The Blog and its Author

The Lingua Franca is a cross-cultural communications site devoted to helping people in the English-speaking, Western world understand the business, culture and communications of Greater China.

Feb 2012 Update: I haven’t posted for a long time because I’m busy and I’m no longer inspired to make writing blog posts a high priority. However, I still check on comments every week or so, so feel free to post one. This is a polite blog that appreciates intelligent commentary. If I don’t publish your comment, it isn’t because you disagreed with me.

33 responses to “The Blog and its Author

  1. Ross

    Hello, I’m a high school student and i will be studying abroad in Taiwan from August 2008- June 2009. I’ve been studying French and Spanish and have achieved proficient speaking and comprehension of both languages in the last few years. I’ve had a recent interest in Mandarin and and now worried I will be unable to become fluent during the year i live there. I have a good lingual work ethic and plan to study the language more than anything else while im there. Will 10 months be enough for fluency?

  2. truettblack


    You must have read my post on how difficult it is to learn Mandarin and think that I mean that people can’t make any progress unless they spend years at the task. That’s not what I mean. Here’s the thing–most people don’t work very hard on language study. Either that, or they don’t really understand what it takes to learn a language well (i.e. total dedication, unending curiosity, iron will).

    Mandarin is a really tough language for Westerners, but that doesn’t scare everyone. Ask yourself this question: “Does knowing that Mandarin is really tough to learn, nothing at all like learning French or Spanish, scare me or make me even more excited to learn it?” If the answer is the latter, then you have a good chance of getting conversationally fluent in spoken Mandarin in ten months. So much of learning Mandarin is your level of motivation (e.g. I filled six pocket notebooks full of vocabulary in my first year of study–how’s that for hypermotivated? That’s also a challenge).

    You have the advantages of being young, motivated, and willing to really focus your energy on language study. At 19, when I first learned Mandarin, I made it my mission in life to do so, and I was doing simultaneous interpretation of church meetings at the one year mark.

    Go forth and conquer, young man! You’re more than welcome to join the club, and let Uncle True know how he can help you along the way.

  3. Hello, I’m interested in learning to speak (write?) Mandarin as the basis for a career

    I feel I am willing to completely submerse myself in the process, but I simply have no idea where to begin.

    Before entering any sort of of abroad study immersion program, I would insist on getting my feet wet with the language to some degree, here in the U.S. (I’d have to prove myself that learning Mandarin is something I’m willing to follow through with before making such a life investment)

    How would I go about doing that? My location is Northeast Ohio if that means anything to you. I mean, if there was a full-time mandarin instructing service nearby I’d save up to join. Maybe there is (haha), I wouldn’t know where to find it anyway.

    Also, are those computer software “learn it yourself” programs of any worth to someone seeking true fluency? I would figure only as a compliment to formal training. Do Mandarin tutors exist in the U.S., let alone my area?

    I figure you can’t just show me where to sign-up, perhaps you know of outlets that I could look into.

    P.S. Long term curiosity…how much of a financial undertaking is it to study this language for 6-12 months in Taiwan etc. Are these immersion programs something anyone can just sign up for or would their be prerequisite factors?

    Thank you very much for your time,


  4. truettblack

    Hi Randy,

    Did you read the two pieces I have posted on this site about learning Mandarin?

    You are smart to give learning Mandarin a test run. Many people assume that because they want to learn Mandarin, they’ll have an aptitude for it, only to find out that they aren’t up to the challenge. If I were you, I’d take a beginner course at a local college. Are there community colleges in your area offering classes? If not, you can probably find a class somewhere in the community with a private company, or even online. Once you have a sense of how difficult it is to learn Mandarin, take stock of your response to this fact. If you feel that you enjoy learning it, and you have some aptitude for it, then learning Mandarin is probably a viable career move for you. However, realize that for many learners, Mandarin proves to be too difficult to learn well, and many give up halfway through.

