Hacking Chinese

A better way of learning Mandarin

Can you become fluent in Chinese in three months?

Image credit: sxc.hu/profile/Daino_16

Becoming fluent in any language is a dream many people have, but few achieve. Accomplishing this in only three months sounds like a pipe dream to most people, but that’s what polyglot Benny Lewis has been doing for quite a while now.

That is, moving around the world, staying in each country for a few months, learning the language and writing about it on his website. I’ve been following Lewis ever since I read his book, The Language Hacking Guide, almost a year ago, but I’ve always thought that much of what he writes about is either not applicable to Chinese or is of reduced help to learners of Chinese.

Now Lewis has officially announced his goal to become fluent in Chinese within three months, starting from scratch. Fluent in this case means that he wants to be able to communicate in a group of natives without either slowing them down because of his lack of understanding or halting because he cannot express what he would have expressed in English. The topic can be any non-specialist topic and the style is conversational.

He also refers to C1 level (see Wikipedia). In addition to this, he also intends to learn basic reading, such as understanding menus (which is far from basic, but never mind that) or signs, but also saying that he soon after this wants to be able to read most of what he sees (save more advanced language such as newspapers and so on).

This leads us to a question that I’m sure most people reading about his mission ask themselves:

Is it possible to become fluent in Chinese in three months?

The short answer is “no”. I’m convinced that three months is very, very far from being enough to reach a C1 level, regardless of how talented you are or how much time you spend each day. Before you play the party-pooper card, however, hear me out. I don’t write just because I think the mission is impossible, I write this because I want people who learn Chinese (yes, that’s you) to understand what challenges Chinese offers and how to approach them. This won’t enable you to learn Chinese in three months, but it will help you in your studies.

Before I start, I’d also like to say that I quite like Benny Lewis and his approach to language learning (I have read his book and might review it fairly soon). He has really helped people realise that language learning in high school and the real world isn’t the same thing (you actually can learn a language) and his enthusiasm helps many people realise their language-learning dreams. In other words, I think his approach is good and that he will learn a lot, I simply don’t think such a short time is realistic.

Challenges when studying Chinese and how to approach them

The main different between learning Chinese and languages close to your native language is that it’s easy to underestimate how different Chinese is. There are many aspects which are tricky to master, and here I’ve detailed some of them:

  • Problem: Tones are hard. These are difficult for most people to master even if they have a good teacher and a long time to practise.  Considering, how important tones are, this is a major hurdle both for listening and speaking.

    Suggested approach:
    Have a non-native speaker explain tones to you in English and make sure you get it right from the first day (for example, the third tone is a low tone). After you know how to pronounce them in theory, practise with native speakers (obvious). Be careful, though, you need a good non-native speaker.
  • Problem: Chinese isn’t French. When I learnt French or if I decide to learn German, I can guess what things mean when I hear them. Sometimes I can even guess how to say a word even if I’ve never encountered it before. You can’t do this in Chinese until you reach a relatively advanced level. Also, when learning French or English, it’s possible for me to simply map a word in Swedish to a word in French or English, but this is impossible in Chinese. There are many different ways of expressing the a single word in English (and many different English words for one Chinese word; it goes both ways). This is true in any language, but is a major hurdle when learning to speak Chinese properly. You might be able to communicate with people in a short time, but acquiring accuracy in Chinese is many, many times harder than in, say, French.

    Suggested approach: I think that there is only one way to overcome this problem and that is huge amounts of exposure. You need to see and hear the language an awful lot, but you also need to practise actively to make sure you get it right. Learn the rules, if there are any, and then  practise, practise, practise.

  • Problem: 1500 characters won’t enable you to read: People often ask me how it’s possible to learn so many characters. Then I say that actually, you don’t need that many to be able to read. This is easily misinterpreted as “you only need X characters to read Chinese”. The problem is that learning X characters says nothing about your reading ability, because meaning in modern Chinese is convey using words, which typically consist of more than one character. Knowing a number of characters is not the same thing as knowing the words these characters can create.

    Suggested approach: Learning characters and words is quite easy once the code is broken. Unlike English, most characters and words in Chinese are made of smaller components that can be learnt (think of prefixes and suffixes in English). Learning the building blocks vastly improves learning of written Chinese. See this, this and this article for more about characters and words.

  • Problem: Listening requires huge amounts of practise and a broad vocabulary. Expressing yourself in Chinese with only a few thousand words is definitely possible, but that is not enough to understand native speakers discussing something among themselves. Just to compare, I estimate that I know around 20 000 words in Chinese, and I still encounter words in conversations I don’t know and don’t understand on a daily basis.

    Suggested approach: This doesn’t mean that Chinese is impossible to learn, but it does mean that it takes time to build up the necessary vocabulary. Also, Chinese words are fairly short, usually two syllables, which means they tend to sound very similar in the beginning. It is almost impossible to guess what a new word means if you hear it. If you see it in writing, it works sometimes if you know both characters well. The solution to this is simply to take one step at a time and not to give up.


