Reactions to Chinese Fluency

In Linguistics and Language Learning on February 5, 2009 at 4:32 pm

shank3Everyone Agrees Fluency is Low on Both Sides of the Fence

By Antonio Graceffo


According to a foreign linguist, living in Taiwan, the number of foreigners who are fluent in Chinese comprises .0064% of the visitors to Taiwan and a whopping .0055% of the foreigners living in Taiwan


In my opinion, that’s not a lot. But, that’s just my opinion.


I recently published an article entitled “True Chinese Fluency, an illusive Goal,” in which I suggested that the percentage of truly fluent people on either the Chinese or English side of the fence was very low. I also alluded to the fact that I thought it was nearly impossible to achieve fluency in a language and culture so different from your own.


Two linguists wrote in to say that I was basically wrong, because they were both fluent. As proof, one of the linguists said “I know dozens of people who are fluent in Chinese.”


According to data supplied by The American Institute in Taiwan (AIT), Taiwan will play host to 3.7 million visitors this year. Scott Sommers’ Taiwan Weblog said that in 2005, there was nearly half a million (429,703) foreigners living in Taiwan.


While I don’t doubt that this particular linguist is fluent in Chinese, and possibly some of his friends as well, I don’t believe that the number of fluent people he knows is in the dozens. Even if it is two dozen, 24 fluent speakers would represent .0064% of the visitors to Taiwan and a whopping .0055% of the foreigners living in Taiwan. Even if Scott Sommer forgot to count himself, driving the number of foreigners living in Taiwan to 429,704, the two dozen alleged fluent speakers of Chinese that this guys claims to know would represent a fraction so small that if I were rounding it off, it would be zero.


One of the reasons he gave why foreigners don’t learn Chinese is not only because of the difficulty of the language and the lack of hours spent studying, but also because of the way most foreigners live in Taiwan. And I strongly agree with this part of his email. It is too easy to say, Chinese is hard and that’s why people don’t learn it. Engineering is hard too. An American University published data saying that there would be 25,000 engineering graduates.


Why can people learn one difficult subject, engineering, but not another, Chinese?


Foreigners living in Taiwan often work as teachers or have jobs where they are not required to speak Chinese. They are tired when they get home from work, so don’t feel like studying. And, they can survive speaking only English, so the motivation to learn Chinese just isn’t there.


Whatever the reason why foreigners don’t master Chinese, all of this man’s points lead to support my argument, that there are very few foreigners who learn Chinese to a level of true fluency.


The second linguist who wrote to tell me I was wrong is studying for a PHD in Taiwan. He said that he reads novels comfortably in Chinese and also writes easily. Again, I am not taking away from his Chinese ability, but to suggest that the bulk of the nearly half a million foreigners in Taiwan are in a PHD program would be sheer madness. Again, he is more or less confirming that he is part of a very small minority.


In a related article I mentioned how Dutch people often reached near native speaker fluency in English. I attributed this to the fact that TV and movies in Holland are not dubbed into Dutch. So, from a very young age Dutch people were exposed to real English listening.


Again, he told me I was wrong about Dutch reaching native speaker fluency, but then went on to attribute their superior English proficiency to the fact that movies and TV aren’t dubbed.


As a reaction to one of my articles, a Dutch teacher of Spanish wrote to me. 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.


Certainly, one of the problems with learners and teachers everywhere seems to be some lack of understanding about how people learn language or a disconnect between this knowledge and the learning and teaching methods applied. For example, the same English teacher who tells me, “how can the students hope to learn English by coming to class three times a week for an hour?” only attends one hour of Chinese classes per week.


This PHD candidate apparently did know his stuff, and he said some brilliant things. For example, “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.”


These statements are both true. You have to be extremely flexible to learn a foreign language, both in your thinking and in your daily schedule. And as for the characters, learning Chinese characters is like taking a very advanced test in analogies. You have to constantly look for connections between the characters, shared meanings and clues. Learning Chinese has to be a thinking experience, not one of passive memorization.


Again, many English teachers complain, and rightly, that Taiwanese students don’t want to use their brain and think and negotiate a real conversation. Instead, they want to memorize and give standard, set responses which they have learned by heart. In this way it will be impossible to deal with a real conversation which will constantly take unexpected twists and turns.


