Posts Tagged ‘fluency’

The concept of “fluency” in Mandarin

peckishlaowai Posted in China, Learning Mandarin,Tags: , ,
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Like every other Mandarin learner I dream of becoming a “fluent” Mandarin Chinese speaker, but this goal can seem pretty unattainable and daunting if not broken down into smaller achievable milestones. You can also dream as much as you want about it but if you have no plan of action and no regularity in your schedule, you won’t get or go anywhere. So this is where I’m currently at – defining what I need to do (at least roughly in the next 6 months) to get me one step closer to becoming “fluent” in Mandarin. If I’m going to want to get anywhere with Mandarin in the near future – I have to put some stakes in the ground (a couple at least). I have to define what my goals are so that I know what I’m aiming for.

Fluency….? Have a laugh :)

“Fluency”. Yes there is a hint of skepticism – hence the use of quote marks. I’ve often wondered about becoming fluent in Mandarin and I have had so many questions about it:

Is it even possible? Do you need to live in China for a number of years to become fluent? At what point would I know that I am fluent? Is fluency relative, defined by what you want to achieve with the language? It seems such a vague concept at times. When I struggle with the basics I often ask myself whether I am crazy studying this language… If I didn’t have this burning desire / passion in my heart I probably would have given up ages ago. (Oh wait, sorry – forgot – was out of action for nearly 2.5 years – life got in the way…) Well at least I rekindled the flame, didn’t I?

Some conversations I’ve had with native speakers have left some doubt in my mind too – comments like “Not even Chinese people are fluent in Mandarin”. Another reply that also left me rather puzzled about the validity of the concept of “fluency” in Mandarin was when I asked a native speaker why they said “shenme” so much in a conversation and whether they ever had difficulty understanding one another. To this question, I was answered with, “Oh us Chinese don’t always understand what’s going on”. Baffled I was. If statements like these don’t leave a Mandarin learner confused, then I can only present another inspiring example (smell the sarcasm): “200 Kilometres (from here) and we won’t be able to understand one another if we speak Mandarin – no point for foreigners study Mandarin! Better if Chinese people learn English!”.

When you think it can’t possibly get any darker and gloomy though :) , along comes a Mandarin angel, who puts back the silver lining around the (damned) dark cloud: “Don’t worry so much about the pronunciation and tones, even though China is so big, if you put the words together in a sentence, people will be able to understand you. Your pronunciation and tones don’t have to be perfect – just close.” This last statement which I had heard from a native speaker very recently, is certainly very encouraging especially when compared to the statements I had mentioned before. It also however confirms the idea that standard Putonghua is not something everyone conforms or even aspires to – but I’m pointing out the obvious – none of this is news. I suspect it’s known already and not just by me. In this case though this last example is rather comforting. I’ll be an optimist and keep with the last person’s words in my mind as I continue on my path.

Getting back to my point though – all of these questions aside – I reckon one should simply decide that negative comments will not be allowed to discourage. When feeling overwhelmed – the only thing to do is to be realistic and break the end-goal down into several achievable milestones and as for me, I have to define what I’m aiming for and how I’m going to achieve it, with the time (and other resources), I have available to dedicate to this beast. :)

I also need to define what I think fluency means to me. I reckon if I can close a business deal in Mandarin I’d consider myself fluent. For now though, I have rather more rudimentary obstacles to conquer.

Patience is a virtue.

A virtue I (for the most part) do not possess.