Are you so close to fluency that you can almost taste it?
So close, and yet so far.
There’s a reason why Chinese language learners have a reputation for being ambitious.
You’re not alone in your quest for fluency!
Here’s the good news: fluency isn’t as impossible to achieve as you might think. Sure, it requires a lot of work. You will need to master listening, speaking, and all the fun, complex grammar that goes along with developing those skills. However, I’m convinced that anyone who’s motivated enough can reach conversational fluency reasonably fast. Exactly how fast depends on how much time you spend, how good you are at learning languages and what you mean by “fluent.”
I’ve met several Chinese learners who could hold a conversation with me about familiar topics after only three or four months of studying. They weren’t freaks of nature – they definitely knew what they were doing and were very dedicated students. In this article, I’ll share some thoughts on how to become fluent in Chinese, based on the stories of the above-mentioned students as well as my own experience. Also, make sure you don’t miss our previous post on improving your Chinese speaking ability.
What Does It Mean to Be Fluent in Chinese?
The question of how quickly you can become fluent is meaningless unless you first understand what fluent means. There are many definitions and perspectives floating out there. Everyone and their mother seems to have an opinion!
On the most basic level, being fluent in Chinese means that you can speak about normal, everyday topics without slowing down too much. It’s not all about being savvy with modern Chinese slang words or classic idioms – though those things will certainly help you along the way. Being fluent means you’re able to make yourself understood. It means that you understand enough of the other side of the conversation to be able to keep conversing in a meaningful way. There are a few different angles to true fluency:
Input and output
Fluency seems to focus mostly on output (speaking), but I think that input (listening) has to be part of it. Being able to hold a meaningful conversation in Chinese requires you to understand what the other party is saying and respond to that with relevant phrases of your own.
It’s certainly possible to speaking in a manner which sounds very fluent while not understanding what the other person is saying, but this is quite meaningless. Being able to speak Chinese is only one side of the equation, being able to understand is at least as important.
Speed and knowledge
If you’ve spoken English with educated Asians who’ve had little contact with foreigners, you know that simply having the theoretical knowledge doesn’t make you fluent. I know many Taiwanese who have an excellent vocabulary in English and can write fairly advanced texts, but still aren’t fluent in spoken English. Why?
Because they can’t piece together sentences and choose words quickly enough. If you find yourself in a situation like this (where you can express yourself, but not smoothly enough), you need to practice, practice, practice! You don’t need more words or grammar, you just need to speak more. Speak with other people, speak with your can, have mental conversations with yourself.
Use set phrases to buy time
Few people, native speakers included, can speak fluently and coherently for longer period of time. Indeed, there are even talk shows that force people to speak about a given topic without hesitating or repeating themselves. This is really hard! The reason is that we sometimes don’t think as quickly as we speak, which tends to trip us up.
If you want your Chinese to sound fluent, you have to be able to deal with this problem. Fortunately, there’s a relatively easy way to do it. There are many, many phrases in any language that carry almost no meaning but are simply there to buy you time to think. When you listen to native speakers, take note and learn these phrases.
I’m talking about things such as “What you said is very interesting, but…” or “I think that depends on…” These could also be very short phrases such as “I think”or “in my opinion.” The point is that when you know several dozen phrases like this and can use them fluently, it will allow you to remove some pauses from your speech. Instead of falling silent for five seconds, or letting out a long “ummmm,” you fill that emptiness with solid Chinese.
Again, the best way to learn this is to listen closely to how Chinese people do this when speaking with you or with each other.
Fake it until you make it
It’s possible to fake fluency if you really want to, especially if you have some control over the choice of topic. Simply learn a few phrases that turns the topic into an area where you have something interesting to say, then follow that up with an anecdote which is related to this.
For example, if you are learning Chinese for professional purposes, focus on key Chinese phrases related to business. If you’re fascinated by Chinese culture, learn how to talk about the Mid-Autumn Festival, Dragon Boat Festival or Qingming Tomb Sweeping Festival.
This means that the majority of what you say might be completely unrelated to what the other person just said. However, as long as you understand roughly what the other person is saying, you can follow this up with other detours and anecdotes. Naturally, this has little to do with real ability, but can be useful if your goal is to impress people.
