Speak fluent Chinese, topic by topic

There is a joke about “speaking fluent Chinese”:

A person went to a souvenir stall in a market, grabbed a piece and asked a salesperson: “多少钱?”

The salesperson answered: “30 .”

This person paid and left. 

Based on this experience, this person added one line to the CV: Speak fluent Chinese.

Hahaha…

The cool part of this joke is that, technically speaking, this person did not lie in the CV. Under that particular context, shopping for a souvenir, this person knew what question to ask, and asked the question in a clear and fluent manner. The other person understood the question perfectly and provided the necessary information. This person listened and understood this important information, and acted on the information. That is what “speaking fluent Chinese” is about. 

Yet this is indeed a joke. The punchline tells us that this person perhaps greatly over generalised his speaking capabilities. To an average person with common sense, “speaking fluent Chinese” means the ability to use Chinese in all sorts of situations, such as, chatting about the latest movies, discussing weekend plans, talking about work benefits, complaining about life, or giving hints about what you want for your birthday. Using Chinese to make a purchase is pretty cool, but hardly speaks for all other different situations. Therefore, for common folks, that one line, “speak fluent Chinese” is misleading at the best, lying at the worst. 

However, this joke perfectly demonstrates what “speaking fluent Chinese” is, and what it takes to become a person who can speak fluent Chinese. 

“Speaking fluent Chinese” means the ability of conducting smooth conversations in Chinese under a particular situation about a particular topic. Practicing speaking Chinese topic by topic is what it takes to become a person who can speak fluent Chinese.

Speaking fluent Chinese topic by topic

Chinese textbooks for second language learners are usually segmented by themes, such as my Mandarin Express series. Lessons are divided according to the topics, such as food, clothes, travelling, and etc.

From practice speaking point of view, this makes sense. 

Going through chapter by chapter, students have the opportunities to practice conversing around many different topics. And topic by topic, students gradually develop their overall Chinese speaking ability. 

Some big topics can be further divided into sub-topics. For example, food. 

The first sub-topic is a basic grocery list, such as, grapes, fish, and beer. Students practice purchasing food in a market.

The next sub-topic is popular Chinese dishes, such as dumplings, Kungpao Chicken, and etc. Students practice ordering food in a restaurant. 

The next sub-topic is tastes and ingredients, such as sweet, bitter, sour, and etc. Students practice describing food.

The next sub-topic is cooking methods. Students practice describing how to prepare a dish. 

These sub-topics are scattered across different levels. When students encounter a new, yet familiar topic, they have a chance to review and to add to what they’ve learned before.

Therefore, it is possible that students are fluent in ordering food in a restaurant. But, as they’ve not studied ingredients and tastes, they can not discuss their favourite food in details, or tell people how to cook it.

The goal of learning is to cover as many topics as possible, until students achieve desired fluency in general.

“Learn Chinese in three months” gimmick

I’ve seen so many advertisements, claiming that someone can learn Chinese in three months. Those facilities who put out advertisements like that all promise that students can speak fluent Chinese after using their cutting edge apps, AI powered program, or some other awesome programs.

If we use the earlier shopping for souvenir joke as the benchmark, it is entirely possible that, in three months, students become fluent in a few topics. Perhaps, students can do some self-introduction, learn how to ask telephone numbers, and etc.

However, if we understand “speak fluent Chinese” as what regular people would under normal circumstances, learning Chinese for three months will not make anyone speak fluent Chinese. Advertisements like that become false advertisements.

Actionable mini tasks that lead to success

Speaking fluent Chinese is a big project. The best way to handle a big project is to divide it into many smaller ones, as the saying goes, “If a big project is divided by 365, it’s no longer a big project”. 

Practice speaking Chinese topic by topic is the first layer of dividing this big project. 

When the focus is only on one topic, or a sub-topic, this smaller project can be further divided into many mini tasks, such as the following:

  • Learn new words and structures. Let your brain meet new codes for meanings, including sounds and symbols.
  • Listen. Train your brain to react quickly to the newly encountered sounds.
  • Repeat. Train your mouth and face muscles to produce clear sounds.
  • Simulate. Speaking Chinese with your teacher or a language partner in a secure environment.
  • Review. Consolidate learnings and develop overall understandings.
  • Real speaking. Speaking Chinese with people in the real world.

Depending on learning styles, other mini tasks can be added, such as writing, reading, copying, and so on. 

Each mini task requires some small efforts. Don’t underestimate small efforts. When a small effort is multiplied by 365, it becomes a huge effort.

Actual speaking time matters

In the list of mini tasks, two of them involve actual speaking. One is to speak with someone who students trust, and the other is to speak with someone, anyone, in the real world.

This actual speaking time is really crucial.

I’ve heard many Chinese language learners said that they are not good at speaking Chinese, despite the fact that they’ve been learning Chinese for quite a long time. They are better at Chinese reading and writing. Many of them said that they can read Chinese novels, but shy away from speaking opportunities. 

Indeed, it is easier to achieve Chinese reading fluency than Chinese speaking fluency.

When students are doing actual speaking, their brains are busy to decode the sound information in real time, their mouths and faces are busy to produce intelligible sounds, their eyes constantly look for clues on whether or not the other person understands. So much brain and muscle work are involved in exchanging a simple sentence. And everything is happening at the same time.

But when students are working on improving reading and writing, they are in total control. They can decide what texts to work on, how long they will work on them, and what tools to use. They don’t need to wait for someone else’s signals or inputs.

Therefore, for students who want to achieve Chinese speaking fluency, make sure ample time is allocated for actual speaking. This is especially important for students who do self-study. 

It is critical to speak, to have genuine conversations. Also, speaking with someone students trust precedes speaking with someone in the real world. 

When speaking with a teacher or a language partner, mistakes are expected, languages are more targeted, speaking speed can be adjusted, vocabularies are consciously limited, and repetitions can be requested. These are all important and favourite training conditions. Once students become confident in this safe environment, they can go out and speak with anyone in the real world where they must stay super alert to catch all the flow of information. It is definitely more tiring but also unquestionably more rewarding. 

Task by task, topic by topic, students will be able to declare that they speak fluent Chinese, for real.


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April Zhang
Chinese Teacher
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