    Also, you say you want to base your career on Mandarin skills. That means you are going to spend your career dealing with Chinese people. But how much experience do you have with Chinese cultural environments? My advice is to plan a trip to China or Taiwan, give yourself a few weeks to really explore and get a feel for the environment. you’ll then be able to make an educated decision. A lot of people love Italian culture, but can’t stand to be in France. Others thoroughly enjoy Japan, but hate Korea. You see my point. Make sure you actually like these people and their culture before you devote your life to operating in that environment. Some folks just don’t find a good fit with Chinese culture. It is a completely different world from what you’re used to, but you won’t really understand that until you live in that world.

    There are Mandarin tutors in most places. Google is your friend. Also, you might try registering an account on and posting the same questions in the Learning Chinese forum. There are a number of experts who will happy to provide you with their insights on your questions. My own opinions on the best way to learn Mandarin are written clearly in the posts I gave you links to. In short, I’m not a big fan of long-term coursework, unless you want to become a literature or translation expert. If you have to rely on teachers to motivate you after you’ve studied for six months or a year, you’re sunk anyway.

    If I can help you further, feel free to e-mail me at truettblack at yahoo dot com.

  5. S

    Hi, can you recommend schools for learning Mandarin? Preferably in Taipei or surrounding areas…

  6. Frank Collins

    I stumbled across your blog and really like what you have to say. I have been studying Mandarin for about 20 mos now. I made the decision in the beginning to just concentrate on “spoken Mandarin” and not try to learn how to write at the same time…I felt that trying to do BOTH..starting from ZERO…would be too difficult…
    I started out with Pimsleur levels 1-3 – all 90 lessons – and reviewed them 3 times…
    next found Foreign Service
    Institute (American) Mandarin and havedone/reviewed that course (a ton of material) at least 3-4 times…I
    am all over Chinesepod every day.. and I have a teacher that I go to once a week for an hour and a half…with all that – and not missing 1 day since I started…studying anywhere from 1-3 hrs daily…
    I have come a looooong way….but I am still FAR from fluent…I forget alot and must constantly “duo lianxi” (practice more)…but it has been a great learning experience…it DOES teach humility…but as you learn more your confidence grows…Chinese people LOVE when you engage them in their language and tell them how must respect you have FOR THEM because they learned English…and the average American is usually stunned and impressed that you can even speak a word of Chinese…let alone have a conversation.
    For what it is worth – I am 44..started when I was 42 and it is my 1st foreign language.

    “Zai jian” and zhu ni hao yunqi

    • truettblack

      Thanks for your kind words and for sharing your experience, Frank. Do you live among Chinese speaking people or not? If you don’t, you probably won’t turn the corner to fluency until you can put yourself in an environment where your only option, if you want to communicate on a deeper level, is to speak Mandarin.

      Once you’re conversationally fluent, try working through the elementary textbooks, grades 1 through 6, that students in Taiwan or China go through. Then, take on some translation jobs, possibly as a volunteer at first. You’ll soon be able to read Chinese well enough to get through a newspaper.

      Best of luck to you.

  7. Hi,I stumbled across your blog and really like what you have to say. I have been studying Mandarin for about 20 mos now. I made the decision in the beginning to just concentrate on “spoken Mandarin” and not try to learn how to write at the same time…I felt that trying to do BOTH..starting from ZERO…would be too difficult…I started out with Pimsleur levels 1-3 – all 90 lessons – and reviewed them 3 times…next found Foreign Service Institute (American) Mandarin and havedone/reviewed that course (a ton of material) at least 3-4 times…Iam all over Chinesepod every day.. and I have a teacher that I go to once a week for an hour and a half…with all that – and not missing 1 day since I started…studying anywhere from 1-3 hrs daily…I have come a looooong way….but I am still FAR from fluent…I forget alot and must constantly “duo lianxi” (practice more)…but it has been a great learning experience…it DOES teach humility…but as you learn more your confidence grows…Chinese people LOVE when you engage them in their language and tell them how must respect you have FOR THEM because they learned English…and the average American is usually stunned and impressed that you can even speak a word of Chinese…let alone have a conversation.For what it is worth – I am 44..started when I was 42 and it is my 1st foreign language.