I like Benny Lewis and what he’s doing. I hope he can show people that it’s possible to learn a whole lot of Chinese in just three months. Seeing that he can learn a lot, more people will want to learn the language and that’s excellent, because Chinese is an awesome language to study. Chinese needn’t be extremely hard to learn either, but it does take time.

However, part of the reason I wrote this article is that I’m worried. If the discussion sparked by his mission to learn Chinese in three months leads people to believe that they can become fluent in Mandarin in three months (even if he doesn’t say that, it is definitely what people read), then we’re going to see hordes of people enthusiastically trying to do just that. They will fail. They will be disappointed. Most of them will give up.

When Benny says that he aims for the stars, but might land on the moon, he knows what he’s talking about; he’s done it before. Most people haven’t, and I’m afraid that if they aim for the stars, they won’t even get off the ground. Aiming high, but for something which is achievable will suit most people better. Still, all actual learning is done on the micro level, long-term goals are simply there to give you a direction. Becoming fluent is not a short-term goal.

My advice is to familiarise yourself with different learners/teachers: Benny Lewis,  Khatzumoto (All Japanese All the Time) or even me, but don’t follow anyone blindly, discuss with other learners (in real life or on forums), experiment. If you are truly interested, have an open mind and are prepared to spend a decent amount of time, you can become fluent in any language. This has been proven many times over. However, don’t think that learning languages is something that can be accomplished quickly or effortlessly. Success will come if you keep motivated and enjoy yourself, but don’t push it too much unless you know what you’re doing. Or, as the Chinese say, 慢慢來!

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  1. Benny Lewis says:

    Thanks for the post! I doubt there’ll be an army of people convinced they can become fluent in Mandarin in 3 months, who will all have waves of desperation and disappointment though 😉 Most people take my extremely adventurous goals to inspire them to aim for fluency in, say, 9 months, or basic conversational in 5 months or whatever, and that is indeed what I’m aiming to do: get people to push themselves harder.

    I’ll make sure to take your tips into account! I will make one correction though:

    “Problem: Chinese isn’t French. When I learnt French or if I decide to learn German, I can guess what things mean if I hear them. Sometimes I can even guess how to say a word even if I’ve never encountered it before. You can’t do this in Chinese until you reach a relatively advanced level. ”

    This is wrong because I am already understanding some Chinese based on CONTEXT and understanding one word in a sentence and extrapolating the rest, despite lack of vocabulary. This cannot be overlooked.

    Also, I find Asian language learners oversimplify the challenge of learning European languages, especially when they are not familiar with them. This is a mistake.

    I’m not sure if you personally speak French at a fluent level (having learned it not the same as actually speaking it confidently with natives), but don’t be fooled by how easy it is to read and extrapolate from there. Speaking is hard in any language and requires endurance and lots of practice. European languages have many aspects that Chinese does not.

    When I confirm this with more experience I intend to write a blog post precisely saying that Asian languages are *not* harder than European ones (nor vice versa), when starting from a European language. Such claims of one being harder than other almost always ignore important points. The point of the post will be, of course, to encourage English and other speakers to learn more Asian languages, although I expect lots of disagreement from those who have already started learning an Asian language.

    Anyway, I disagree with some points, but really appreciate your encouraging tone and realistic pointers. I’ll definitely be going through your site to get the best practical tips I can for Hacking Chinese 😉

    1. Olle Linge says:


      Basically, this is what I like best: “Most people take my extremely adventurous goals to inspire them to aim for fluency in, say, 9 months, or basic conversational in 5 months or whatever, and that is indeed what I’m aiming to do: get people to push themselves harder.” I feel inspired by this much in the same way I feel inspired by Khatz. There are crazy people in the world and even I’m not that crazy, couldn’t I be at least half as crazy? That would be cool, too.

      About French, I spoke it at a somewhat lower level than you describe your goal to be for Mandarin in your post. I haven’t studied French for almost ten years, though, and that’s a problem. I probably couldn’t order a beer now (ok, that’s exaggerated, but you get the point). I can just say that what you say does not match my personal experience of learning Chinese. Guessing things in writing is relatively easy, but I still think it’s very hard when listening. I don’t think anyone can prove anyone else right or wrong here, though.

  2. Sara K. says:

    I think Benny Lewis might do better than you think … but I am assuming that he is going to be living and breathing Mandarin for 3 months (aside from the time he spends maintaining his blog). If he’s spending less than 12 hours a day exposing himself to Chinese in one form or another, I don’t think he is going to meet his goals.

    One think that is going to help him read the menu is that he is a vegetarian. As a vegan, I can attest to this. He can ignore much of the menu once that he has established that something is not vegetarian (and this can be often established without understanding many of the characters), and he has a strong motivation to pick up food-related characters quickly (I know that, as a beginner/intermediate, I picked up food-related characters faster than average characters).

