Newsweek Article on Learning Mandarin

Newsweek recently posted an article entitled “The Mandarin Scam: So you want to learn Chinese? Your best bet is to say at home.

The author takes issue with the quality of Mandarin language instruction, and the teaching methods used, in China. He concludes that a student of Mandarin Chinese would be better off using online options or staying home and learning.

While I don’t doubt that there are problems with the way Mandarin is taught in China (students who study Mandarin in Taiwan have their fair share of complaints), there is one thing I am sure of: It is ABSOLUTELY IMPOSSIBLE to learn to speak Mandarin fluently if you never live in China or Taiwan.

I suppose there might be a rare exception–someone who moves to an enclave of Chinese speakers abroad and learns to speak Mandarin that way, but for most, they will never achieve fluency until they live abroad in Taiwan or China and speak Mandarin all day, every day, for six months to a year.



Filed under Chinese Language Instruction, Language, The Learning Chinese Craze

10 responses to “Newsweek Article on Learning Mandarin

  1. Kelly

    I agree. Even if you learn Mandarin in a native-speaking environment, I’ve noticed that it’s very easy to forget much of what you’ve learnt once you’re outside of the Sinosphere.

    I lived in China and Taiwan for a total of 2 years but now that I’m living in Europe again, I find it extremely difficult to maintain my fluency in Mandarin. Listening to online radio, watching Chinese movies and reading as much Chinese-language material as possible can help but I think a native-speaking environment is a far better way to maintain and improve your speaking and listening skills.

  2. I posted about this too and totally agree with you. The article was very one sided and only criticised the teaching methods of one or two schools.

    I’m sure there are lots of fine language schools in China as long as you’re critical. And the immersion in Mandarin is invaluable of course.

  3. Kevin

    Taking classes is not what makes a fluent chinese speaker. I studied mandarin and teaching chinese as a second language (at what claimed to be the best undergraduate program) in the PRC, and I wouldn’t say their methods are the most advanced. You can also see how some people learn huge amounts in a year or two, while others in the same class fail to do so; it’s what’s going on outside the classroom that counts. Yagosingapore is right that the immersion is invaluable–but you have to work at getting the immersive environment, even once you’re in a chinese-speaking area.

  4. Zima

    Sorry but I totally disagree here.

    Just surf this website as I did, this guy learned Japanese by staying home and creating himself a 100% Japanese-speaking environment, and he reached fluency after 18 months :

    He describes his methodology in details, with a nice sens of humour, a real pleasure to read, and very motivating.

    So don’t believe what’s said here, and if like me, your current situation doesn’t enable you to move to Taiwan or China, well … That’s the only option you have, so why not give it a shot ?

    Just my 0.14 RMB 😉

    • truettblack


      Thank you for your comment. I think you may have missed this part of my post:

      “I suppose there might be a rare exception–someone who moves to an enclave of Chinese speakers abroad and learns to speak Mandarin that way, but for most, they will never achieve fluency until they live abroad in Taiwan or China and speak Mandarin all day, every day, for six months to a year.”

      What you have cited here is a very rare exception, and someone who is studying Japanese, not Mandarin. I too applaud his efforts. He is a very, very rare breed of person.

      If you browse around my site, perhaps you’ll see that on my site there is plenty of content about learning Mandarin that is intended to be helpful and even motivating. I am trying to help people who are thinking of learning Mandarin to understand the effort involved in getting fluent, not discourage people from studying it.

      I have met hundreds of non-native speakers who have learned Mandarin fluently, and only one of them was able to do it with a significant period of time spent abroad. He did it by heavily involving himself in his local Chinese community, and is married to a native speaker of Mandarin.

      If you’re unable to move to China or Taiwan, you may try visiting for a few weeks or a month at a time as you go through your learning process. I’ve met a few people who have been able to get fluent by doing that.

      • Zima

        Hi again !

        Well, I agree on the last part of your reply to my comment : I have been to China twice, and the last time, after only 3 weeks I could really feel the difference, at least for basic discussions, like in shops, taxis etc. BUT : when you get back to your country, if you don’t spend at least some time on your Chinese on a daily basis … Well, you start to lose VERY quickly. After one month I couldn’t really recall what I had been discussing with my Chinese teacher, and was pretty ashamed about this. So that’s why, for me at least, staying home and study Chinese INTENSIVELY, like at least 10 hours a day, for at least 6 months, will be my best shot. My significant other has a very good job over here, and doesn’t want to move to China, so I guess I don’t have any other choice. Oh I forgot to mention that my goals are NOT as high as Khatsumoto’s : I only need to acquire a “working knowledge” of Chinese, plus eventually master a few hanzi, you know, just to be able to read the signs and shops’ names on the street.