  8. Ola

    Hello. I was impressed by your topics and experience you have gained, so I am wondering – did the love to the china and chinese come during your study or you felt an inclinations towards it before? It does bother me because I am finishing my school in russia in two years and it’s time to choose the university to continue my education and I do want so much much much to do it in the another country. The cheapest education is in china and, besides that, my mum wants me to learn it (that business thing) and I myself realize I have to do it. But chinese// Oh god and it’s said by many people that I’ve got such a bad memory and pronunciation and you know learning languages isn’t yours and so and so but I still adore it.
    And what do you think – is it necessary to know hieroglyphs or soon everybody will write throw the simple alphabet? I mean.. Don’t you suspect it, don’t you see the paths leading to it? And the last question – does it help you in your business? Or the majority of conversations with your chinese partners still stew in english?

    • truettblack

      Hi Olga,

      I felt a pull toward Chinese people, culture, language, etc. when I was a young university student, and probably before then. The Chinese talk about something called yuanfen, which is loosely translated as destiny or serendipity. For me, I just seem to fit in well here.

      You’ll either be among the very few people who are very good at speaking Mandarin, or, if you really want to learn it but have little talent for it, you’ll be able to achieve functionality in the language after a few years of studying it hard.

      I would tell your mom, and you, that it is crazy to commit to a four year course of university study in China if you’ve never visited and don’t know if you like it or not. You need to try to visit China before you make your decision. China is a very large place–start with Beijing and Shanghai and go from there. Try also to visit Taiwan and Hong Kong if you can. They have their own special culture.

      You will have to learn 3,000 or more characters to be able to read, but they aren’t as difficult as some people make them out to be. There is a pinyin system that it similar to the alphabet you refer to, but that is generally only used by learners.

      Speaking and reading Mandarin is a huge part of my work. Yes, I speak to the Chinese and Taiwanese people I work with primarily in Mandarin.

      Good luck to you.

      • Ola

        Oh thank you I don’t know what’s keeping you answering these stupid questions but thank you!
        Succeed in your business!

  9. Kironide

    I came across your blog recently, and found your post on your experience learning Mandarin Chinese. As a fluent Cantonese speaker, I was wondering if you could offer your opinion on how difficult it will be for me to learn Mandarin–embarrassingly enough, I passed up some opportunities in my youth so I can neither read or write Chinese. All I am proficient in is verbally speaking Cantonese.

    I have already begun to learn Mandarin from my parents. My thoughts on the matter are that it shouldn’t be that difficult since I really just have to memorize characters and words and know the Cantonese equivalent, but I was curious to know what you would think of my situation.

    Also, how many characters would one need to know before one could be considered fluent in Chinese? (on average)

    • truettblack

      Hi Kironide,

      Most native speakers of Cantonese are able to manage Mandarin without too many difficulties, though they tend to speak it with a heavy accent. That is the extent of my knowledge on your first set of questions.

      You need to be familiar with about 3,000 characters to be able to read most of the common use Chinese you’ll read. It takes longer to understand colloquial language, proverbs, and sayings.

      Best of luck to you.

  10. Hi there, I love your blog. It’s at once inspiring and sobering.

    I’ve been learning Chinese since May 2007, I’ve written over 30 songs in it (although I had no such intention when I started learning it) I’ve had all kinds of feedback about them.

    My question is, how do you reckon a relatively advanced learner, with obvious weaknesses in tones, stroke-order and grammar, keep improving?

