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.
- 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).
- 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.
- 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.)
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.