Are you fluent in Chinese? This is a question that laowai often field from curious friends and relatives back home, the vast majority of whom being unable to judge for themselves. The question also arises when would-be job seekers formulate their resumes- while showing fluency in Chinese will look impressive, what happens when an interviewer says something to me and I stumble?

The issue has even popped up in the U.S. presidential campaign. Former U.S. Ambassador to China  Jon Huntsman claims fluency in Chinese, the result of a youthful stint as a Mormon missionary in Taiwan. On the campaign trail- Huntsman is seeking the Republican nomination for president- the American media states his fluency as a matter of fact. But is it? This in-depth article in Slate shows why there might be good reasons to be skeptical of Huntsman’s claims.

In the American political context, who cares? It’s dubious whether fluency in a foreign language (especially Chinese!) is an asset in the Republican field, anyway. In the annals of U.S. History, “I speak Chinese” doesn’t quite rank up there with “I did not have sexual relations with that woman”.

Of more interest to the Lost Laowai readership is this notion of “fluency”. What does it mean to be fluent? And is it a useful metric at all?

Technically speaking, no. For one thing, fluency refers only to spoken Chinese and doesn’t reflect skill level in reading, listening, or writing. Put simply, “fluency” refers to a speaker’s ability to speak without hesitation and self-correction. A person can be fluent in Mandarin without having a particularly good grasp of vocabulary, pronunciation, or grammar. Likewise, I’ve met many foreigners with a deep understanding of the language who have trouble putting even basic sentences together. Language learners come in all different types.

Rhetorically speaking, “fluent” has come to mean “advanced” when referring to language ability. After all, nobody wants to go to the trouble of defining his Chinese skills with HSK-like precision, especially in conversation with someone who neither knows what he’s talking about or cares. What is lost in accuracy is gained in convenience.

How do you define fluency?

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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 define fluency as the ability to carry on conversations with native
    speakers on many topics (perhaps excluding industries that use special
    jargon) without hesitation, with an understanding of idioms and slang in heavy usage. Also, one should be able to consume media intended for native speakers with little problems. This means TV and movies sans subtitles, and reading the newspaper at a decent speed, with maybe a couple looks at the dictionary allowed.

    Assuming Huntsman is fluent in Chinese, I’d expect him to
    be talk to someone about the girl who was run over recently, entirely in
    Putonghua. But I wouldn’t expect him to be able to tell me how a car engine works.

    As an aside, does anyone refer to native-speakers as “fluent”? I know the two are different — you’d never call someone fluent in a language a “native
    speaker”. On the other hand, could you say it the other way around? I’ve seen CVs where people have said they’re “fluent”, and then I’ve seen CVs where people say they have “native-level fluency”.

    So while Huntsman may/may not be fluent, I’ll go out on a limb here and say he lacks that special ingredient that gives one “native-level fluency”.

  2. I’m sure his Chinese is very good, but I think we can all agree, the bar is VERY low for foreigners claiming to ‘speak Chinese’. I’m sure every white guy in China has been told by a Taxi driver that he sounds like Dashan hehe…

    As to the actual question, I like to think the HSK itself can give you a somewhat objective view on this, and I know there’s lots of foreigners in Shanghai that speak wonderfully, but have never taken the HSK. But if you want to ‘prove’ anything, just take the Advanced HSK test. It’s pretty challenging.

  3. HSK is a good standard-bearer (OPI isn’t bad either). As an American who has studied reading, writing, and speaking Chinese for 11 years now, I still am slow to characterize myself as ‘fluent’ despite having lived alone in China, working in the field of law, in the field of art, and going to school in China. I can watch TV and follow, read a newspaper more or less, but there are still many things I cannot do. For example, answer questions in Chinese to my english-language thesis on agroeconomical sustainability in China. For me, fluency is being able to comfortably engage in conversation, on a wide array of topics (more complex say than, ‘I like motorcycles), and when you come to a word that your vocabulary is lacking, are able to convey its meaning with other phrases and descriptions. That is fluency. I speak Chinese at work daily, but I am still by no means a Chinese person. Our usage of ‘fluency’ is ridiculous, as is every Chinese person who says 你说的很流利 after you say something basic.

  4. Fluency is something which is very much situation dependent. I have lived in China for many years (I came to the country as a foreign student in the Fall of 1987) — and have gone through the HSK tests (in July 1988) studied in Chinese University, got my diploma actually in the US (was an exchange student), spent years working in China and the US but with a lot of interactions with China and Taiwan and STILL find it difficult to claim fluency….(eventhough I handle business meetings in Chinese)
    Wny ? Because there are plenty of situations when I will not be proficient enough to make it as a fluent speaker

    Chinese is very specialized language. Being able to handle deep technical conversation and negotiations in a subject in Chinese does not mean you can handle a hospital visit with the same proficiency!
    If you disagree — speak up, but having been in all those situations I can attest to that.

    Like the comment someone said — “Some people go to China for a week and write a book, others spent a month and write an article, many of us lived in China for years and don’t know what to say…”

    China and Chinese are a complex culture, language and as such expertise and fluency are difficult to define as well.

  5. Pingback: Fluency in the Chinese Language and Chinese Experience | Travel China and the World!

  6. Pingback: Jon Huntsman, the GOP Candidate for President Who Knows How to Speak Mandarin Chinese?

  7. I saw Huntsmen speak a little Chinese in his interview on Colbert, he’s definately not “native fluent” at all (just juding from the accent alone), but having been in contact with plenty of Mormon missionaries here in Taiwan, I’m pretty sure he’s “relatively fluent”.

    Though yeah, compare to English, Chinese uses much more historical reference / idioms in daily conversations at all levels , as other poster pointed out, in Chinese it might be easier to conduct a professional conversation than a casual one. Especially since mainstream Chinese casual conversation are not as likely to be running wild on he internet / youtube / DVDs / Movie theater.

  8. Huntsman of course was boasting. But the fluency thing ain’t so complicated. One can be said to be fluent when one can deploy the language more or less like a native. No matter how a question is phrased , how honest or good the answer depends on how honest or intelligent the responder is.

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