    • truettblack

      Cheers Kevin. Here’s my take on your question:

      1. Fix the tones. Inaccurate tones are a big barrier to clear communication in Mandarin. Many people are lazy about this, when it should be a primary focus. I keep my tones sharp through mimicry, by asking people to tell me when my tones are off (they will often do so without me asking), and by demanding crisp tones from myself when I speak. It’s largely a matter of awareness.

      2. Grammar problems? Do you mean usage problems? Chinese grammar is shockingly simple, once you figure out the word order equation. Usage problems are always a problem for us foreigners. I pretty much won’t use a word or a phrase unless I’m absolutely certain it is appropriate to the situation. I tend to speak in plain language when out of my subject area depth and it usually does the job.

      3. I don’t write by hand in Chinese. I type. Learning stroke order seems to me to be mainly a matter of arduous practice. I never found it worth my time.

      The single best thing you can do to improve your Chinese is to talk to Chinese-speaking people in as many real-world situations as possible. Same goes for reading. I made the most progress when I was forced to use Mandarin and read Chinese in order to do my work. Find a way to work in a Chinese speaking environment, even if only part-time or as a volunteer.

      Best of luck to you!


  11. Gopi

    Dear Truett

    This is an awesome blog! Wish I could have found it earlier — i.e. a year ago! I work as a full-time researcher in Taipei for the past one year and believe it or not, I’m in Taiwan but not in a Chinese speaking environment!

    In so far my attempts to learn Mandarin have been met with a certain indifference among my colleagues (needless to say they are all foreigners). Comments from them were along the lines “What are you here for?”, “Learning Chinese mustn’t be your priority”, “You won’t have time” and all that. I sort of took them as words of wisdom at first, but as my Taiwanese friends circle started getting bigger, I definitely feel the need to learn Chinese.

    Nonetheless, my research work is often unpredictable that many times it extends beyond “regular” working hours. I doubt if I could manage my work and learn Chinese. (Eg: I inquired at Mandarin Training Centre in ShiDa for beginner’s level Chinese course and it overlaps with my working hours). However, as with me, I won’t give up that easily. What’s your advice for someone like me?

    Thank you for your time and good luck to you.

  12. Ian

    I am doing a paper and i would like to cite your web site in it for you are very credible. Could you email me your name so you may receive full credibility?



  13. Chuck Smith


    Don’t know if you remember me, but we worked together way back in ’88. I lived in Taiwan in 1986-1988, again in 1991 and in China in 1992. I have a bachelors degree in Chinese as well. I hadn’t been back since then until last week. Fantastic experience. Everything has changed so much in the last 18 years. Working on a business deal in Beijing.

    I echo everything you say about the language. You MUST be “in country” to get language fluency. After living in Taiwan for 2 years, I went to a program at Harvard and met their PhD students. My Chinese — written and spoken — blew theirs away.

    Written language is the final clue in learning the culture. Also, studying the written language helps tremendously in sentance structure. Also what you say about practicing with native speakers is critical. The first thing to go is your “tones” — and you can’t fix this by talking to other non-natives whose tones are suspect.

    Day 1 in Beijing after 18 years of not speaking was very difficult — I almost couldn’t tell what language people were speaking. By day 3 however, I was back into it totally without the translator.

    Most critical in learning is the ability not to care if you screw up. Don’t be afraid to practice and jump into a language and have the Chinese kill your tones or vocabulary or structure. They are not being mean — they are just so terribly impressed that you are trying and want to help you to get better.

    The good news all-around is that the Chinese LOVE non-native speakers. There are probably less than 5000 who can REALLY do it. Therefore, it is easy for them to be super impressed — and this can fuel your desire to do better.

    Note: Google Translate is a tremendously quick way to add vocabulary to your toolbox. And also for those of us who learned traditional characters — it helps to convert to simplified.

    Hope you are well. Feel free to e-mail. Cheers. Chuck

    • truettblack

      Sure Chuck, I remember you. We exchanged phone calls sometime back in the late 90s when I lived in Phoenix.

