True Chinese Fluency

In Linguistics and Language Learning on January 27, 2009 at 11:08 am

It’s an Illusive Goal.

By Antonio Graceffo


It was 1974 and Kwan (Not his real name. His real name didn’t have any vowels.) sat beside me in Miss Compass’ second grade class. We didn’t know what country he was from, but when his father came to career day, he barely spoke English. All we understood was that he did something with math or computers. The father spoke to Kwan in some strange language. Then Kwan played the violin for us, and the father left. I didn’t learn a lot of useful career options that day, but if we had doubted it before, we were now convinced that Kwan was probably Asia, and must know some secret martial arts.


Kwan’s family had just arrived in America a few days before he joined our class. On the first day, he was given the same stack of books that the rest of us had. He struggled through reading, handwriting, spelling and social studies alongside all of the American born kids. Of course he excelled in math. As for language development, we played with him and spoke to him in English. He probably continued to speak his mother tongue at home, but everywhere else, people spoke to him in English, and he learned to communicate. After a year, Kwan’s English was fluent and he excelled at all of his classes. But he was still best in math.


Apart from the math, why can’t we foreigners do that in Taiwan?


When I attended university in Germany my experience was pretty much like Kwan’s. Apart from our German classes, foreign students went to class with the German students. We were expected to do reading, writing, studying and sit the exams, the same as the native speakers. Outside of class, everyone spoke German with us. TV was all in German. And even in or outside of our German classes where the foreigners met, we spoke German to each other. It wasn’t because we believed it was a good way to practice German. In fact, I am very much against any program which encourages language learners to talk to each other in the language they are studying. No, we spoke to each other in German because it was the lingua franca.


An Arab, a Russian, a French guy, and an American sat down to have coffee together, the only common language they shared was German. So, they spoke it.


Here in Taiwan, I am having trouble finding any foreigners who are one-hundred percent fluent in Chinese. I know a lot of people who speak and read well, but none of them could handle complete and total immersion in the sense that Kwan did in Miss Compass second grade class, or the way the foreigners did in Germany.


When I first arrived in Germany, I spoke German haltingly. I got headaches when I had to concentrate too long in class and could only understand native speakers if they spoke directly to me, and then only if I knew the subject already, and if they spoke standard High-German. One day, I walked into a book store and saw the shelves crammed with books I would have loved to read. I remember thinking, “Someday, I will speak and read German at such a high level, I will walk into this book store, take any book off the shelf and read it for pleasure, the same as I do with English.”


That day was less than six months away. I read my first novel after only a few months in country. By the end of six months I could just kick back on the couch with a German novel and read nearly the same as I could in English. By the end of the year I was averaging between one and three minutes per page in German, and one or more novels per week, the same as I previously had done in English.


In Taiwan, after nine months of intensive study, it takes me about ten minutes to read a page in my Chinese textbook. And I would be wasting my time if I even considered reading a novel.


One of my coworkers, an American (call him Tom) is studying at a Chinese university. He is one of only two foreigners in the program. I always tell him how much I admire what he is doing. The other day I said, “I can’t imagine having the professors hand you a stack of books in Chinese, and then going home and reading them.”


“No one does that.” He said, flatly. “Most foreigners studying at Chinese universities get their reading assignments from their teachers, then go online and find similar articles in English and read them.” His final sentences really chilled my ambition. “It is impossible to reach that level of fluency in Chinese.”


Another foreign friend of mine, Jamal, used his student visa to remain in Taiwan for more than ten years. During the military dictatorship, there were no work permits, or they weren’t common. So, foreigners enrolled in school, got a student visa, and worked illegally. (Things have changed. Don’t try this now!) Jamal and his brother finished the five year Chinese fluency program at the university. The pay for their illegal English teaching was higher than what they could earn if they returned home, so they both enrolled in an MA program, in order to remain in the country. There were nearly zero foreign students enrolled in degree programs in Taiwan at that time. All classes were taught in Chinese, including the reading, lectures, exams and thesis. Jamal and his brother struggled through the entire program and were poised to graduate. They had to overcome just one final hurdle. Jamal’s brother was majoring in architecture and was obligated to take a single course in classic Chinese literature. No matter how much time he invested in this course, Jamal’s brother just kept falling further and further behind. 


