Studying Chinese

Fluent Mandarin in three months? I’m not convinced

It’s been three months since Benny Lewis at Fluent in 3 Months started learning Mandarin in Taiwan. He still haven’t uploaded his three month video, but the time is up and lets take a look if it’s possible to get fluent in Mandarin in just three short months.

(I really tried to make this post a bit shorter!)

First lets review and go to the beginning of his mission. What was his goal?

  • “this is day one of my mission to speak fluent Mandarin in 3 months! “
  • “That’s fluency as in being able to do most of what I can do in English, in social situations in Mandarin.”
  • “I won’t hold up the flow of conversations (on either my side or the person I’m talking to) i.e. conversational fluency”
  • “Or something along the lines of level C1, specifically for the oral component”
  • “My priority will be to be able to read menus and signs”
  • “I do want to be able to get the gist of almost anything I see”
  • “I won’t go as far as to try to be able to read the likes of full newspaper articles beyond headlines”

And after three months what does Benny say he has accomplished?

  • “I won’t be speaking C1 Mandarin this month”
  • “now I can follow B2 level conversations and get the general gist”
  • “follow B1 conversations almost entirely”
  • “in general I’d say I’m a comfortable B – a very safe B1, and dipping my toes into B2 on occasion”
  • “My ultimate goal of “high level fluency” of being able to do what I do in English in the language, is still a bit off”
  • “I’d be happy to call what I have “conversational fluency”, not right now, but likely some time this month”
  • “I was successful in my objective to be able to read Chinese on signs, menus, getting the gist of some articles, and went beyond that by being able to chat with someone online or via SMS entirely in Chinese”

So is Benny fluent or not?

I’m not sure what Benny means with B1 and B2 conversations, but I know he has been using ChinesePod, so it might mean that he has been listening to B1 and B2 podcasts. That’s not quite the same as listening to native people have conversations.

There’s no three months video yet, so I can only rate his spoken Chinese according to the 2,5 months video. Based on that video I would say Benny Lewis’ Chinese is on A2 level. Usually can get his meaning understood, but it takes some searching for words and the other speakers sometimes need to paraphrase his sentences. Benny doesn’t really say what level spoken Chinese he has at the moment, but he says that he will soon be conversationally fluent and high level of fluency is still a bit off.

I guess my definition of fluency is very different than Benny’s, because I think he is still quite far from high level fluency. Conversational fluency? I think even I haven’t reached that level yet, even though I have a relationship purely in Mandarin.

I’m not sure what Benny means by being able to read, but with a dictionary anything is possible. I would like to give him a magazine and let him read the headlines.

Is it possible to reach fluency in Mandarin in three months?

I don’t know anyone who have been able to do this and according to my own experiences studying the language for 3,5 years, I think it’s not possible. With impossible I mean that impossible for European learners for example who haven’t studied Japanese.

Is learning Chinese hard?

  • “I’ll go through hell”
  • “These 3 months have been a really shitty experience to be honest “
  • “I’ve ended many days this year with a headache and incredible frustration that I can’t begin to describe”
  • “kicking and screaming”

Sounds like a hard work for me ;)

Does this matter?

Benny would probably say (and have said) that this doesn’t matter because reaching fluency or C1 was never his true goal. His real goal was to learn Chinese quickly (as explained in 2,5 months video). But then again he said “But I have found that aiming high and timeboxing it into a tight deadline, and having both being as specific as possible creates much better results than “try your best” does.” I’m a bit confused.

I agree with Benny that goals should be as specific as possible, but I think that having realistic goals is better. A learner should aim high, but not try to reach the moon. While trying to get to the moon it’s easy to get depressed by your own lack of improvement, but if you set smart goals they keep you studying hard, but you also get a feeling of success.


It’s been an interesting three months and I’ve read all the blog post and watched all the videos in this Benny Lewis Mandarin Mission. There are many things I agree with him, but that kind of post would be a bit dull. I don’t want to lie to people and say you can become fluent by studying Mandarin for three months. I would rather say it requires hard work, but it’s absolutely worth it.

(p.s. Benny makes traveling in China  sound like an extremely hard thing from which you can hardly survive. Well, I’ll just say that I don’t agree and leave it at that.)


  • Jack

    I think Benny is being given a humble pie!
    Just because he learn to ride a bicycle, and then he had success riding a scooter and motorbike in 3 months, he thinks he can master flying a space shuttle in 3 months too! :D
    Well, Benny I have to say, you can’t! And you havn’t proven to me you can! :D

    Sara Reply:

    I usually believe things when I see them or have other good proof that they excist.

  • Jochen

    The fact he has not published anything yet tells you everything. He is not normally someone for not blowing his own trumpet. He has not reached fluency. He knows it so he is trying to gain time.
    I don’t like the fact that he is using other people ie his fans so that they root for him to keep him motivated and then does not deliver. Many people have spent a lot of time giving him advice that he should ease off on the fluency goal but he just pig headedly ignored everyone who did not agree with him

    Sara Reply:

    He published his 3.25 month video today, what do you think?

  • ordinary malaysian

    I think it is hard really to be fluent in any language in three months, at alone Chinese! Maybe Malay is easier. Many foreigner workers in Malaysia like the Bangladeshi have learned to speak the language quite well in a few short months. But to be really fluent, that’s another thing altogether.

    Sara Reply:

    I agree, it’s not an easy thing to become fluent in such a short time.

