Chinese Resources

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Why Benny's "Fluent Mandarin in 3 Months" challenge is good for the Chinese community.

It is true, I'm a little behind the game. Admittedly, I only heard about Benny the Irish Polyglot yesterday when Confused LaoWai wrote a post (more like an essay really) titled: On Learning Chinese in 3 Months. Basically, for those still in the dark, Benny has moved to Taipei, Taiwan and will be spending three months learning Mandarin Chinese, with the goal of reaching somewhere near a C1 oral proficiency during that time.

This mission has cause quite the stir in the Chinese language learning community. For a moment, I too wanted to join the masses. While I still take umbrage with the notion that conversational fluency is equal to C1 aptitude, I applaud Benny Lewis for his overall mission statement-- speaking from day one. For a better understanding of his own advice, check out this video from the recent TEDxSanAntonio below.


As with the countless other languages he has learned, he has made a goal (and made it public) and will work at that goal regardless of the outcome. No matter what level his Taiwanese Mandarin reaches, it will be far better than it was three months prior.

As for the Chinese language learning community, his challenge has us talking about learning and studying the Chinese language. While most will (still) admit that Chinese is a relatively hard language to learn, Benny's own mission is to find ways to make studying languages easier... for everyone. This is what sites like Chinesehacks and Hacking Chinese (confusing I know!) do as well, provide ways to make learning Chinese easier and hopefully more fun.

Based on Benny's first week blog I noticed a few things that certainly deserve some praise.
  1. He is relying a lot of context. This is a crucial part to understanding any language. Making assumptions about what the other might be saying will help you figure out appropriate ways to respond to the situation and clue you in on some vocabulary that you can pick up for later use. It is also a great way to fill in the gaps on information you don't know. This works great for both listening and reading (something I covered in some depth over on the Skritter blog).   
  2. He is cultural minded. Handing over money to a cashier with two hands is certainly a good way to make a great impression here in Asia, and these kinds of cultural practices can open doors for further conversation, or at least a little more patience on the part of the locals. I've certainly gotten a lot of conversation out of learning how to drink with Chinese hosts, but lets save that for another post.
  3. He is getting out there. Rather that sit at home and watch TV (which can be a great way to learn some Chinese) he has joined a gym. Basically, he is trying to live his life as he sees fit. Not letting a language barrier get in the way of doing what you would like to do is an important part of language learning and self discovery. I had a similar experience in China when I decided to go to the park and learn how to play the Hulusi (albeit poorly). Sometimes we need to go out and learn by doing (again, something I've covered before.)
So what about the goal: fluency in 3 months? Fluency is a very relative term, and it is his own goal, not ours. However, making goals like this (or maybe something a bit more modest perhaps) are what keep us going on the language learning journey.

I for one will be pushing myself a little bit harder when I'm out living in Taiwan. Speaking more, and trying to be a bit more ambitious. While I personally think that setting a goal that one cannot possibly achieve can be as bad as doing nothing at all, setting goals that strive for us to work harder are how we see positive results.

It reminds me of a great story that Dr. Michael Everson  told my fellow classmates and I this summer. When asked the question of how much effort was needed to learn Chinese (or any language for that matter) he turned to some of the college level athletes and asked them how often the practice their respective sport. The general response was three to four hours a day (seven days a week). The message is quite clear, language, like anything else takes effort, and time. It isn't something that is going to come overnight.

Regardless of the outcome, I hope that Benny's journey will help inspire others to stop making excuses as to why they can't do something, and at least try.


  1. Even I'm a bit sceptical, but still Benny has already pushed me to do more with my Chinese. I'm not a fan of goals that are impossible to reach, but I have to admit that Benny can inspire others to learn languages.

    I'm just worried that a lot of people will start learning Chinese, but then later on give up if they realize that it isn't so easy for them.It's not so encouraging to feel that you're the only stupid out there when everyone is saying how easy Chinese is.

    p.s. I think I haven't read your blog before, so have to check out some others posts from you! Looks great!

  2. Hi Sara,
    I'm glad that you've found your way over here. I've been enjoying your blog for quite some time. But as a busy student I mostly stick to lurking.

    Benny has certainly pushed me harder as well. I think part of that is my current plateau I've hit, but that doesn't mean that I shouldn't be speaking more right?

    As for Chinese being "easy", I don't think we should put words in Benny's mouth. While he spent a fair amount of time dismissing the "Chinese is harder than other languages" claim, he never said anything about the language being easy. Like anything else it takes time and effort, but everyone knows that right?

    It will be interesting to see what happens over the next few months.

    Thanks again for your comment! And congrats on passing HSK 5. 很厲害!

  3. Could this be the first positive post I have read about Benny's mission to learn Chinese? I must say, though, I was more than a bit disappointed recently when I discovered that Benny would not be using Zhuyin to learn Mandarin. Seems such a shame to come here to Taiwan and start from scratch learning Mandarin, but not use Zhuyin. All I can think is that the additional few weeks it takes to learn Mandarin would have took a nice chunk out of his 3 months :)

    I think that anything that gives people motivation is great- though, as we all know, for a normal person juggling work and studies, fluency in 3 months is an impossibility/ The thing that worries me that people might follow his lead only to see that after 3 months they aren't fluent, and then feel discouraged and possibly give up.

    One thing I will say is that using context is an amazing skill to have. You need to act on your feet and sometimes hide from people that you don't entirely know what they're talking about, while at the same time working it out in your head. You can usually tell how someone feels about what they're talking about from the tone of their voice, so you know if your response should be positive or negative. So if you learn a few basic responses you can keep the conversation going while you use context to your advantage.

    1. I would have made the three month mission even more interesting that is for sure. But given that he is not staying here long term it would be hard to justify Zhuyin and essentially learning a new way to type for such a short period of time.

      I agree about the fluent "thing". I don't like it, but I'm sure it keeps the clicks coming.

      Thanks for the comment! And I agree about using basic responses to give yourself some time to figure things out. I still use that trick to this day (and more often than I would like to admit).

  4. Hello Friends,
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    Study Mandarin In China


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