    That said, I agree that reading menus is not easy, especially if you want to understand everything and not merely get by. To this day a lot of the unfamiliar vocabulary I encounter is food related (case in point: yesterday I created a new Anki card for the character 煨).

    I also think you are exaggerating the difficulty of learning new words by listening/exposure, but then, I *am* at an advanced level at listening/reading and I might be forgetting how difficult it used to be (unlike you, I do not spend a lot of time with people who speak Mandarin at a beginning/intermediate level).

    1. Olle Linge says:


      Of course he’s going to spend 18 hours a day, the problem is that there aren’t more than 24 hours each day. I think you should take the timeframe into consideration more than you do. I mean, I don’t think Chinese is extremely hard to learn, I’ve even written a post about that, but I didn’t write that post with three months in mind. I think he will come pretty far, but if I’m going to be specific, there are a few things I think will be very, very hard. Mainly, talking accurately, understanding nativevs (when they speak to each other, not to him) and reading. He will learn a lot, but whether he reaches his goal or not is mostly dependent on the definitions of “social”, “some mistakes”, “hold up” and “conversational fluency”.

      Having said that, I’m not going to comment on wether he will succeed or not. Talking about fluency in this way is almost meaningless. The important thing is that he’s trying and that he will be able to show people that they can learn a lot very quickly if they do it right. That’s good, provided that people don’t get frustrated and give up whet they realise that three months is probably not enough. So let’s turn more constructive, shall we? Do you have any other advice you think would help him? Personally, I think the tone recommendation I gave is crucial, but there might be other things I’ve forgotten.

    2. jimbo says:

      So here’s the thing. Benny has essentially rediscovered by himself what the Foreign Services Institute has said all along: European languages that are related to English are easiest to learn.
      I believe because he has had some success using his method he has under-estimated the effort required to learn the “harder” languages.
      That said. Benny’s method is much more efficient than the FSI’s old school method. They reckon it takes 500 hours to learn an easy language like french and 1,500 or so to learn a harder one. I think it is possible to achieve “fluency” in a level 1 language in 3 months using Benny’s method no problem if you put in about 3 hours per day of hard exposure to the language. That’s still about half the hours required according to the FSI’s old school method.

      Also I’m not sure that C1 is necessary to be “fluent”. High B1/low B2 will cut it in almost every situation unless being a “professional” or a university student in the target language in question is the goal.

      My gut feel is that it’s possible to get to B1 in an asian language spoken/listening in about 6-9 months by using Benny’s method. Reading and Writing are something else entirely.

  3. I agree that in the beginning listening is very hard, maybe the hardest part in learning Chinese. It becomes even harder when you listen to people who doesn’t have standard pronunciation. What’s the situation in Taiwan by the way, do they usually have fairly standard Mandarin?

    Many people that are planning to study Chinese ask me what they can accomplish in one year, they ask if it’s possible to be fluent in one year. It’s hard to answer because it depends on so much on that person’s motivation and how much time and effort he/she puts to her studies. Usually I reply that for a general student like me they can be somewhat conversational (in easy topics) after a year. What would you Olle answer if people ask you what they can achieve in a year?

    I think it’s interesting to follow Benny’s challenge and I hope to learn something from it.

  4. Harland says:

    Bah, the man is obviously a freak. I’m going to go out on a limb and say he has a photographic memory. Some people are just naturally gifted at learning languages. Some, such as me, are not, and have to struggle for every word. It’s strange that the gifted seem to think that everyone is like them, or can be like them with just enough work.

    1. Chris says:

      Wow! Harland, you should probably read a little about Benny’s background. He is in no way a “freak.” At age 21 he only spoke English, and he couldn’t speak German after studying it for several years. Your post is exactly the mindset he’s trying to discourage.

  5. Judith says:

    Chinese is definitely harder than French. What I find worst is that you cannot rely on translation nearly as often as you can when studying related languages. Chinese has the same words – which you’ll find in a dictionary – but they aren’t used in the same way. If you studied French, you know that they say “J’ai faim” (I have hunger) instead of “I’m hungry”. English has the word “hunger” but doesn’t use it in this situation. French has the word “hungry” but doesn’t use it in this situation. This is just a single expression though, and there are very few cases where you have to learn a different way of expressing something when you’re going from English to French. In Chinese, almost the entire language is like that. Dictionaries are almost counter-productive because you always find them using a noun where we’d use a verb (while the dictionary lists a verb which just isn’t used that way) or using a word with a completely different meaning – they don’t eat soup they drink it, they don’t go to work they mount it – all these differences in expression that have to be memorized, for every single thing you may want to say. In French at least, it’s reasonable to guess that the phrase “go to work” will feature the words “go”, “to” and “work”. When learning a language that’s related to yours, you save a lot of work by being able to rely on these expressions featuring the words you would expect. All bets are off when it comes to Chinese, Japanese or other unrelated languages.