One of the problems with Chinese language is that the writing system demands that you memorize thousands and thousands of characters. Each word is a character, or actually each syllable is a character, and you may need two syllables to make a word. Train, for example is two syllables; ‘hwo’ meaning fire, and ‘che’ meaning vehicle. Train station is three syllables, so three characters, hwo che plus ‘jan’ for station. Of course, just as in English, a train station could be called a railway station. The characters for railway, like words in English, would be completely unrelated to the words for train. So, even after studying and memorizing the words for train station, you may not be able to find your way if your map used the word railway station.


So, you memorize the words for railway station.


American English has right around one million words. So, in learning English you also need to learn a lot of words. The difference is, in English you could see a word you have never seen before and guess not only at the pronunciation, but possible at the meaning. The first time I saw the words “neo natal care,” on a doctor’s office, I didn’t know what they meant. But, I new that neo was new and natal was born, so I assumed it was a doctor who specialized in the treatment of new born infants.


Some Chinese words are related composites like this, but many aren’t. Often, the composition occurs inside of the character. You can’t guess at the pronunciation, and your guess about the meaning will be very remote. For example, the first time I saw the Chinese character, ‘bing” for ice, I had no way of knowing how to pronounce it, although I had been using that word in speech since my first weeks of learning Chinese. The closest I could guess at the meaning, based on the appearance of the character was that it had three slashes on left side, which means, “something related to water.” Not a huge help.


So, each Chinese word, even for native speakers, must be taught and learned.

But knowing the words isn’t enough.


Most studies suggest that the average Mainland-Chinese, who is considered literate, knows between 3,000 and 4,000 characters. In Taiwan, Sun Yat-Sen University admissions department told me that a college graduate would tend to know between 4,000 and 4,500 on graduation day. Graduates have said that they continually lose characters for the rest of their life. Chinese teachers say that because of computers, children in modern Taiwan are losing their ability to write Chinese, although their reading is still at a high level.


All of this confirms that learning reading and writing in Chinese is difficult. It also suggests that learning and maintaining characters for native speakers is not that much easier than it would be for a foreigner.


So, why is it still so hard to reach real fluency?


Many people wrongly state that Chinese has no grammar. This isn’t strictly true. It’s not as if you can just put the words in any order you want and it will be OK. There are standards for how sentences must be composed. This is why Japanese students, learning Chinese, may possess thousands of Chinese characters, but still can’t read a newspaper. The word order is important. Beyond the grammar, a significant component of understanding Chinese is the use of phrases, almost like word pictures. For example, in Chinese, if you want to say, “the garden is very colorful,” you could clumsily translate from English to Chinese, and most Chinese people would understand what you were saying. But the common way for Chinese to express this idea is by saying, “In the garden, the flowers have six, seven colors.” If you didn’t know this expression, even if you knew all of the characters, you still wouldn’t quite understand what the speaker was saying.


The first time I heard a Chinese say, “the garden has six, seven colors,” I answered, “Oh really, name them.” This of course made no sense at all to a native speaker.


In college, because I was an English minor, I had to take two semesters of Shakespeare. I failed one and was gifted, although I hadn’t earned it, a D- in the other. I hate Shakespeare, “Beowulf,” “The Canterbury Tales,” in fact any literature which predates Mark Twain. I have said this in print before, and received lots of hate mail telling me how stupid I am for not appreciating culture, blah, blah, blah. In cases where I followed up 100% of these critics admitted that they hadn’t read Shakespeare since leaving school, and they only read it then because they had to. Furthermore, the bulk of them only read “Romeo and Juliet,” a story which has been copied, parodied, allegorized, and redone so many times that we all know the story without opening the book. In fact if most people were truly honest, they would admit that they have NEVER read a single Shakespearean work, not even “Romeo and Juliet,” cover to cover.


In all of my life, I have probably seen less than five people just sitting with a cup of coffee, reading Shakespeare for fun.


Shakespeare and Middle or Old English literature is hard to read because the syntax and vocabulary is so different from modern English. Also, there are anachronistic cultural references and humor, which we just don’t understand today.


Can you imagine reading the Chinese equivalent of Shakespeare? And then added to all of the other Shakespearean problems is the fact that the characters being used are ancient Chinese characters which few modern Chinese would know.


This was all explained to Jamal’s brother when the professors called him to discuss his graduation. They basically said that it was impossible for a foreigner to pass the course. Because he wasn’t a literature major, and had done well in all of his other courses, they went ahead and gave him a passing grade, just so he could graduate.


Jamal’s brother had seven or eight years of full immersion and constant study and yet, still couldn’t complete the course in ancient Chinese literature which the native speakers found difficult, but eventually passed.


