I recently learned a neat new word in Chinese: 语感, literally “language feeling”. In English, a more common translation might be “language intuition”, a mysterious ability that some seem to possess and others do not.

When I tell people that I speak three languages, I often hear in response, “oh, you must have an innate ability”. I’m never sure how to reply because I’m not sure how much innate ability has to do with language acquisition. If anything, the circumstances in my life have had a far greater influence on my linguistic skills than anything else: a year in Italy led to speaking Italian, and three and a half years in China have enabled me to learn Chinese. Had I stayed in California, I’m quite certain I’d have remained firmly in the monolingual camp (like most Americans). Fortunately, I’ll never know.

I’ve found that language intuition, or the lack of it, functions well as an excuse for one’s inability to learn Chinese. After all, no one wants to admit that he doesn’t speak Chinese because he doesn’t study it or have any non-English speaking Chinese friends. The intuition dodge allows one to say, “well, I gave it my best shot but nature can’t be overcome- I’m just no good at languages.”

Then again, certain people do have an easier time than others in learning languages such as Chinese. I’m sure we’ve all met people who arrived in China with nary a ni hao and left a year later quoting Mencius. We’ve also met, to be sure, people who just can’t seem to get the knack for Chinese tones or vowel sounds. I once knew a determined Canadian woman in her fifties who simply couldn’t hear the difference between any of the four tones. Obviously, she found studying Chinese frustrating and eventually gave up.

I would argue, though, that the vast majority of laowai could speak Chinese well given enough time and effort. In terms of innate characteristics, I would argue that personality plays a far larger role than the vague 语感. Extremely shy and introverted people might find language acquisition slow-going if only because they feel less comfortable throwing themselves into Chinese-speaking situations. Then again, introverts have little problem with their native languages so perhaps personality isn’t particularly deterministic either.

So, I would say that if you find yourself wondering if you lack the genes to learn Chinese, 算了. Really, anyone can, even if you never attain 大山 levels of fluency (and who really wants to be that guy, anyway?)

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About Matt

Matt spent six years in China, mainly based in the beautiful spring city of Kunming. During that time he worked in consulting, journalism as well as English teaching. Matt studied Chinese for 2+ years and loved exploring the mountains of Yunnan by mountain bike). He now lives in New York City where he is pursuing a Masters in International Affairs at Columbia University.

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  1. I think you hit the nail on the head with the “extroverted” bit. Pretty much everyone I’ve talked to that has excelled at learning Chinese all state that they spoke it all the time.

    I realize this sorta sounds simplistic and perhaps a bit of a “no duh” thing, but it’s amazing how difficult putting that in practice actually is – even here in China.

    Essentially, you have to be this guy but in reverse. You have to be willing to insert yourself into “Chinese” situations and stand strong in the language exchanges that are actually meant to just be a way for the Chinese person to practice their English.

    Even indoors, with a Chinese wife by my side, I find it difficult to really commit to speaking Chinese. It may seem like such a simple thing to do when a native Chinese speaker is sitting beside me watching Battlestar Galactica – but the communication of our relationship was built in English, breaking that habit is damn tough.

    I think it just boils down to (to borrow a cliche) just doing it. Simple to say, in English.

  2. I think natural ability — good memory, good pitch recognition, etc. — can help, but it’s not required. Language is a skill, and as such can be learned by basically anyone so long as they put the requisite amount of time into learning and don’t have some sort of physical handicap that limits them.

    Most people are just lazy. I was for my first year in China, and now I’m not, and as a result I went from barely functional to highly literate in a couple of years. My innate abilities didn’t change, I just tried harder. A *lot* harder.

  3. I should add, being extroverted certainly helps, but it’s about priorities — if you want to learn Chinese bad enough that it overcomes your natural distaste for awkward social situations, then you’ll do it.

  4. “Even indoors, with a Chinese wife by my side, I find it difficult to really commit to speaking Chinese. It may seem like such a simple thing to do when a native Chinese speaker is sitting beside me watching Battlestar Galactica – but the communication of our relationship was built in English, breaking that habit is damn tough.”

    Lol, I have the exact same situation with my Shanghainese wife as well. Although, most of the time she has her computer with her, so I don’t know how much of it she actually listens to (unlike say her watching Lost).

  5. Some people are better at learning languages than others. I remember reading about a study that found that children who, from infancy on, grew up in a multi-lingual environment, retained the ability to learn languages faster than average, throughout their lifetimes. It’s as if the language-acquisition part of the brain grew larger than average during brain development, and stayed that way.
    Regardless, I’ve definitely met people who seem to pick up Chinese ridiculously fast, and have just left me in their dust. I don’t think I have any great ability, but I’m obstinate as hell, and I am making progress. I’m still really looking for better ways to improve my 口语, though.

  6. Chris’s statement about children in bi- or multilingual homes having stronger language acquisition abilities throughout their lifetime, is true. Compare Europeans to Americans, for example. Because Europeans start studying a second language from they time they are in kindergarten, they generally are able to pick-up many more languages throughout their lifetime without much effort. By contrast, Americans generally don’t study a second language until high school and because of that, even if they put in the same time and effort as Europeans, it will never come as easily. Since I work in the language learning industry, at http://www.italki.com, I read a lot about language acquisition. Another study I’ve read said that generally-speaking women tend to be better at speaking languages than men because women are naturally more social and talkative than men, which aids their foreign language ability as well.

    That being said, I know a French-Canadian guy who can speak just about any Latin/Romance language with a high degree of fluency, but can barely speak Chinese despite having lived here for a couple of years. Undoubtedly he could learn if he wanted to, and would probably have an easier time at it than most people, but I think because its not as easy for him as the Romance languages were, he’s given up and relies on others to speak Chinese for him.

  7. Having learnt French to fluency, and dabbled with German, I thought Chinese couldn’t be that bad… but have to agree with Chris on this one, there’s 2 things that have kept me learning Chinese, one is that I get irrationally cross whenever anyone suggests my boyfriend is my interpreter, and the other is that I’m stubborn as hell.

    Anyone who can learn Chinese quickly, without putting in a great deal of time and effort, has my envy.

    I do believe some people have an aptitude for languages in general. I have a friend whose academic intelligence is huge, but he’s a non-starter where languages are concerned… and not for want of trying… he’s in South America at the moment getting very frustrated with Spanish!

  8. My understanding of 语感 (language sense) as used by some Chinese students of English is actually more encompassing. It often denotes a level of language proficiency that can be attained through studying, as in, “If you read more, you will develop 语感.”

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