    And I’m not whining – I like how it makes me re-think things. Why do we say “eat soup” and not “drink soup” anyway?! Just saying that it means more memorization, aka more work.

    1. Livonor says:

      I never had this problem with Japanese and I can’t imagine why it would take so much extra work, since we are all very smart learners we go through actual content instead of trying to memorize dictionary translations starting from a English word. So if there’s something different we we’ll know it.

      Fun fact: In japanese you don’t drink the soup, you suck it with your mouth. Now that’s eye opening.

      Learning things like that doesn’t require any separated study time or focus, once you know the words all it takes is exposure to see how they fit in “collocations”, but it takes a lot of time to pick up a impressive number of them because they are specific, so I think they are a true sign of mastery, go to any “newspaper level” learner and see if he can say things like “I’m picking up my nose”, “twist this into that”,”rub your hands”, “I sharpen my pencil with a knife” to see if he’s a real pro.

      But actually being aware of them and looking up the Chinese equivalent of a English expression every time you feel you wan’t to use it (this will happens a lot if you’re trying to think in Chinese) also helps. A essential tool are English>Chinese dictionaries made for 英学 they have the Chinese equivalent all expressions you use and much more.

      People usually don’t talk much about those things, because you don’t need them to become fluent and do work and adult stuff, and Chinese schools have a mentality that mix up fluency with literacy so would be cool if somebody (that’s you Olle) could write a post about it.

  6. @Judith
    Thanks to everybody who commented here, and of course thank you Olle Linge, and “crazy” amazing Benny that I have been following for almost one year. I love crazy people !
    Judith, I like what you wrote because I agree with you (and I do not know anything about Asian languages and still think they are more difficult languages, I might be wrong), because I think just like you : my main problem is to think, speak or write English like English peeple, not as “a French girl who translates from French to English”. You see ? ^^
    Have a nice sunday
    All the best

  7. Sara K. says:

    Well, he said that knowing how to read at a high level is *not* one of his goals. He says his goal is 1500 characters. I think learning how to read Chinese at a high level in 3 months is impossible, but learning 1500 characters, without being able to actually Chinese, in three months is possible, possibly even in the midst of a crash course in spoken Mandarin.

    That said, I agree that a) speaking accurately and b) understanding natives talking to each other will be his highest hurdles.

    Anyway, based on what little of what I’ve seen about Benny’s blog, I think that even if he lands on the moon instead of the stars, he will frame it in such a way that it won’t discourage the people who are actually motivated to study Chinese. And if people are not actually motivated to study Chinese, then they are not going to ever reach a high level in Chinese, period.

  8. Sara K. says:

    @Marjorie / Histoire à Vivre

    It depends a lot on which Asian language you are talking about and which level you wish to attain. For example, reaching a level that is high but less than fluent in Indonesian is easier than for many European languages, even for native speakers of European languages, but reaching fluency in Indonesian takes a very long time because the are many regional variants and many subtle ways to use the language (so I’ve read … I’ve only studied a little Indonesian, and it was mainly out of curiosity, so I can’t say much from my own experience). Some people even propose that Indonesian should be made a global lingua franca because it is considered one of the easiest major languages to learn for non-native speakers.

    I also know a few Westerners who learned how to speak Thai rather well and … how shall I put it … they do not strike me as the type of people who are extremely dedicated to foreign language study. They also said that the Thai language is not particularly hard.

    That said, I agree with Olle that Chinese is not actually hard – it just takes a lot of time.

  9. novato says:

    @Harland not really.. he’s got a product to sell, that’s all

  10. Chris says:

    As my gran used to say, “If something seems to good to be true, the it usually is”. It all just seems a bit of a sham to me. In my book meeting those goals doesn’t equate to fluency, but I suppose saying “fluency in 3 months” makes a good headline.

  11. Alan says:

    I think Judith is right – the difficulty of the goal depends on the languages that he already knows. The romance languages are all linked by Latin. For a Korean speaker who knows Japanese, learning Chinese is much easier than learning English. So I think if Benny doesn’t know any Asian languages, it will be hard.

    But in any case I think Benny’s goal is worth applauding. Also, I think that this kind of concentrated, high-intensity learning is by far the best way to learn. I’ve been learning Chinese for 10+ years but most of the learning has been in only a couple of those years.

  12. See, part of the problem is that Benny has redefined what C1 actually means.

    1500 characters is not C1 level. C1 level means you’re able to converse and read on an academic level, almost without any hesitation or pausing. From what I understand, it’s the IELTS (English) equivalent to a 7-8 which any migrant to English-speaking countries will tell you is extremely difficult and takes a long time with lots of study to achieve.

