I’m sure everyone has heard the story of the friend of a friend from X country at X university in China, and the story is so remarkable you almost don’t believe it.  Here are a couple I’ve picked up from different people, I don’t know if they are true or not. They are both very motivating.


The turtle wins the race

So when my roommate was studying in Beijing before she came to Xi’an, there was a foreign guy who left the semester before she got there who spoke amazing Chinese.  He didn’t start out that way though. 

When he first started studying Chinese he spoke very slowly enunciating every sound and stressing/exaggerating every tone.  No one had patience to listen to him so no one talked to him and everyone made fun of him, but the guy kept on going.  When the foreign students ignored him, he made friends with Chinese people.  Though Chinese people still found his pace glacial, they found the exaggerated tones cute.  After the winter break he started his second semester and everything changed.  Somehow in the time everyone had ignored him, he had picked up the pace.  He now had perfect pronunciation and tones that sounded just like a Chinese person’s.  Everyone was shocked and jealous.


The little girl who could

So there were two students who arrived from the same school, a guy and a girl.  The guy was boasting to all of his new classmates how he would master the Chinese language in just one semester.  The girl had a competitive streak and didn’t want to be shown up by someone from her own school so she said she would do the same. 

Day and night she studied.  She was always pouring over her textbooks and writing Chinese characters.  No one ever saw her.  While everyone else was out having fun, she was in her room or in the library studying.  After the semester was over and everyone had taken their finals and the HSK, all the students got together to relax and celebrate.  Everyone applauded the girl for her amazing scores that were utterly unheard of after only one semester of Chinese.  Her male classmate asked her how she did it.  She looked at him a little puzzled and said that they had both decided to learn Chinese in just one semester.  The male classmate stared at her kind of shocked and said he was only kidding when he had said that, he never imagined she would actually try. 


In both of these stories, the foreign student overcame adversity and managed to not only become fluent in one of hardest languages in the world, but to do it in a short period of time.  It only took hard work and perseverance (plus isolation from other foreign students).  So is it possible to become fluent in Chinese after only one semester?

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About Ericka

Ericka woke up in a Xi'an hotel room one day dazed and confused. After a series of inexplicable events, she found herself speaking in strange tongues and married to one of the locals. Currently, she spends her time in Qingdao translating or teaching and trying to avoid assimilation into the Chinese masses.

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  1. When I was in grade 7, I had a classmate who is French/Portuguese who had just arrived six months ago, and spoke perfect Cantonese. He started to learn to write Chinese with the brush too. He continued to take Chinese and past the Chinese tests of the high school exam 5 years later.

    So, it is possible. It just take a lot of playing with the locals.

  2. Becoming fluent in chinese in 6 months? very unlikely. Minimum fluency (already a slippery concept) requires at the very least 1500+ characters, which is roughly a set of ten new every day. Plus going over the previous ones, which tends to get avalanche-like pretty soon. How much time are you going to practice writing? Writing is not mandatory for fluency, but it is to pass HSK. Add on top chengyu, written/spoken language divide, 多音词, confusing stuff in general.

    I pick up on languages pretty easily, and still it took me one year and a half to get quasi-fluent (still bearing in mind that fluency is a joke, it’s the most relative concept in language studying, and you’l never, ever get to absolute fluency in Chinese), working in China and devoting very little time to proper study.
    However, an Italian friend of mine can speak english, german, dutch, spanish, portuguese and arabic. He aquired the last three languages in three years, without visiting any of those countries.
    If you’re like him, yes, it’s possible.

  3. @chriswaugh_bj: “what other way is there to acquire any skill?” — does this mean I shouldn’t be holding out for Matrix-like downloading?

    Whoa… I know 中文. (in my best Keanu).

  4. Natural ability has a lot to do with it. Years ago, when I lived in the dusty little outpost of Lianyungang, a group of laowai collaborated on Chinese lessons. One woman in particular was particularly enthusiastic- she really, really wanted to get good at Chinese.

    But a few lessons later, it just became clear that she couldn’t hear the tones very well. Just couldn’t hear them…while others had little trouble picking them up. This poor woman was driven to despair by her inability, no matter how hard she tried, to get good at speaking Chinese.

    Other people, meanwhile, just have a knack for it even if they aren’t putting that much effort into it.

  5. I came to China together with a mate, at which stage I was a few steps ahead of him in terms of Chinese (bad compared to very bad). I use to think he sounded like a retard as he spoke so slow as he focused on nailing the tones and pronunciation. Fast forward to today, I may still have the vocab on him, but his tones and pronunciation are a cut above mine (the prick) – sound familiar?