  • Jack

    I just saw that 3.5 month video, and I think Benny is far from fluent. While impressive for mere 3 months, I think that’s about as fluent as anyone who is dedicated to language study day in day out and immersed in an environment can get. My assessment still stands – he is at best at A2 level. He seems to be very good at constructing “interlanguage” (something I found Multilingual/polyglots people do) – which makes his brain wired to look for keywords, phrase, and sentences that are used in high frequency and remember them. He seems to pick up these bits and pieces, and know how to use it in a very stuttering way, but its still all babytalks, he is mostly forced to use body language (look at his hand and facial expression) to convey his idea to a listener. A truely fluent speaker would not need to rely on those. (Look at Morgan Freeman – he can convey so much in his speech alone!).

    For example, he used the phrase “他们不喜欢” (seem to be a straight translation of “they don’t like” which he surely picked up from conversation) and “你不知道” which are both wrong when speaking in that sentence – the correct sentences should be : “他们不同意(你的意见)” and “你不了解” or “你不懂”. Because he learned the meaning of the word, he constructed a “interlanguage” in his own mind and then use it (combine with his experessive face and body language) it helps people understand him. But those phrases are rip from other sentences and when he use it it lacks context and normal Chinese speaker would get a little bit puzzled by it.

    Benny is basically commited in that “Interlanguage” loop – “Language transfer”, “Overgeneralization”, and “Simplification”.

    I think Benny can continue to get around China this way, but what he will get is a “hodge podge” of weird Chinese which is actually bad for his learning of Chinese. It will be like an asian person speaking bit phrases from Hollywood movies – think of the street walker in the movie “Full Metal Jacket” – “Me love you long time!” – that’s what his Chinese is to native speaker.

    Sara Reply:

    I agree that he’s at A2 level at the moment. If he really continues with Chinese later on he should concentrate more on his pronunciation, otherwise he’ll makes the same mistake I did, not paying enough attention to pronunciation and tones in the beginning.

    He is using simple language and it’s still far from fluent. He haven’t learned that much grammar or vocabulary so he uses what he has to communicate with others. That’s a great ability for a language learner to have and I use the same method all the time. But if he says that fluency is just a bit off, then I just can’t agree with him.

    But John’s Chinese is excellent! I asked him to give me a tip on twitter and he replied: “Practice often, get feedback on where you still need improvement, and don’t give up! I’d say it’s just that simple.” That’s what I’m going to do, and something that everyone who want to speak fluent Chinese should do.

  • Jochen

    I just listened to his videos (John and Jenny) – all stuttering and stammering. That is not fluent at all like he said he was aiming to be – with audacious arrogance at that. He also said he was going out on the street and prove you can learn it like that. People who have seen Benny in Taiwan have seen him listening intently to audios and he has had loads of lessons. So he did not even use his own method (whatever that is). Here he is in another commercial endeavous, promoting chinese-pod. I do not believe in his altruistic goals.

    Sara Reply:

    I’m not really sure what his method is actually. Before I thought he learns languages just by going out and hanging with natives. But his Mandarin mission showed that it’s not enough and one needs tutoring, teachers and hard work in order to improve quickly in a language. He is good in motivating people to learn, but I’m not sure if there’s any method.

    Jochen Reply:

    I am not sure he is so motivating any longer. I think his claims on this mission really took a beating. Because the claim was so ludicrous it attracted a lot of attention but because Benny acted in the way he did (insulting anyone who would dare to contradict his claims), he will no longer enjoy the following he had. He had no method and he proved it on this mission. His PR stunts have become his downfall.

  • Mejltillmig

    Hi, do you know how much time he spent per day on average? 
    Anyway I guess he has attracted lots of people to his web site, I have seen it before :)

    Sara Jaaksola Reply:

    I’m not sure, but it sounds like he did study a lot.

  • Sara Jaaksola

    Thank you for the link, I read it too. It would be interesting to get that kind of evaluation of my Chinese too.

    But I don’t agree that HSK3 is B1, I believe that HSK5 is closer to B1, a level where I think I’m at the moment.

  • NO way Jose

    Este guey se cree mucho y piensa que todas las lenguas son igual de dificiles. Dice que domina las lenguas pero realmente solo tiene conocimientos muy superficiales de ellas, debe estudiarlas mas a fondo para poder aprender todos los matices de las palabras, etc.

    Dice que su nivel de espanol se acerca al de un nativohablantes pero no sabe muchas palabras  y comete demasiados errores para alguien que “domina el idioma.” Dice que nunca saco buenas calificaciones en espanol en clase y no hablo nada de espanol durante sus seis meses en Espana. Entonces, de la noche a la manana mejora tanto que ahora puede aprender chino en 3 meses? Farsante.

  • Jean Markale

    I wouldn’t say he gets “no respect;” in some quarters of the polyglot community he is highly regarded. And he does have a lot of good things to say. Of course he also regularly pisses me off, but I can deal with that for the sake of the useful observations.

    I also wouldn’t call fluency in three months a pipe dream that any language learner would laugh at, either. It has happened in the past and will happen again. Probably not with Chinese or Arabic. But I worked with a guy who after three months studying Danish was able to get a job as a radio show host in Denmark.
    Benny’s great at motivating people who would otherwise think that even approaching another language was a pipe dream.
    As for that cat who whined that Morgan Freeman can convey more with his voice in English than Benny can in Chinese–the majority of native English speakers are not skilled performers. To use one as a standard by which to judge proficiency in a foreign tongue is at best intellectually disingenuous.