    Anyway, I wish him the best of luck. He’ll enjoy his time there, make friends, inspire people and become reasonably proficient in Mandarin I’m sure.

    1. Gus Mueller says:

      He also redefines fluency as not including any topic he wouldn’t want to talk about in English, so no politics or world events.

  13. JohnGuo says:


    I think 3 months is enough to learn many charaters even pronounce it well etc. But there will be one thing that will make the conversation test with natives very difficult. Its just that there is no standard chinese when it comes to speaking, people will tell you there is putonghua but thats just not true. Every person speaks differntly even when it comes to putonghua and its very difficult to understand the “mistakes” they make without a lot of experience. I dont even mention all the different dialects that can be heard in any small city. So he will have to make sure the “test group of natives” is choosen very well. My idea get the group from the people that do not know each other and are from different region, and are of different age, so they will try to speak as standard putonghua as possible. Good luck!

  14. vermillon says:

    @The Mezzofanti Guild: you’ve said it all. Polyglots’ forums are filled with people claiming their level in terms of that European reference framework and reinterpreting the descriptions. Everyone is B2 or C1 within a few months with that process.

  15. vermillon says:

    @JohnGuo: “standard” in most countries mean “TV News Broadcast-like”. Watch the news on the Chinese TV and the accent is quite the same. I also think we shouldn’t confuse “standard language” and “standard accent”.

  16. leosmith says:

    Mandarin takes 3-4 times as long to learn as French for a native english speaker, on a “level” playing field (doesn’t speak Cantonese already, for example). This is pretty well established, and my personal experience. Benny has blogged before that difficulty is not about time, so I really have no idea what he means by “difficulty”. But I’ll pretend he is talking about time, for arguments sake.

    The OP’s point about dissimilar vocabulary being one of the things that makes Mandarin harder is absolutely correct. I find Benny’s refusal to believe this very strange. And for the record, asian languages learners don’t underestimate european languages. We just know how much longer it takes to learn our languages.

    Underestimating european languages would be somewhat rude – like telling someone that their target language can be learned in just 3 months.

    1. Gus Mueller says:

      Yeah, that’s just crazy talk on Benny’s part. A lot of French words are just English words pronounced with a French accent because a lot of English words started out as French words. Same to a lesser degree with German. Not true at all of Chinese.

  17. Sara K. says:


    Why would underestimating European languages or telling someone their target language can be learned in 3 months be rude?

  18. Olle Linge says:


    It’s nice to see that everyone has opinions about this. I suppose you would discuss learning Chinese anyway, but I think one advantage with Benny’s quest is that it sparks discussions. Great!

    Personally, I must agree with what Judith and The Mezzofanti Guild has ponted above. In case you want more varied opinions, check out the thread on Chinese-Forums. I don’t approve of the tone in some of the replies (including Benny’s), but if you ignore that and read just the content, I think many comments are spot on. I especially like this post by imron in response to Benny’s first weekly update:

    It’s like you’re 200 metres in to running a marathon and you’re saying to everyone, “hey this is easy, I don’t know why everyone says running a marathon is hard”. Sure, the first 200 metres are easy, and each step is no more difficult than the previous one. The problem is, there’s still another 42 kilometers to go. The difficulty comes from the time, consistency and perseverence required to learn enough characters and words to be able to read, not because learning any one character is particularly hard.

  19. leosmith says:

    @Sara K

    Because it’s like saying learners who take longer than that are somehow deficient. Or to quote Benny’s site:
    [quote]I have a long road ahead of me, but I plan on sprinting that road rather than crawling backwards on my ass, which considering the fact that I’ve been assured it takes anything from five to ten years to reach a “useful” level of fluency in Chinese, I’m convinced is the way most people are tackling this issue. [/quote]

  20. Robert says:

    Well put. The truth is that it’s extremely easy to learn a bit of Chinese… enough to negotiate restaurants and taxis etc. But it’s the next step that’s really difficult. If someone’s speaking to him he’ll probably understand. But understanding normal speech between two people, no way in 3 months.

  21. gweipo says:

    My daughter started in a Chinese / English bilingual school in 2008, aged 7 (with barely any knowledge of Chinese), where Chinese was the medium of instruction for 70% of the day (about 27 hours per week). Term started in August and by December she pretty much understood everything said to her (granted, strong contextual understanding) and could read simple children’s books (think Dr. Seuss) and write simple sentences with aid of online dictionaries. She only had a tutor out of school for an hour a week.

    She was highly motivated and determined, and is naturally very talented in Chinese, and has the ability to remember a character after just one exposure to it. By May 2011 she wrote the HSK level 4 exam, which is intermediate level for adults with about 2-3 hours preparation in total and aced it. She may be an exception in how far she got in such a short period, but there were enough other kids in the school who also achieve a near native level in remarkably short periods of time.