These same foreign English teachers try to memorize Chinese phrases, rather than thinking or learning to really use the language.


PHD also goes on to say, “Jumping paradigms is hard.” There is a branch of linguistics which overlaps with psychiatry, in which brain functions and synapses are studied. This is an area I know almost nothing about. But when we start using words like paradigm, this refers to the actual wiring of the brain and how information is processed. Apparently, if you are raised with one set of processing, like the one for western languages, it is hard to convert to the one used for processing Asian languages. If anyone is an expert on this field, please write me and educate me on this.


A really interesting point that he made was “I know a handful of native Chinese speakers who speak near-native English 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.” He attributes this reading problem to the fact that they learned Chinese first, so they read it faster. I haven’t given this any thought yet. But, I enjoy watching my Hong Kong Chinese friends for clues about how one learns and uses the two languages. Of course those observations are not as valuable as they could be if I spoke Cantonese, rather than Mandarin. What I have noticed is that many of them, even in meetings where everyone speaks Chinese, take notes in English, rather than Chinese, saying it is simply easier to remember how to spell in English instead of how to write characters. 


Getting back to Taiwanese learning English, in Taiwan TV and movies aren’t dubbed either. I found a statistic which claimed that Taiwanese, statistically, watch more movies than any other culture. That would suggest the Taiwanese watch more movies than the Dutch. So, again, why can’t they get fluent in English? Saying that the languages are different is too easy. I believe the answer lies in deep-rooted cultural, rather than linguistic differences.


This morning, I heard on CNN that someone is making a documentary about the surviving empress of Iran, the wife of the deposed Shah. While the average American is infamous for not knowing a lot about the outside world, they would understand this sentence: “They are making a documentary about the empress, the wife of the former Shah of Iran.” To translate that sentence into Chinese you would be hard pressed to find, even in circles of educated Chinese, the word for Shah. Second, if you did find the word, no one would have any idea what you were talking about.


Taiwanese have a very ethnocentric, inward looking education system. The amount of information about the outside world that filters into them is limited. When I am planning my trips to various countries and places I must go for stories I am writing, my Chinese teachers often can’t tell me the Chinese characters for the countries or cities I will be visiting. During the Mumbai terrorist crisis, which dominated CNN for five days, many of my Chinese coworkers (all college graduates) had not only not heard of the story, but also couldn’t tell me how to say Mumbai in Chinese.


Many of them used excuses such as, “I have never been there” or “It’s not part of our culture.” I have also never been to India. And Mumbai is not part of Brooklyn culture, and yet I have heard of it.


If you don’t know something in your native tongue, it is unlikely you will learn it in a foreign language.


My background is more in translation, so we are taught that translations must be exact. Exact, as I mean it here, is that the sentence in English and the sentence in Chinese should have the same meaning for the listener, regardless of how many more or less words you need in the target language. Example, in German, I translate “from rags to riches” to “from dishwasher to millionaire” because it is an equivalent phrase which would have the same meaning for the listener. While every Chinese person would know the word for King, they would most likely not know the standard word for an Iranian king or Shah.


With these types of cultural gulfs, on both sides, how difficult must it be to become 100% fluent?


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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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 can really only speak for Americans but I’ve met more chinese competent Americans than the 24 you’ve listed, so I think the number must be higher than you’re forecasting. Also, I think economics plays a role because I think the mainland captures a larger share of the more competent chinese speakers. At least in the last ten years I’ve think the mainland has been more lucrative. I’ve heard anecdotal reports that the enrollment, for example, in the Tai Pei American School has fallen while the enrollment at the American schools on the mainland have bloomed. Nonetheless, I agree with you that Chinese is difficult, and that a couple years with a few hours of classes on the side isn’t going to cut it for learning chinese. In my experience, most teachers that I’ve met haven’t spent beyond that amount of time. However, those that managed to spend more time reached a much higher level of proficiency. This also holds true for people in Business. Given that other skills are usually judged more important for expats there’s not really a need for them to have Chinese at a totally high level, so it’s just enough to get to a functional level. It’s unfortunate that in some ways learning Chinese to a high level gets in the way of making money, so it’s really on those who have intrinsic interest reach that point

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