      It does take a short while to recover your fluency if you’ve not been in a Mandarin-speaking environment for a while. There’s no substitute for being in an environment where you must speak Mandarin.

      Great to hear from you, and happy you had the chance to go to Beijing.

  14. Alan Palmer

    Hello Truett,
    I came across your blog through a websearch on google. It’s a great blog.
    I started learning Chinese in 2007 following a business trip late 2006 with my boss. Since that time is has become my fascinating hobby.

    I’m 54 and although my job (quality manager) took me to China, I haven’t had the chance to go back since for work reasons. In any case, I enjoy learning as a hobby.

    I am sure that I have experienced (am experiencing!) the same difficulties, challenges, satisfaction, enjoyment etc as many learners. At present, I have daily self-tuition “plan” of:
    * daily diaries
    * e-mails with friends in China
    * visits to QQ

    I realised last year (after 3 years of very slow learning) that if I could not go to live in China to study or work, then I must “bring the mountain to Mohammed” and I started (with some help from a Chinese friend) to register and start a QQ blog. This, along with daily text chat sessions have really helped me to speed up my learning.

    My weakest part is remembering words and learning characters. I know I need to speed this up somehow, hence my websearches today which brought me to your blog. Many thanks!

    Alan Palmer (阿伦)

  15. Nick D

    I remember being at a restaurant in Beijing listening to a western man who was engaged in a wild argument with a Chinese waitress, speaking Mandarin fluently. I was taking language classes at the time and was perplexed at his ability (both in his accent and his ability to quickly and vigorously recall Chinese vocabulary). Maybe it was you? lol.

    In all seriousness, do you have any audio clips (or know where to get them) of fluent westerners that sound native in tongue? I’m hoping that something like this is available so to serve the purpose of inspiration during the uphill battle.

    • truettblack


      I’m not much for arguments, particularly in public or with restaurant staff, so I highly doubt that was me.

      I think your best source of fluent Mandarin speaking foreigners is Chinese and Taiwanese television programs. Just type “Foreigner speaking Mandarin” into Youtube and you should find several examples. There is a Canadian fellow in China who is quite the media celebrity here. His Chinese name is 大山, and it’s easy to find clips of him in action.

  16. Marcin

    Hi Truett,

    let me briefly introduce myself: the name is Marcin, I am 30 years old, Polish nationality, and work as a Project Manager in translation & localization industry. After hours very often I help my wife who is an English->Polish freelance translator. And this is where my story (the one I’d like to share with you ;)) begins…

    While helping my wife in translating, I’ve noticed that translation is something I really enjoy. I work as a project manager, however I am a historian and an oriental philologist by profession (but the language I know is not Mandarin, I am afraid).

    Sooner or later I want to become a freelance translator, or at least give it a try; I just feel that written word is something I handle quite well (I mean my native language of course).

    I’m already quite experienced in English->Polish translation, so this is an area where I feel comfortable. But I want to learn one more language in order to become its translator.

    As you can guess, I’m thinking about Chinese. As I mentioned already, I am oriental philologist (but I do not know any language from Sino-Tibetan group). I’ve always been interested in Russia-Mongolia-China triangle.

    The issue is that I do not want (or rather need) to gain full fluency in spoken Chinese, and I do not want to move to China – I feel well in Poland 😉 As per translations, I’ve already tried both spoken and written, and I am not interested in spoken translations at all. So if I were to learn Chinese, I’d like to achieve passive proficiency in it, i.e. I want to read very well in order to be able to perform Chinese->Polish (only this one direction!) written translations.

    And now Truett, I just wonder whether:

    1) are my goals realistic at all?
    2) I’m 30 yo – maybe I am too old to learn this language?
    3) is it possible to achieve fluency mainly in reading, i.e. to learn Chinese in a, “selective” way, by memorizing characters and words, studying its grammar, reading texts, and attending non-intensive classes in Poland, so I can understand written Chinese very well;
    4) how much time would I need to become a fluent Chinese reader? (of course if this is possible without putting that much stress on my spoken/active skills) 3 years? 5 years?