    I’m assuming Benny Lewis will be spending far more time than my daughter in his endeavour, plus he’s already talented in languages and has a “meta cognition patterns” for putting it all together. I think the hardest bit for him would be reading at any kind of speed. But if he wants to just read menus rather than the newspaper, he’ll probably be OK.

    1. Olle Linge says:

      @Gweipo: That’s amazing! I wish I had started learning languages properly earlier (I’ve learnt both English and French without proper immersion when I was a kid, immersion in English came much later, in Frecnh not yet). However, I do think we’re talking about different things. I think Benny will also be able to understand most things said to him, perhaps even without strong contextual understanding. This is not the same as understanding multi-party conversations among natives who are not adapting their speech at all. Reaching HSK 4 after two semesters is really good, I think, but a C1 level, which Benny is talking about, is perhaps even beyond the HSK system alltogether (there are quite a number of debates on how to relate HSK levels to the European Framework levels, but I think most agree that the official definitons don’t make sense).

      So, in no way do I want to to say that either Benny or your daught aren’t good learners who can learn Chinese much faster than I did. This is obviously the case and I will never try to dsipute that. However, reaching C1 in three months is a different beast altogether, even disregarding writing and reading (which he doesn’t) is still impossible.

  22. Layinka says:

    Thank you!

    I just landed on this debate through your Twitter post. I must say I do not know anything about Mr. Benny Lewis, but his claims to fluency in 3 months for languages close to his mother tongue, I feel is possible.

    Now he has ventured to the East and I am somewhat pessimistic about what he is ‘offering’ to us ‘language learners’ that are learning using traditional resources in our native lands. It sounds like a ‘lose 15 kilos in three months’ advert… However, I am optimistic about the new methods he will discover and come up with to learn Mandarin. I also believe he won’t reach whatever level he wanted to reach on the European Common something something. But I feel he will be fluent in Chinese in certain contexts. So all I can say is welcome to Asia.

    As for me, I want to learn Chinese 4 life 🙂 after the three months I’d like to make it a part of my life.


    xx Layinka

  23. Chris says:

    In your article you say: “When learning French or English, it’s possible for me to simply map a word in Swedish to a word in French or English, but this is impossible in Chinese. There are many different ways of expressing the a single word in English (and many different English words for one Chinese word; it goes both ways). This is true in any language, but is a major hurdle when learning to speak Chinese properly.”

    It seems that the symantic maps of Western European languages are largely aligned, perhaps through mutual contact and not just through close ancestry. Because of much more distant ancestry and near zero communication before modern times, I wonder if the symantic maps of Chinese vs English are not entirely different.

    I would like to see this symantic map alignment issue wrestled with further. Anyone have some ideas? Know of any article that expands on this idea?


  24. guest says:

    The problem with this overenthusiastic, everything is equally hard attitude is that it is NOT true. For example, let’s say that you are studying for a B.A in subject A. Its a subject that the party animals major in because they don’t want to study. You complain and say that your major is as hard as somebody doing a Mechanical Engineering major at the same institution.

    Some people that just have a bachelors in an “easy” major (we all know that some require less work, in general), say that their major is equivalent to a doctoral degree. That’s absolutely false. Some things are much harder than others.

    To state repeatedly that all languages are of equal difficulty is to have a naive, overly optimistic view of the world. Its probably due to the recent phenomenom where everybody says that we are all equal in intelligence, capablities and aptitudes.

    For example, my best sport is running. I haven’t really run competitively for years but am still several minutes faster in a 5K race than my friend that has trained hard for years and years. Likewise, I know people that just started doing a sport and within a year they get a scholarship in college to play the sport. We are not equal in terms of ability, not all languages are as easy, and some people are more skilled at some subjects than others.

    The only good thing I see about this Benny character is that he is enthusiastic and encourages people to talk and not speak your native language in another country. That’s it. Everything else is a bunch of false propaganda that for some reason, he insists on expousing.

    1. Olle Linge says:

      Although I think it’s not necessarily relevant to compare with sports or other activities, I do in general agree with what you say. The biggest issue for me is that I see no reason why languages should be equally difficult for every individual. Why should they? I’m Swedish and can with some effort understand spoken Norwegian and Danish without ever having studied these languages. I can’t understand spoken German, but can understand quite a lot of written German. Now, why should learning these languages be equally hard for me as learning, say, Chinese or Korean? I don’t know. I simply see no reason why they should.

  25. Ben says:

    “This is wrong because I am already understanding some Chinese based on CONTEXT and understanding one word in a sentence and extrapolating the rest, despite lack of vocabulary.”

    How can this Benny guy claim anything is wrong? What are his credentials and academic qualifications again? Right, so he is a blogger who hasn’t even provided any proof that he speaks any of his apparent languages except a single scripted video of him showing his apartment.