What will it take for a foreigner to become fluent in Chinese? On a long enough time line, is it even possible? Is there a lack of trying on the part of foreigners? Or, is the grail just unattainable?


Antonio Graceffo is a martial arts and adventure author living in Asia. His areas of expertise are applied linguistics and second language acquisition. See is video on “Picture Story” applications on

His book, The Monk from Brooklyn, and all of his books are available at See his martial arts and adventure videos on youtube.


His website is

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Contact Antonio:


Antonio is currently seeking admission to and a scholarship for MA/PHD studies in Asian linguistics or a related field. If you can help, or know someone who can, please contact Antonio: Feel free to forward this story to anyone who might be interested.


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  1. I would say go crazy using a SRS and read, read a lot. Maybe you still can’t cope with the classical literature, but fluency at modern spoken/written Chinese you can definitely achieve if you put the right amount of effort on it.

    • Thanks for the encouragement and i will forge ahead. but the questions i am asking is, why are there so fw fluent people and is true fluency, in the way educated dutch people speak english, where they know our culture, jokes, accents….reading and speaking and most importantly listening, is that possible in chinese? there are now countless international MBA programs taught in english on the island, but even the biggest universities have less than ten foreigners studying something other than MBA in english or studying chinese fluence. in other words, less than ten who are majoring in some subject taught completely in chinese, paralel to chinese students. but american students have sometimes as high as 10 or more percent foreign students studying completely in english

  2. Actually, I’m an American in a ph.d. program in Taiwan. I do my reading in Chinese, not English (unless the material I’m given is in English). I also do my writing in Chinese. It is possible to gain fluency. The problem is most people aren’t flexible enough to do it. Most learners also do not understand the first thing about Chinese characters (which is vital to becoming proficient in their use) and try to get by on rote memorization. I know several other non-Taiwanese studying here who are fluent in both spoken and written Chinese. The main difficulty is the writing system, but not because it is somehow flawed. Jumping paradigms is hard. I know a handful of native Chinese speakers who speak near-native English (as in 99% of the time you can’t tell they aren’t a native speaker) and have lived in North America for extended periods of time (as in 10 years or more). They all have one thing in common: they still read Chinese much, much faster than English and one of them was even very surprised (to the point of being angry at me for suggesting otherwise) that foreigners who speak Chinese well couldn’t read Chinese faster than English (they also thought this was due to some characteristic of the writing system– it’s not. It’s due to what you learn first). In any given field, there are more people who fail at it than are good at it. Take advice from those who are successful at it, not those who fail or avoid the problem altogether.
    p.s. I learned how to read Dutch in 3 months, so I can relate to your experience with German. However, the fact is, German, Dutch and English are all very closely related languages and as such pose a much smaller barrier for learning. Learning Chinese takes much more time (so does Arabic, Hebrew, Korean, Japanese…….).

  3. Also, about the Dutch English speakers: they watch American TV (subtittled, not dubbed) from day 1, even as small children. That goes for Scandanavia as well. Their English ability is far superior to that of the average German, French or Italian watch the same programs dubbed. I also lived in the Netherlands for over a year and a half… to say that that average Dutch person understands American culture, jokes, etc. is an overstatement. There are certainly such people, but they are the exception rather than the rule.

    • Interesting point you made about the Dutch. One reason why their English is so good is because their TV and movies aren’t dubbed. And I agree with you that this is a huge issue in the fluency.

      As a reaction to one of my articles, a Dutch teacher of Spanish wrote to me. He said that he attributed his extremely high level of English to the fact that TV and movies aren’t dubbed. He then went on to say that while English is taught as a living breathing tool for communication, Spanish in Holland is taught the same way foreign languages are traditionally taught all over the world, with the same terrible results. He said, and I paraphrase, “the educators have forgotten why our English is so good, and use other methods for teaching Spanish.”

      This was an interesting statement about people’s approach too language and their understanding of how language acquisition works or should work.

  4. If you haven’t read the book, “Remembering the Traditional Hanzi” or “Remembering the Simplified Hanzi” by University of Hawaii Press, do so now, as it will greatly increase your retention of Chinese characters.

    Also, you should get “Learn to Write Chinese Characters” Yale University Press so you actually learn to write them the right way, rather than like an awkward third grader. What’s the point of learning all these Chinese characters if you write them really ugly?

    Finally, Chinese karaoke helps me greatly in my reading ability.

  5. Hello. Very interesting Blog. Not really what i have searched over Google, but thanks for the information.

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