Scott H Young

How Well Did the No-English Rule Work for Learning Chinese?


Readers familiar with Vat and my current project of attempting to learn four languages in one year, will note that the big focus has been on one method: not speaking English. Today I want to talk about the failures and successes in applying that philosophy to learning Chinese.

My Chinese After Three Months (+100 Hours of Preparation in Canada)

Before I go onto talking about the method, I want to quickly summarize what I feel were the end results of this Chinese experiment.

Overall, I believe my level is at a solid intermediate level. In terms of functionality, I’m pretty good with conversations and can usually talk about most topics without too much strain. I still occasionally get tripped up understanding a question or communicating a point, so I haven’t reached fluency yet—but I’m definitely at the point where I can have meaningful conversations entirely in Chinese.

Last week I also wrote the HSK 4 in Shanghai (I’ll know my grade a month from now). The creators of the test formally declare it to be equivalent to B2 for the CEFR, but that’s almost certainly an overestimation. My speaking ability is probably around B1, but due to the difficulty of Chinese characters I still have tremendous difficulty reading anything of any complexity.

Because the HSK measures listening, reading and writing (but not speaking), I also worked with Olle Linge on a pronunciation protocol. After struggling with some tonal problems my first attempt and working to correct them with a tutor, I was able to fix the major mistakes.

The protocol only measures isolated words, spoken deliberately, so obviously my in-practice pronunciation isn’t perfect. However, it does meet my goal of being able to produce the sounds correctly, at least in theory, so that I can to a certain extent self-correct and avoid fossilization truly grave errors that will hinder my future communication.

Looking back at my original goals, I feel the project was a success.

How Well Did Not Speaking English Work?

In Spain, Vat and I were very good with the no-English rule. I only recall once or twice where we broke down and spoke English to each other, and those were emergencies. I did talk to my parents in English, but I had decided to make that exception from the start.

Sometimes the rule was maintained to somewhat ridiculous levels. Benny Lewis, my friend and successful language learner, and his girlfriend were both staying in Valencia while were were there. Benny speaks Spanish, his girlfriend does not. So instead of being a normal human being and taking a break from speaking Spanish to communicate with her, we just spoke in Spanish and Benny translated.

In Brazil, we had a rough start with temporary homelessness and video editing, so the first two weeks had more frequent interruptions from our no-English rule. However, after the work settled down, switching to speaking entirely in Portuguese wasn’t too difficult.

Chinese was different in ways I hadn’t anticipated and created different problems than Brazil or Spain.

My half of the no-English project started quite well. I had prepared more than Vat in Canada for Chinese, and I was more serious about studying Chinese while in China. So aside from dealing with our landlord on the first day and a few small exceptions, I spoke only in Chinese from when we arrived.

Vat’s starting point with Chinese was considerably rougher, and I feel, probably a lot more typical of new learners to Chinese. The Chinese people we met largely couldn’t speak English, so Vat was forced to use limited Chinese. However, with tutors and with me, Vat spoke a lot of English from the beginning, simply because transitioning to all-Chinese was too hard.

This created a real disconnect in our lives. While in Spain, we did things together, so our interpersonal conversations were a majority of our speaking time. In China we spent far less time together, often going a day or two without speaking more than a few words to each other.

Life during the first half of the project often went like this: Vat would work on his own projects or shoot video, I would study independently and speak Chinese with my friends and tutors. When we did have short dialogs about simple things, we would use Chinese. When we needed to discuss anything more complicated we would use English.

Midway through the project Vat’s Chinese was starting to get good enough that he could stick to Chinese more. However, Chinese was still more difficult than English (of course) so with the rule of not speaking English already broken, it became a lot harder to switch back to all-Chinese, even when we were both at a level where it was possible.

Finally, in Shanghai, we spent most our time together speaking English. In Kunming, I didn’t suffer from this problem too much because we weren’t spending too much time together. However, sharing a hotel room and not having friends or tutors in Shanghai, meant most our time was together and the habit of speaking only in Chinese together hadn’t been sufficiently reinforced.

Is the No-English Rule a Failure with Chinese?

Obviously, by the criteria of not speaking English, we both failed in China. As I was able to maintain the no-English rule with my other friendships in China, I think there’s a decent chance I might have been able to do the no-English rule alone. However, conditions are never perfect, and so neither of us reached the criteria we set at the beginning of the project, clear and simple.

However, there’s another way of judging the no-English rule: as a method for learning Chinese. That is to say, did we learn Chinese and did our failed implementation of the rule nonetheless help us learn it faster than the alternatives?