    Is this what the Internet has come to, where any idiot can claim to be an expert and charge $100 for an ebook on language hacking. Yikes.

    Benny Lewis is a scam artist.

    1. guest says:

      My strongest foreign language (only one!) is Spanish and I listened to Benny Lewis’s radio interview with a Spanish guy. His accent is very good and he speaks gramatically correct. However, I think I saw a slight mistake in one of his videos concerning preterite and imperfect. I would classify him as a C1 in Spanish; and yes I know that he passed the C2 test but it’s a lot of multiple choice and you can get lucky with guessing on those tests. He didn’t show very broad vocabulary but maybe he does know a lot of words.

      I was abroad for about the same time as Benny in Spanish speaking countries but majored in the language in college and it was my LIFE during all of college. Even so, I didn’t know words like “monaguillo” (altar boy), “injerto” (tissue graft), “esgrima” (fencing), and “mayordomo” (butler). If you don’t know a lot of words, you have to “describe them” and it’s kind of inefficient talking like that. The more you learn about a subject, the more you realize that you DON’T know! I think the best speakers and language learners are those that are humble and say that it takes years to become fluent in a language.

  26. guest says:

    Oh, and I forgot to add. While abroad I spoke EXCLUSIVELY in Spanish. Thus, if Benny and other “polygloats” say that they can learn a language much better than other people that have spent the same amount of time abroad AND also stopped speaking English while abroad, he’s indirectly calling them deficient or dumb.

    History of success is a good predictor of future success. Benny was abroad in Spain for like six months and he said that he isolated himself in English. He also had very poor marks in grammar for Spanish tests. Now, Spanish is a relatively easy language for native English speakers. How likely is it that somebody that had great trouble with a less challenging language suddenly turns into a language savant that can master very different tongues like Chinese? Not likely, not likely.

    1. Olle Linge says:

      I mostly agree with what you say, but it should be added that what people define as fluent varies quite a lot. Since Benny specified C1, I think it’s quite easy to say that it’s impossible. I think many people who seem to speak fluently (in any language) would fail C1 or C2 tests. Learning to Chinese to C1 takes a long time, learning it to C2 many, many years, even if you immerse in it and do nothing else. In fact, I think very few foreigners ever reach C2 in Chinese (I haven’t yet, I think I’m at C1, roughly). This is not because all language learners are stupid, it’s because it’s really hard to achieve. Chinese is different, the logic behind the sentences is different, the culture is different. This adds to the difficulty, saying that it doesn’t is just ignorant, in my opinion.

  27. Nate says:

    Benny Lewis… you will fail. I’ve been studying Chinese for 5 years and have been living in China for the past 6 months. I don’t care how good you are with languages or at guessing meaning based on context. Three months is not enough to reach a conversational level in Chinese! You will be able to talk about your yourself, your family, your hobbies, the weather, whether you like something or not etc. You will do all this with a TERRIBLE ACCENT and will screw up tones horribly without realizing you’ve done so. You’ll be able to hang out with Chinese people and enjoy yourself, but they will have to dumb down their conversation A LOT in order to include you. According to the US gov. it takes English speakers, an average of 3x longer to reach a conversational level in Chinese than in French, Italian or Spanish (which are all the same language from my perspective). You are ignorant about the challenges of Chinese man. I wish you luck, but you will fail. I hope it doesn’t break your soul when you realize you’ve bitten off much much more than you can chew.

    1. Nate says:

      Also… just don’t even mention “fluency in 3 months”, alright? “Fluent” means you use the language just like a native speaker, and nearly as well as your mother toungue. “Fluent” means you can read a newspaper and write an essay without the use of a dictionary. “Fluent” means you never ever translate back to your mother toungue. This Benny guy is a bunch of balogna and I can’t wait til he fails. Benny Lewis, when 3 months is up, or a year for that matter.. post a video of an unscripted conversation in Chinese so we can all laugh at your arrogance and ignorance.

  28. tom says:

    So did he become fluent? I didn’t learn my first word of Chinese until arriving at the airport in Shanghai for a month long Chinese program with UCLA. and I left hardly with about 300 words. I lived in china 2 years afterwards. I think I totally could have become fluent with more dedication. I’m wondering what sort of drill methods he used and how he stayed dedicated/didn’t put himself to sleep.

    1. josh says:

      Most advanced Chinese students rated him as an A2. His rating from the Chinese school gave him a B1, but I trust the many people that gave him an A2 over that one school.

  29. Michael Bolger says:

    For 3 months, his ability is impressive, but he failed to achieve his goals. While he does speak without too much stopping, the girl he speaks to is slowing down considerably, and simplifying her speech a bit.

