. It all depends on your personal goals: what degree of proficiency do you want to reach? Which language skills matter to you?

You can learn basic level Chinese without understanding Hanzi, BUT… Pinyin – in the long run – cannot replace Hanzi. The thing is that the Chinese writing system is so crucial to Chinese culture that without it, you’ll remain “illiterate”, not just in the direct sense but also in terms of understanding the Chinese language and culture (and people). Without the characters, your learning curve will flatten in an earlier stage, because the fact that more and more vocabulary sounds and looks the same to you becomes a real handicap.

Here is an example:

Same in sound (homophone), but different in meaning. The part you miss when you can’t read Hanzi.

To illustrate this in more detail: When you ignore the four tones, standard Chinese has about 400 different syllables. Not a very high number compared to German, English, Russian or most other languages. The result of this small phonetic inventory is a high level of similar sounding words or homophony. But this relatively small amount of syllables does match a far greater number of commonly used characters. The official list numbers about 7000 common Hanzi. You get pretty far though, when you know the thousand most frequently used characters.

HSK levels compared to CEFR
Here you can see how HSK levels match (or do not match) the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages and the number of characters needed for each level with A1 meaning “beginner” and C2 “almost native”. It’s interesting to see that HSK 6 according to German estimations equals only B2, which is upper intermediate, whereas according to Hanban, HSK 6 matches the “almost-native” C2 level.

So this is something to consider when you are starting out or have that feeling that Pinyin brought you a long way, but now making progress becomes harder and harder. That’s why each Pinyin-only learning method is OK for first steps, but probably won’t get you to an intermediate or advanced level.

03. Forget to make Chinese friends

Learning Chinese becomes much more real and fun when you can communicate with Chinese people. If you happen not to be somewhere within Greater China, local tandem programs and language exchange facebook groups (or Scrabbin or interpals) can be an excellent starting point. It doesn’t always work out the first time. When you are lucky, you find a nice tandem partner to chat with.

04. Worry if you “still don’t understand anything”

Chinese is unlike Italian or French so different from almost all languages that hardly any word sounds familiar. Especially when you are not in a Chinese speaking region and immersed in the language, developing adequate listening skills takes time and is really difficult, so don’t be too hard on yourself. It’s quite normal. Concentrate on what you know and build on that. When you have got time, watch Chinese movies and listen Chinese songs and keep a steady level of Chinese input.

05. Expect apps to solve all your problems

Apps are reshaping the way we learn foreign languages, but the learner still has to make time and deliver the effort to climb up the hill. What’s just as important: how to use online learning applications the right way. App developers don’t know your goals and motivation or indeed what’s best for you. That’s why apps usually don’t provide much guidance and for instance don’t tell you how, when, how often and with which expectations to use them.

Think children’s books are easy

When I knew a couple of hundred characters, I reckoned it was time to read “红红的柿子树” (“honghong de shizishu”/ “red persimmon tree”), a children’s book a Chinese friend gave me.

It had Pinyin and pictures and I could recognize several characters, but I had a hard time making sense of the story. For two reasons: 1.) It was too hard for me. 2.) I couldn’t really relate to “little piggy looking for a friend” and all the other exciting animal characters in the book. This was demotivating to me.

Reading “The Little Prince” in Chinese (with Pinyin) was even worse. It’s a great book: nice pictures, short chapters, Pinyin included. However it proofed almost impossible to understand for me without translating word by word, which I tried for some time, but it’s not something I would recommend. Try Chinese textbooks and graded readers instead.

Reading the Little Prince in Chinese
Reading “Xiao wangzi” the hard way. This is an example of what the pages looked like after I went over them.

Thanks for reading! If you have any thoughts or ideas about this topic, please leave a comment below.

Affiliate links

Reading and Writing Chinese - A comprehensive guide to the Chinese writing system
Mandarin Chinese Picture Dictionary: Learn 1,500 Key Chinese Words and Phrases
Chinese short stories for beginners
Classical Chinese for Everyone: A Guide for Absolute Beginners (English and Chinese Edition)
Chinese For Dummies
Essential Mandarin Chinese Grammar: Write and Speak Chinese Like a Native
Graded Chinese Reader 1000 Words: Selected Abridged Chinese Contemporary Short Stories
Chinese Flash Cards Kit Volume 1: HSK Levels 1 & 2 Elementary Level: Characters 1-349

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