Hacking Chinese

A better way of learning Mandarin

Making progress in Chinese in spite of praise

Do you find the topic of this article a bit weird? Isn’t praise something encouraging that makes us want to learn more and that enables us to stay focused longer? Yes, definitely, but I also believe that for some people and in some cases, praise can be a serious obstacle on the road to mastering Chinese. Praise in itself is of course not a problem, but depending on how praise affects your way of thinking, it might make it really hard to advance beyond the basics.

People are always encouraging; this is good

Source: flickr.com/people/kacascade/

Studying Chinese, I have seldom come across people who criticise my Chinese in any way without explicitly being asked to do so. This is probably the result of normal politeness; we simply don’t criticise people we don’t know very well. Therefore, in my experience, learning Chinese is fun, because no matter what I said in the beginning, people were very encouraging. They said my pronunciation was very good, asked how long I had been studying Chinese and similar questions. I’m sure most learners recognise this kind of situation. It’s like starting on a Marathon having people cheering you on. It definitely makes the experience more worthwhile.

People are always encouraging; this is bad

However, the problem is that some people will praise you regardless of what you say. You might actually have really lousy pronunciation with you tones all over the place and incorrect word order, but people will still praise your Chinese to the hills. At an intermediate and advanced level, this becomes a serious problem, because everybody is comparing you to the other foreigners they might know, who speak no Chinese at all beyond “hello”, “thank you “ and “two beers, please”. I have written a separate article about the illusion that pronunciation (tones in particular) isn’t important: The importance of tones is inversely proportional to the predictability of what you say

If you simply regard them as people happily cheering you on, then it’s fine, but it’s very easy to start using these people to evaluate your progress.. If you do, you will get stuck at a level where you can communicate in Chinese, but you will never reach any kind of fluency or proper pronunciation. It’s one thing being encouraged by someone telling you that your pronunciation is excellent and another thing believing that it’s true.

Compare yourself to a proper standard

The problem is that you can’t use “the average foreigner” as a target model for your Chinese learning, because you will become better at Chinese than the average foreigner very quickly if you make a serious effort. Personally, I tend to compare with myself and want to become better all the time, not necessarily as good as or better than some external standard. It doesn’t really matter what you do, but you really shouldn’t take what other people tell you as any kind of assessment of your Chinese ability unless they are professionally trained to do so or happen to be very frank and straightforward individuals. Take what people tell you for what it is: positive encouragement, and leave it at that.

Advanced level, really? My Chinese sucks!

This problem becomes even more exaggerated at an advanced level. On this website and in general, I tend to define “advanced” as a level where you can communicate with reasonable fluency about anything, and learning has mostly turned into learning how to say things correctly rather than just making people understand what you mean.

I reached this level quite some time ago and I normally receive tons of praise for my Chinese. When someone tells me my pronunciation is good or that my whatever is excellent, I smile and nod and say thank you. But in my heart I know that my Chinese sucks. Of course, I might speak Chinese much better than any other foreigner these people have met, but is that really what I want to achieve? No! If that were the case, I could have stopped studying Chinese years ago.

Compared with native speakers or truly advanced second language learners (remember that I’m not a native speaker of English, for instance), my Chinese is really, really bad. Sure, I have a solid foundation, I know a reasonable amount of words (around 20 000 in Anki at the moment), but that’s it. I have a long, long way to go. And, most likely, you have too.

It’s a long journey ahead

This article is not about bashing people who cheer us on, who want to make our journeys a little bit easier. I think that having this kind of support and encouragement is essential and sometimes I really need to feel good and not fret about how much I have left to learn, if just for a little while.

No, this article is about regarding praise for what it is. In most situations, it’s like someone cheering on an Olympic athlete during a Marathon: they have no idea what it means to run a Marathon and will think that running it at all is worthy of praise. They don’t realise that four hours is a really bad time if you aim for the world record.

Still, most people would rather have people cheering them on than running in complete silence. So do I, of course. All I’m saying is that you shouldn’t use the cheering of the crowd as a measure of how quickly you are running.

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  1. Olle Linge says:

    The following 13 comments have been manually retrieved after a server crash:

    Harland: Huh. I hadn’t heard of foreigners being led astray by false praise from native speakers. I thought we all had the same experience of being heartily praised for being able to say “nihao”.

    February 5th, 2012 at 02:17

    Jared Romey: I completely agree. In fact I wrote a post about something similar recently as well. I have seen many examples of native speakers complementing someone on how well they speak, even if they speak horribly. I’ve come to the conclusion in those cases, as you mention above, that those people are simply trying to be nice and encourage a beginner to continue.However, as you say, this isn’t always helpful and as your language level gets better may be more detrimental. I once spent three years pronouncing a simple word wrong, until a friend of mine laughed and teased me about it. It was the first time anyone had said anything about my pronunciation being correct!Your post hits the mark, not just in Chinese, but when learning any language.