    And, last but not least:
    5) would you mind taking this offline, so we can exchange our e-mails? I am a real person, not a bot 😉

    I think I really need an advice from someone like you (I found both your articles on learning Chinese interesting, but my plan is more specific one).

    Apologies if my English is not that perfect, but I am non-native speaker, besides it’s late at night 😉 But after browsing through your blog I’ve decided to contact you – the sooner I get your opinion, the better 😉

    Thank you for your time, Truett.

    Have a good one!


  17. Julián

    Hi ! I recently published a book titled “From Tao to Psychology: An Introduction to the Bridge between East and West” and was looking for blogs that talked about the relationship between, well, East and West. I came across yours and found it interesting because its point of view from a business perspective. It is very practical. Guess I just wanted to say hi and keep up your work.

  18. hi Truett, i haven’t heard from you in quite some time. we should get together if you have some free time. take care!

  19. Madison

    Hello there,

    Sorry to hassle you but I’ve read through quite a few of your articles and found them very interesting. I just had a few quick questions and was wondering if you could possibly help me out (though I realize you’re probably incredibly busy!)
    Basically, I first visited the Mainland when I was 16 and I fell in love with China (though I only went for 10 days).
    I went back for 3 months to teach English when I was 18 but had to come back for University. I developed basic proficiency in speaking but nothing past transactions.
    I then studied Chinese as an extracurricular at University for 2 years, taking a hiatus for a year to finish my finals. I’m now studying with a wonderful couple (a man from Shanghai and his wife from Beijing) but its on a very informal basis, and much of the revision I do at home. I know I don’t put in as much effort as I should (probably only two to three hours a week including my one hour session with my ‘teacher’) but I just feel like I’m hitting a brick wall with it at the moment.
    I’m heading back to China this February to teach English again but this is based on a year long contract. I’m hoping that, if all goes well, I will extend my year long contract and potentially stay out there for about five years.
    The problem I am having is thus: my teacher says that my reading and writing levels are quite good, which I am proud of because I’ve worked reasonably hard, though not hard enough. My listening ability is lacking but is not poor, so I’m not too worried about that. However, my speaking ability is questionable. I’m not very confident and I just haven’t seemed to master the third tone very well. I know that speaking is something I can really only learn in the country, but do you have any tips about how I can coax my mouth into correct pronunciation? Or is this just something I will never be able to do?
    I really want to achieve fluency but I’m paranoid that it just won’t be possible for me, no matter how much effort I put in.
    Apologies that this comment is so long and I’d appreciate any help you could give me!

    • truettblack

      Most non-Chinese do not achieve native-like pronunciation, ever. My spoken Chinese gets applause for its authenticity wherever I go, and I still have trouble with the second tone at times.

      I find that an ability to mimic sounds helps a great deal with pronunciation, but if you aren’t born with it, it’s tough.

      The only other thing that I’ve found to help is continuously listening to a native speaker and repeating what you hear, sometimes with a recording device so that you can play it back later and find out where you are still having trouble.

      If all of that doesn’t help, don’t worry about it. Most foreigners speak Mandarin with a heavy accent, and Chinese people can still figure out what they’re saying.

      • Madison

        Thank you so much
        That’s really allayed my fear
        I don’t think I’ll ever achieve native status, which is probably a fair point since very few foreign people ever sound native when they speak English, but if I can be understood that’s all that matters!
        I’ll try and invest in a recording device because that sounds like a really good idea. I have a recording that I mimic and, oddly, I can mimic the sounds relatively well but I immediately forget them when it comes to actually saying them.
        With regards to another problem, how did you find picking up the local slang where you are? Did it take you a long time to master it? And did you make notes on it, like you’ve said in the article, or just allow it to come naturally to you?
        Sorry about all the questions!

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