Dum Pendebat Filius

A sniff in the kortevar, that what you cry for, yeled? A prert up the cull, a prang on the dumpendebat?

Define “proficiency”

How long does it take for an English-speaker to become “proficient” in Mandarin Chinese? An NYT article cites a statistic from the FSI:

Some parents here [in Chicago] worry at first about how relevant the Chinese classes are and whether they will be too difficult. The Foreign Service Institute, which trains American diplomats, ranks Chinese as one of the four most time-intensive languages to learn. An average English speaker takes 1,320 hours to become proficient in Chinese, compared with 480 hours in French, Spanish or Italian, the institute says.

Is that true? I can’t find that statistic on the Internet, but I’m sure the reporter didn’t just make it up. Still, I will tell you that 1320 hours is nowhere near enough for someone to become truly proficient in Mandarin. Mandarin’s no joke; that is one tough language. (That, by the way, is why it’s good to see these kids starting with it at an early age; the “window” for language acquisition starts to shrink very quickly at around age 12.)

The FSI proficiency scale rates language ability along five levels of proficiency:

  1. Elementary
  2. Limited Working
  3. Professional Working
  4. Full Professional
  5. Native/Bilingual

Usually, when the subject is foreign-language pedagogy, FSI Level 2 is what people are talking about when they say “proficient.” 1320 hours might be enough to get a dedicated, motivated English-speaker up to FSI Level 2, but I don’t believe that’s the norm, or baseline.

I had 1645 hours of Modern Standard Arabic (47 weeks, 35 hours/week) at the DLI and managed to achieve Level 2 in reading and Level 2 in aural comprehension (only 1+ in speaking/conversation, alas). Arabic’s not easy, but Chinese is much harder than Arabic. That’s why I’m skeptical of this 1320-hour claim. My DLI colleagues who studied Mandarin were also expected to reach 2/2 in 1645 hours.

(We took three separate tests at the end of the 47-week course, if you’re interested; if you scored Level 2 in Reading and Level 2 in Aural Comprehension, you were said to have “graduated.” Less than 2/2 and you “completed” the course, but didn’t “graduate.” We were also tested in Conversation, but that score didn’t count.)

Filed under: Language by dumpendebat at 2005/10/15 - 20:06


  1. RP:

    By far the largest barrier to proficiency in any Chinese dialect–even the limited proficiency expected of DLI graduates–is reading in ideographs. Encompassing a complete idea–often abstract–rather than simply guiding pronunciation–the purpose of alphabets–ideographs spring from a mentality fundamentally different from those of Western cultures. Here is an example: “sun” (pictographed in ancient times as a circle with a dot in the center to distinguish it from the moon which is a circle with no dot) + “root” (pictographed as a tree with a small radical indicating where the tree extends below ground) = “Japan.” The two “pictures” together form an idea–”the people of the land where the sun rises from”–the land of the rising sun/the people of that land. We’ve all seen this ideograph.

    A quick look at the globe makes this not only understandable but also quite sensible. Only the simplest ideographs however are simple to explain. To claim anything more than a very basic understanding of Chinese requires many years of concentrated study. Unless you can live somewhere where Chinese is the dominant written language I would say it is beyond reasonable expectations to acquire anything more than level 2 proficiency. The hurdles are more cultural than anything else. As an analogy perhaps it would be useful to think of Chinese as Mac OS X and everything else as a variant of a Windows operating system. Korean and Japanese (the only other two languages that use Chinese ideographs) are only difficult languages to understand to the degree to which they have borrowed from Chinese. “Native”–as opposed to “Sino”–Korean and Japanese are the most basic forms and the easiest to acquire. “Educated” Japanese and Korean requires so much Chinese in fact that they are really beyond many in Japan and most in Korea.

    Ironically, understanding spoken Chinese is easier for Westerners than it is for Koreans or Japanese. Glottal stops and multisyllabic inflection are aspects of Chinese and English but not of Japanese, for instance.

    For the record, I “graduated” from DLI with a 2/2 in Korean but my A+ student wife managed only a 1+/2. We were required to understand between 300-500 Chinese ideographs along with the extremely simple pronunciation guide Hangul. She knew the ideographs well but lacked the imagination to use them effectively. I learned far fewer but could “see” the abstract idea behind the picture. That was the difference after 47 weeks.

    I’ve never known a successful Chi-ling who wasn’t also right-brain thinking. It is such a counter-intuitive language for Westerners. It might as well be the language of Mars.

  2. dumpendebat:

    Our old friend Brendon, the Chi-ling, seemed to have an intuitive grasp of how the ideographic system worked. He tried to tell me it wasn’t that hard, and while I was rooming with him at Goodfellow, he tried to show me how the ideographs worked, along some system of “roots” and “radicals.” It made perfect sense to him. To me, it made Arabic look like child’s play.

    That, plus the fact that tones have phonemic significance in Chinese. Mandarin has four; Cantonese has seven! It seems like that would take forever to get used to.

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