    February 5th, 2012 at 09:17

    Sara K.: Based on what I’ve read and heard, things are different for people who look like they are ethnically Chinese. They are often given a hard time by native speakers for speaking less than fluent Chinese. That’s because they are expected to speak like natives, and if they can’t (even if they grew up in a small town in Canada where they were the only Chinese-Canadian family or something) then they are regarded as having something wrong with them. A friend of mine told me that she was once walking around with a Taiwanese-American classmate – who spoke *better* Mandarin than her – and people were praising her Mandarin while insulting her companion for speaking so poorly.While I do no look ethnically Chinese at all, I can sympathise as someone who cannot speak my mother’s language. While nobody has ever gotten truly nasty about it, relatives (the ones who don’t live in the United States) and others sometimes make subtle (or not so subtle) comments about what is wrong with me and/or my mother that I can’t speak the language. And some people wonder why I am spending so much time studying Chinese and other languages when I don’t know the language of my own family/people.

    February 5th, 2012 at 14:46

    rhansen12: Hey super interesting blog post. I haven’t thought about language learning this way, though I have heard a language teacher say something to the effect of, “I know I’m fluent when native speakers stop complimenting my language ability.”in RE to Sara, that is certainly an intriguing personal story. At our language schools we occasionally hear from students interested in pursuing language because of their family background. I would be interested in hearing from students who were adopted or are studying, e.g., German, despite coming from a Guatemalan family.

    February 7th, 2012 at 17:07

    Kaiwen: (Especially at an intermediate level) Find native speakers who say your Chinese sucks. These people are few and far between. Hang out with them a lot. Treasure them.I think that at an advanced level, especially if you can develop friendships with local Chinese natives (this depends on where you find yourself), you can get past the point of praise relatively quickly. Depending on how native-like you are and how internationally experienced your counterpart is, they will hopefully quickly accept you as just another person (aka freak of nature laowai that is probably lying about lack of Chinese blood) and have normal conversations with you. If you’re in this kind of relationship, pay attention to the times when people fail to understand you for any reason, or they recast things you say–either with a slight change in pronunciation or just rephrasing. Who knows how many little mistakes they’re letting slide? Hopefully, you’re 98% there and they’re correcting mistakes that stick out because you make few.As a funny side note, I remember a time as I was transitioning towards being at a pretty advanced level, I would have normal conversations with people (in China) where no mention was made of Chinese proficiency. Then at some point I would slip up and make a non-native-like error, and BAM! the automatic response “Your Chinese is very good” would come out.

    February 8th, 2012 at 09:40

    I have always believed that the ultimate measuring stick for a language is when people STOP complimenting your language ability and start having real conversations without batting an eye.As long as Chinese people compliment my Chinese, I assume its still too poor to be considered fluent. Most foreigners I know that are truly fluent don’t get a million compliments, instead people talk to them as they would talk to anyone else.

    February 8th, 2012 at 10:12

    gweipo: as parents we’re always told to praise effort rather than result …a better standard to work to than praise is once people stop patronizing you and treating you as a slightly retarded person (which we all do to people not speaking their mother tongue and with limited vocabulary and dodgy grammar), you know you’ve arrived.

    February 9th, 2012 at 15:57

    Olle Linge: Rachel: This would work if the students looked like an ethnic Chinese, but I’m pretty sure it’s not true otherwise. It would be true for English in the US, but not for Chinese in China. The number of non-Chinese that speaks perfect Mandarin is extremyl low, so they will always receive tons of attention. If 大山 or suchlike went to a new part of town and had to get something done in Chinese, I think we rest assured that whomever he’s talking too would express some kind of awe. Not everyone, perhaps, but still. I don’t think the amount of praise is very different for truly advanced learners, or at least not an any significant way.

    February 11th, 2012 at 09:09

    Olle Linge:
    Gweipo: I think that is the correct attitude. Note that I’m not talking about how to give other people praise, but how to receive it. I think all kinds of praise are good in someway and I try to encourage people whenever I can, not just those who learn languages.I really, really like you second comment, I think this is absolutely true. When people start treating you like an equal, you’ve probably come quite far. If they become friends with you for some reason other than you being a foreigner and feel that they gain something from talking with you in Chinese which isn’t related to you being a foreigner, then you’ve definitely achieved something.

    February 11th, 2012 at 09:17

    Sara K.
    : Personally, I think eavesdropping on what people say about my Chinese is a better measure than praise. Either they don’t think I can understand what they are saying, so they’re honest or they think that my Chinese is so good that I *can* understand what they say. It’s still flawed in that they are comparing me to the average foreigner, so I have to take that into account. but overhearing somebody tell somebody else 沒問題,她會說中文 when referring to me makes me feel better than somebody telling me directly 你說中文的很好

    February 11th, 2012 at 13:58

    Olle Linge: Sara: There is also a point where this method will fail. In order for them to talk about you in Chinese, they will need to think that you don’t understand wha you say, but if you speak well enough, no-one is going to say that in your presence unless they want you to hear it. 🙂 Also, I don’t think that people are necessarily lying, they might really think that a foreigner’s Chinese is really good, even though it isn’t.