        Sorry if you felt I judged you quickly, I probably did and you’re right I haven’t really read your website thoroughly … But I will ! I just wanted to point out that this Khatsumoto guy and you apparently disagree, because he says he’s NOT AT ALL “special”, he clearly states that with perseverance, and a meticulous methodology, ANYONE can learn to be fluent in a certain language pretty fast. That’s exactly what happened for me with the English language : my mother tongue is French, and my English is not better today than it was many years ago, I acquired English very quickly because, at a certain time in my life, I was only watching movies, reading news and watching TV in English … So I guess it “might” be the same with Chinese … But you need the environment Khatsumoto describes to achieve that, and … Well, not everybody can ! I happen to have an opportunity like this on the very short run, so why not give it a try instead of staying home and play videogames huh ? 😉

        On a final note : I happen to have studied Japanese for (only) 10 weeks but pretty intensively, just before flying to Japan for a 2-weeks vacation … Just for fun. I can say without any hesitation that Japanese IS DEFINITELY easier to learn compared to Chinese … This is a personal experiment, but I think that I could learn Japanese to fluency level like twice as fast as I will do for Chinese, at least for the spoken part, but … My next professional life will definitely involve Chinese and not Japanese … I’m cursed ! Hanzi, here I come !


  5. Generally speaking, I would say you have a point, only that I have several friends who’ve never paid more than the briefest visit to China, some who have never been to a formal Mandarin language class in their lives, but who all speak pretty fluent Mandarin. Some also read and even write. I made most of my linguistic progress on my first year of intensive study in Taiwan, but there are plenty who’ve never had that chance.

    It’s a matter of method, dedication and usage. These guys succeeded as they were highly motivated, worked hard at it and practiced a lot both with other learners and with the Chinese people they knew and were spending time teaching (teaching the Bible with Mandarin as the medium). There are just too many of them (we’re talking into the dozens, mostly Brits, also several Germans and a number of Italian etc – and I know there are more of them out there) of my own *personal* acquaintance who prove the claim that it’s impossible to do it outside Greater China to be wrong.

    • truettblack

      I appreciate opposing views that are delivered with such grace. Thank you.

      My point, which is perhaps overstated in this post, is that it is very difficult to get to a high level of fluency in spoken Mandarin without living in greater China. In other posts, I acknowledge that some people are able to do it, but most spend a lot of time among overseas Chinese groups, where they can find people to practice with.

      I agree about the motivation part. It’s more important than anything else.

  6. Reinier

    As someone who has been studying Mandarin for the past three months, it’s become a habit of mine to spend at least an hour a day, maybe two, to studying Mandarin. On weekends I generally spend four hours a day now, and that’s where all my free time is going (I have very little as it is, as an accountant working through tax season right up to April).

    Going at this rate, I plan to pass the HSK Advanced next year, is that a realistic goal? And do you think that passing this exam constitutes fluency as you define it? In any case, I’m pretty good at taking exams, but as I found out, not that good at foreign languages. Or maybe it’s just because Mandarin is so hard to understand.

    I don’t plan on moving to the PRC or Taiwan since both are impossible at the moment. I have one native speaking friend and a lot of other ethnic Chinese friends who know some Mandarin. I live in Southeast Asia (the Philippines), so Taiwan is just a long swim away, but I don’t think aside from a week long visit that I’ll be doing much visiting.

    • truettblack


      I don’t know much about the HSK advanced, so I can’t answer your first question.

      As for fluency, I’ve defined it in other articles as the ability to speak or read without constantly stopping to think of the right word. You may not be as quick or have the vocabulary of a native speaker, but you can express most any idea without hesitation, and you can read and get the gist very clearly, even if you miss a nuance here and there. This is what I call functional fluency–you could compete with a Chinese person for a job, as long as the job wasn’t teaching Chinese literature in China to Chinese students.

      Best of luck to you. Get to Taiwan as soon and as often as you can. It’s cheap to stay here if you don’t mind hostels or cut-rate hotels, food is cheap and tasty, and the people are the friendlies you’ll find in East Asia (unless they are driving a car).



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