Evaluating the No-English Rule

On my end, I believe that the no-English rule, even though I failed to implement it as I had originally envisioned, was still one of the most important methods for reaching the level of Chinese that I did.

Even though I wasn’t able to maintain the no-English rule with Vat, I still maintained it with nearly everyone else I met. One of the big reasons to use the no-English rule is to avoid forming your social groups out of people who can’t or won’t speak the language you’re trying to learn. Had I not done that, I believe it would have been much easier to just spend my time in China with other expats and only make friends with Chinese people whose English was decent.

In some ways, the failure of the no-English rule is the exception that proves the rule. Vat and I, since we are traveling together and collaborating on this project, have no choice but to interact. Every other relationship wasn’t constrained in that way, so I could use the no-English rule as a filter for building a mostly Chinese-speaking social group.

But for Vat, and perhaps also more typical learners of Chinese, I have my doubts about the practicality of the rule. A method may work great, but if it is too difficult for a reasonably intelligent and motivated person to maintain, it loses relevance. Many dieting strategies fail on this mark: they *could* work, but they are so difficult it takes heroic feats of willpower to implement them.

I say this because of the sharp contrast in difficulty in implementing no-English in Spain and Brazil compared with China. Vat had no problem doing even the fairly ridiculous stringency we adopted for Spain, but considerable difficulty for China. I was able to maintain the no-English rule for the most part outside our conversations, but even that was quite difficult for me. Seeing as we met very few people in Spain who opted for our level of commitment to not speaking English and not even a single person in China, successfully applying no-English rule may simply be unrealistic for most new Chinese learners.

One potential exception might be living in China in a situation where nobody speaks English. After all, even though Vat used English a fair bit with me, he was forced to use Chinese with the majority of Chinese people with no English ability whatsoever, it just made for often frustrating encounters in the first two months. Had we gone to a special school or homestay where English communication was either not allowed or not possible, the environment might have made up from any deficits in willpower and made the rule more feasible (if still very frustrating).

Salvaging the No-English Rule for Korea and Beyond

From my perspective, I believe the no-English rule is mostly salvageable for Korea. Although Korean will likely be as hard as Chinese, Korea was Vat’s choice of country, so I think the motivation to stick to the rule and study more will prevent the divergence problems we had that made maintaining the rule in China so difficult.

However, I’m somewhat famous for being a bit insanely obsessive during these learning projects. What about someone who wants to learn a “hard” language (or even an “easy” one, for that matter) and is worried about having the self-discipline to implement the no-English rule?

Here I’m not sure half-measures are a good strategy. Simply because, at a beginner level of a language, it’s too easy to slide into English-only friendships which are very hard to break out of, even when your level of ability with the language improves. Even with Vat and my communication, once the no-English rule had been broken, it was very easy to speak mostly in English together in Shanghai, even though, at that point, it would have been possible to maintain Chinese-only.

Possible alternative strategies might be doing a thirty day trial to switch from partial-English to no-English while living in the target country. Studying more beforehand to ease the transition is also a possibility, as is switching cities when you make the switch to no-English so that you can form a new social group without having too many English-speaking friends.

However all of these strategies have drawbacks. Studying more beforehand can become a way of procrastinating on actually using the language. Doing a 30-day trial requires you to isolate yourself from your English-speaking friends, much harder to do in practice than in theory. Switching cities simply might not be a luxury you can afford.

Ultimately, however, the no-English rule may work (even if it is truly too hard) simply because the other structured alternatives all allow you to escape from using the language. That is to say, even if you fail to use the no-English rule, even trying to use it will let you learn the language faster than explicitly not using it.

My sense is that its this last alternative that held for my experience in China. After all, even if I couldn’t be completely faithful to the rule, I’m still happy with my progress in Chinese over such a short burst of time.


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23 Responses to “How Well Did the No-English Rule Work for Learning Chinese?”

  1. Adam Sumner says:

    Thanks for the update Scott. I’d be interested to know more about your strategies for building a social network in a country in which you lack fluency of the local language. I’d imagine making friends would come with some challenges in such an environment – maybe people are reluctant to be around someone with whom they find it difficult to communicate?

  2. It reminds me my friend from England, met in Austria. He tried, quite good prepared, to talk German. No chance, everybody wants to practise English there.
    But the rule of not using own native language in learning another, is good. I have learned French in my youth using German textbooks, avoiding Polish ones, so I could reinforce German too. Being in USSR I could use only Russian, because other languages were practically unknown there. But as a Slavic language Russian was easy for me.