    February 16th, 2012 at 08:31

    Guus: I had a teacher in University who spent such a long time in Hungary that he (a Dutchman) became practically fluent in Hungarian, which I heard is a really complex language.He told me that he realized he had arrived at ‘near-native’ fluency when people around him stopped praising his Hungarian. “After that, if people praised my Hungarian, I knew it must be because I had made a mistake a few sentences back”.I think it makes sense. When someone’s speech is really close to that of a native speaker, it becomes almost insulting to praise their level.

    So any time someone praises my Chinese, it reminds me that I still have a long way to go – till the point where people don’t dare to praise me any more.

    February 29th, 2012 at 10:38

    Olle Linge: I’d like to comment on the “you know you’ve succeeded when people stop praising you”. It works well for European languages spoken in the West, but it doesn’t work in China. If I were a native speaker of Chinese and looked the way I do now (blue eyes, blond hair), people would definitely comment on my Chinese.So, I don’t think this praise will go away ever for a non-ethnic Chinese learning Chinese.

    March 2nd, 2012 at 14:38

  2. Mai Laoshi says:

    Great post.

    With any skill like language that has no defined “finish line”, you never stop learning. 活到老学到老

    The better you get, the more you realise how much more there is to learn. And you’re continually redefining your goals. At the start of an enterprise like this, there’s no way you can even conceive the goals you have later on.

    To give a somewhat artificial example, perhaps you’re unaware that 成语 exist when you start out. How could you resolve to learn and use them frequently? Once they’re part of your awareness, you can start to conceptualise how to improve in that area.

    The better my Chinese (or Taiji or teaching) gets, the more humility I feel about my ability.

    And that’s really useful as an impetus for improvement.

  3. Chijioke John says:

    I have been having these thoughts for months now and was just having it this morning when I saw a tweet about this post. You’re absolutely spot on especially with the reasons given and if it’s been learnt for professional purposes.
    But on the other hand, especially with natural languages, if you’re trying to socialise I personally prefer the owners of the language to feel particularly flattered when they see me struggling to learn the language. That’s what Robert Greeene was talking about in his book. So it’s much more fun knowing that people will laugh when they see I’m doing it wrong. As a matter of fact the fun may disappear when I can no longer be distinguished from a native speaker.

    1. Olle Linge says:

      On the other hand, when you’re Chinese becomes indisdinnguishable from a native speaker’s, focus is moved from how you say something to what you say, which opens access to so many other interesting things. In my case, I value this more highly than the process of learning pronunciation itself, although both are interesting.

  4. 雅各 says:

    As usual, we see the acceptance of the “foreigner” term, in discussing the learning of Chinese. The writer of this article obviously doesn’t read much about second language pedagogy, because the terms Native Speaker (NS) and Non-Native Speaker (NNS) are far more precise. Foreigner means basically nothing in this context.

    Also, I don’t know why anyone other than one’s Chinese teacher should be complimenting somebody’s Chinese skills. If it’s just a member of the public or some random person, it’s simply not warranted. One of the most stupid comments I’ve heard (given in English, of course) is “Good pronunciation!” How could I have avoided receiving totally off-topic comments about my Chinese language ability? Used bad pronunciation?

    1. Olle Linge says:

      It’s obvious that this commenter isn’t very good at distinguishing language learning blogs from academic literature! 🙂 Joking aside, though, I don’t really understand what you mean. For most people reading this blog, foreigner means adult person who may or may not have learnt Chinese at home and then travels to China for one reason or another. That’s quite enough for the purposes of this article. I’m perfectly aware of the difficulties of defining different kinds of speakers, but I fail to see what a discussion about this would add to this article.

      I have no clue why Chinese people like to compliment foreigners on their pronunciation, but it’s a fact that they do quite a lot and, in my opinion, that creates a false sense of achievement that will impede progress if interpreted as a reliable assessment of the learner’s proficiency.

    2. Tyson says:

      On this topic, I think the term foreigner is more relevant. The more you look like a foreigner (different from Chinese people), the more the praise of your dodgy Chinese is going to be overstating how good you are.

      A Chinese looking person wearing a t-shirt that says “Non-Native Speaker” will nonetheless be expected to have good Chinese and will not be praised in China for getting a few tones right.

      So using NS/NNS isn’t really identifying the groups that will actually encounter this problem. Foreigner is better, depending on what you mean by foreigner (if you mean what the Chinese mean by the word, it’s pretty accurate). Actually, non-Chinese looking person would be best, we don’t have a convenient word for that. NCLP?

      1. Olle Linge says:

        Yes, you’re right, “foreign looking” should be the word, actually. I have had numerous students and friends with Chinese ancestry and they are treated completely differently than those who look foreign. The default attitude is that they should speak Chinese well and if they don’t, something is wrong. I’ve been in the same class as several of these students and experiences how people treat our proficiency levels completely differently even though they were in fact quite similar.

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