    His chinese is about the level that I was at after 2 years of classroom learning (5 hours a week), before I went to China, so it is certainly impressive, but not fluent. He defines fluency in a slightly different way to most language students- he refers to it just as ‘speaking without pausing’, whereas to most language students the word implies a high degree of proficiency, even native-like,

    tl;dr: What this experiment shows is that you can learn basic mandarin in 3 months if you go to china/taiwan and practise intensively, but you can’t obtain a high level in that short a time

  30. Livonor says:

    Actually Chinese is French, at least for me, but without the dumb grammar. Many Japanese speakers like to see the cup half empty and complain about how distant the languages are, but in my opinion the resemblances are way bigger than the differences.

    I think it would be possible to reach a good fluency in Chinese in 3 or 4 months, one that doesn’t not evolve using ridiculous circulations that a native would never use. language is a game of numbers, you play with the big ones and the results come. I did this only once, learning about 300 words in a day, 300 on the next, 400 on the next and 1000 on the last one, it was all “newspaper” vocab so I became pretty good at reading news and other boring stuff.

    I also think this talk about Chinese taking 3x or 4x more time than a European language misleading, since it totally ignores what ones is actually doing to learn it, I learned my one faster those my pairs learning English and other supposedly easy languages.

    It’s funny how difficult is related to time by some people, how it can require any perseverance? Learning Chinese is like playing Assasin’s Creed on your Xbox, it’s better to do it than to not do it, things aren’t like that just if they feel like work, something that you’re trying to “get done”. Running a marathon takes time, but only feels difficult of you starting running already thinking about the finishing line.

  31. Jack says:

    I get annoyed when people say you can become “fluent” in a language in X months — or even years. “Fluent” does not mean you can hold a (very) basic conversation up for 10 minutes. “Fluent” means you are able to function nearly as well as a native speaker. And there is no way for an adult to achieve that in a matter of months or even a few years, esp. in Chinese.

    I’ve studied 4 languages and have an excellent memory. I lived in China for 5 years and have been married to a native Chinese speaker for a decade. We speak Chinese 60% of the time. I’ve done translation work, etc. I’ve worked in purely Chinese environments, etc. I can do simultaneous interpreting at a decent level in professional settings. My Chinese is quite good. Am I “fluent?” I’d say no.

    Think of your own language. I know people who’ve lived in English environments for decades who are not fluent in English, some of them are professors OF ENGLISH. Ok, I’m starting to rant, but I think the word “fluency” has gotten so dumbed-down and degraded that it is laughable. People vastly overestimate their own level of competency in foreign languages.

    Fluency does not mean you can hold a conversation with a waiter or buy shoes. It doesn’t even mean you can pass a job interview in that language. It means I select a random movie or TV show and you understand 97% of it. Most people who claim that ability in a foreign language are full of shit, in my experience. There is way too much slang, idioms, cultural references, accents, etc. that can trip you up. And that is just pure listening ability.

  32. jay cutler says:

    HI ! Canadian guy living in Japan here.

    I met Benny in a bar while he was in Japan. He was not able to talk Japanese at all. He could not even speak French, which is my mother’s tongue. The guy is a complete fraud. I guess he reads a script in his videos.

    And also, he was the most akward guy I ever met in my life. EVERY Japanese in the bar were making fun of him.

  33. Mark says:

    Jack and Jay, thanks for providing the voices of reason. I have lived in Japan for over ten years, and I speak Japanese with my other half at least 70 percent of the time. No problems communicating at all, and I rarely have to think what I want to say unless it is on a very difficult subject.

    How would I rate myself? If 1 is a beginner with no knowledge and 10 is an educated native speaker, I’m maybe a 4 or 5 on a good day. A high school student can speak, read and write Japanese far better than I can. FOR A FOREIGNER I’m not bad, although there are foreigners in Japan who are significantly better than I am.

    Guys like this Benny Lewis joke (and Tim Ferriss with his whole “you can learn any skill in 6 months” BS) are, unfortunately, symptomatic of the modern malaise of wanting everything but not wanting to put in the effort to get it.

    Oh well, there’s one born every minute…

  34. tmark says:

    Where there is a will, there is a way.
    I know what this means. Benny Lewis knows what this means. If you only look for “errors” in Benny’s words, then you don’t fully appreciate the meaning of these words.

    I started to learn ballroom dancing 7 years ago. It took me five years to work out who I should listen to and who I should ignore. While I am not up to competition level, I am now a competent and confident ballroom dancer. Recently I have been applying the lessons that I learnt from ballroom dancing to language learning.

    I have been spasmodically learning Mandarin for 22 months now. Some of the materials that I have used have been good and some have been very poor. I am a retired teacher who understands how real learning works. I also understand that educational institutions do not always work in the student’s interest.

    If I could go back in time and communicate with the “me” of 22 months ago I would advise him to listen carefully to Benny Lewis and Olle Linge and take on board any of their advice that complements his particular learning style.

    I am doing that now. Consequently, my language learning is progressing at a much faster rate.

  35. Mr D Felch says:

    No, you cannot. Next question?

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