  6. Natural ability helps, but no matter what the skill you’re trying to learn, you still have to put in the hard yards. So for some, the hard yards are less hard than for others. Big deal. Still got to do the same work, even if it naturally comes easier. None of us was born able to speak our ‘native’ language. Some learned it faster than others, but all had to learn.

  7. It’s all about abilities and ages I guess. Back in France 10 to 15 years ago I recall that we welcomed kids from war zones (Kosovo, Bosnia, Afghanistan…) in our junior high and they start to speak a not perfect but fluent french and german (which are, IMHO, way more complex than chinese could ever be) in less than 2 semesters.

    In my case I see that my very goods memory (visual & gesture) helped me to learn up to 3K trad chars in less than a years but my poor speaking ability (even in French) I still have a lot of difficulty to speak in Mandarin.

  8. The author of Chinosophy is a learner of Chinese.
    There is one character that is more unavailable than all characters: Crabcore.

    Help me make a character for (or just “spell” in characters) “Crabcore”. If you don’t know what crabcore is, you can read about it here


  9. After all, any foreign language is hard for a non-native, right? Well, sort of. Not all foreign languages are equally difficult for any learner. It depends on which language you’re coming from. A French person can usually learn Italian faster than an American, and an average American could probably master German a lot faster than an average Japanese, and so on. So part of what I’m contending is that Chinese is hard compared to … well, compared to almost any other language you might care to tackle. What I mean is that Chinese is not only hard for English speakers, but it’s also hard in absolute terms. Which means that Chinese is also hard for them, for Chinese people.

    I always have my students ask me this “Why Chinese is so damn hard?”..I told them actually Chinese is hard, maybe the hardest on earth.Chinese does deserve its reputation for heartbreaking difficulty. Those who undertake to study the language for any other reason than the sheer joy of it will always be frustrated by the abysmal ratio of effort to effect. Those who are actually attracted to the language precisely because of its daunting complexity and difficulty will never be disappointed. Whatever the reason they started, every single person who has undertaken to study Chinese sooner or later asks themselves “Why in the world am I doing this?” Those who can still remember their original goals will wisely abandon the attempt then and there, since nothing could be worth all that tedious struggle. Those who merely say “I’ve come this far — I can’t stop now” will have some chance of succeeding, since they have the kind of mindless doggedness and lack of sensible overall perspective that it takes.

    so Why Chinese is hard?
    1. Because the writing system is ridiculous.
    2. Because the language doesn’t have the common sense to use an alphabet.
    3. Because the writing system just ain’t very phonetic.
    4. Because you can’t cheat by using cognates.
    5. Because even looking up a word in the dictionary is complicated.
    6. Then there’s classical Chinese (wenyanwen).
    7. Because there are too many romanization methods and they all suck.
    8. Because tonal languages are weird.
    9. Because east is east and west is west, and the twain have only recently met.
    There is still the awe-inspiring fact that Chinese people manage to learn their own language very well. Perhaps they are like the gradeschool kids that Baroque performance groups recruit to sing Bach cantatas. The story goes that someone in the audience, amazed at hearing such youthful cherubs flawlessly singing Bach’s uncompromisingly difficult vocal music, asks the choir director, “But how are they able to perform such difficult music?”

    “Shh — not so loud!” says the director, “If you don’t tell them it’s difficult, they never know.”

    In a sentence “Try your best!”

    • @Connie: Chinese is easy to learn if you’re born into it. Any language is. A baby from Nigeria would be able to speak and understand Chinese if he were brought up in a Chinese family (and vice versa). “There is still the awe-inspiring fact that Chinese people manage to learn their own language very well. ” You could say this about American kids learning English. The reason why Chinese is so hard for English-speakers is because it’s just SO different– the tones are VERY different from how western languages work.

      That’s just how language works and babies’ brains work; there’s actually zero conscious effort on the child’s behalf. On the other hand, it’s also incredibly easy to lose language ability when you’re that young as well. Cantonese was my first language, but I can no longer speak it. I can understand it because it is the language that my parents use to talk to me, but because I was discouraged from speaking Cantonese when I entered elementary school, it’s something that I can no longer speak.

      Learning to write and read in any language is a different story–it’s NOT natural like learning to understand/speak a language. It’s just that children are better at it than adults because their minds are still plastic and they’re still developing those neural connections, so they can pick it up a lot faster.

  10. @the blog… That first guy sounds a little like me actually, back in 06 before graduating. I took a Shanghai and then a Beijing study program. The first program I partied with the other western kids too much, then I was bored of it by the time I was batched up with my second batch of kids for the Beijing semester and became and outsider. I just hung out with Chinese all the time, and I think my classmates thought I was a weirdo or something. But I really improved my Chinese that semester. I now have a managerial job in Beijing less than a year after graduating college due to my Mandarin level.

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