Speak Chinese Fluently with 5 Simple Tips
Even though fluency is mostly the combination of a lot of different skills, there are some ways you can practice fluency directly. Some are quite obvious, but you might not have pushed yourself in these areas before. Others are less straightforward but will become second nature with time and constant practice.
1. Speak more
This is mostly useful if your theoretical knowledge is higher than your ability to express yourself. You learn new things mostly by listening to others, but you can increase speed by speaking more.
Since most students spend too much time with passive studying, speaking more is good advice in most cases. A great way to put yourself out there is to find a language exchange partner or take a trip to China.
2. Speak with yourself
One may be the loneliest number that you’ll ever do, but we all find ourselves lacking conversation partners now and again. If you don’t have enough people around to speak with, speak with yourself.
This might sound very strange to some, but an important part of fluency is to be able to use Chinese to phrase your thoughts fairly quickly. As you go about your daily activities, narrate what you’re doing and thinking out loud in Chinese.
Talk to your pets in Chinese. While listening to the news or the radio, respond to the commentators out loud in Chinese. You will certainly get some practice by doing this on your own, regardless of whether or not someone else hears you.
3. Internal dialogue
Just as speaking out loud in Chinese to yourself is useful, try changing your entire train of thought into Chinese. You can do this more explicitly in several ways, such as counting in Chinese, describing what you’re currently doing in Chinese or weighting pros and cons of certain choices in Chinese.
As an added bonus, research suggests that decisions made in a foreign language are more rational than if made in your native language!
4. Language games
A major requirement for fluency is to be able to navigate around obstacles you find in your path. If you get stuck on every single word you want to say, you won’t sound very fluent. If you can talk around these words, the listener might not even notice that you didn’t know it.
Practice this by describing words in Chinese without actually saying them! This will prepare you for an emergency vocabulary situation. I have written much more about this here.
5. Vary the topic
I said above that if you can control the topic of the conversation, it’s possible to rely on background knowledge, word games, and common filler phrases. However, this also speaks to my next point: often you won’t be able to control the topic at hand, so you’ll need a breadth of vocabulary to truly become fluent.
Real fluency is about being able to talk about all kinds of topics with relative ease. To achieve this, you need to actually practice speaking about different topics. Over the course of the day, jot down different topics in a notebook or on flash cards. Work on digging up topics that you know little to nothing about.
Pick a new topic to cover daily or weekly, and gear your language study towards that topic. Native speakers have had a lifetime to practice, so you’ll need to start now and practice daily if you want to catch up!
How to Reach Beyond Basic Fluency
Did you think that fluency meant perfection? Perfect doesn’t exist when talking about language learning. There are even different levels of proficiency even once you achieve fluency. Don’t be disheartened – you like to study Chinese! The better you get with the language, the more you’ll be able to enjoy awesome Chinese movies and your favorite Chinese songs. You’ll even crack the code enough to read classic Chinese literary works.
But don’t wait until you have advanced fluency to enjoy these things! With FluentU, you can access the most engaging and authentic learning materials at any level.
In fact, the more resources you can access, the more topics you’ll learn how to speak about in Chinese.
Once you have achieved basic fluency and can talk about normal subjects without slowing down too much, you should start paying more attention to what you’re saying. Fluency is mostly judged on how you sound, but the content is important as well.
One good example of this is choosing the right linking words and conjunctions. There are three scenarios here: (1) someone who omits conjunctions entirely simply sounds childish and the sentences aren’t part of a natural flow; (2) someone who uses the wrong conjunctions might sound more fluent, but can be very hard to understand; (3) someone who uses conjunctions well is a lot easier to understand and is actually fluent.
Many students dream of becoming fluent in Chinese but ultimately feel discouraged by the difficulty of the task. I’m here to tell you that fluency is definitely within reach and that with the right kind of practice, you can become fluent as well!
And One More Thing...
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FluentU brings these native Chinese videos within reach via interactive captions. You can tap on any word to instantly look it up. All words have carefully written definitions and examples that will help you understand how a word is used. Tap to add words you'd like to review to a vocab list.
FluentU's Learn Mode turns every video into a language learning lesson. You can always swipe left or right to see more examples for the word you're learning.
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