  3. Rob says:

    I think you will find Korean to be much easier than Chinese. Considering the written language is phonetic and there are not multiple tones it makes learning much more simple. There are also quite a number of borrowed words in Korean that are essentially the same as English.

  4. Anon says:

    Hi Scott, great update. Have you got a video of your progress and travels? It’s good seeing the progress you guys make.

  5. Scott, your no-english policy is so awesome and I’m sure you guys are really progressing way faster in foreign languages just because of that.

    Alright you slipped up a bit, but at least you are still having conversations in Chinese…some people might never speak a foreign language to somebody who shares a stronger language with you – optimism! :)

    I’m sure you will do well in Korea as well!

    PS. What did you spend that 100 hours of preparation on? Vocabulary, audio courses, reading, writing or something else entirely?

  6. Craige says:

    Great article!! you should post audio clips of your chinese conversations.

  7. Colin says:

    Do you have a china video up yet? Very cool project :)

  8. June says:

    I’m a firm believer in the no English rule. A long time ago, before half the world spoke English, I spent some time in Mexico on a student exchange program. I refused to hang out with the other English speakers and sought out Mexican friends. I was pretty fluent within a couple of months as I had not choice but to speak Spanish with them. I did the same in Germany. I had a summer job in a small town – nobody spoke English there. I was forced to learn the language. Again I was pretty fluent within a month or so. It is a wonderful and fun way to learn a language.

  9. Brostoevsky says:

    I really liked your article. I spent a couple of years living on the Mediterranean cost of Spain myself. While I was there I spoke a lot of Spanish and some Spanglish too. Truth be told I never completely stopped speaking English, because it is and always will be a part of who I am. However, eventually I spoke Spanish for the majority of the time. It helped having few English speaking friends, with whom I attempted to mostly speak Spanish with. I personally think a no-English rule is a great idea, because it will push you to speak the target language as often as possible.
    Right now my new language learning project is Russian. The skills I developed learning Spanish have been extremely helpful. However, Russian made me realize that if you are truly passionate about learning a language you can go really far with it; I can read Dostoevsky in Russian. Ultimately, foreign language abilities are limited by passion and dedication. Therefore, I believe picking a primary foreign language or two is best when learning a language. I just stick with Spanish and Russian, then I just dabble with some other languages because language retention can be a big problem.

  10. Voni says:

    Hi, Scott!

    I moved to Brazil with my family when I was 35 (husband and six kids)…back in 1967…Since then, I’ve spent the greater number of my years in Brazil.
    I enjoyed reading your comments… and understood the concepts you shared.

    Difference in our motivation? I wanted to learn the language and the culture. I discovered learning the language was the key to learning the culture. I went with the purpose of bonding into the culture. Painful. Good. Took three intense years: learning, tears, letting go, re-evaluating everything …

    And, learning one language caused me to want to learn others.

    So I admire you two and your audacity/determination! I’m definitely going to be watching for more reports.

  11. 奇妙! I’m glad you took the HSK 4. If I have detailed questions about your preparation for it (but only very good ones), may I message you?

    Cheers -Erik

  12. Deborah says:

    Congratz for your efforts!

    You will face another challenge in Korea. People love to speak in English with foreigners. I am fluent but still people would answer back in English (even if I persist).
    My tip is to learn quickly to say that you dont speak English ;)

    Let me know if you want me to help when you are in Korea!
    (We can communicate in Korean/French/Spanish or Chinese :D )

  13. lemon says:

    Practice makes perfect . For a new language ,if you have somebody chat with you in it ,you can acquire it more easily than you can image .

  14. David says:

    Great update, Scott! I think Korean could go a bit easier for you since it is not a tonal language like Chinese, and the Hangul alphabet is for sure very easy. Well, at least that is what I think of it, since I speak Korean. If you and Vat need help, feel free to email me!

  15. Kevin Goetz says:

    This is a sincere question, not a ‘flame’. I see on your blog that you say you can, will or did learm Spanish in 11 weeks.

    since almost all people who grow up in Spain or other Spanish speaking cultures in
    Atin America take years to learn their language, is this statement not rather insulting to them?

    either you are light years smarter and more intelligent, or they really wasted a LOT of time.

  16. Peter Henry says:

    I was really looking forward to hearing feedback on your experiences in China. I thought your methods would be really tested due to my layman’s understanding that Chinese is plainly more difficult than English. Even though there were difficulties as you described, the method’s you’re using, especially the no English rule, still sound very promising and encouraging! Very interesting read as usual.

    All the best on your adventures in Korea!

  17. Scott Young says:

    Adam,

    That’s a good question, I’ll have to write an article about that sometime!

    Stanislaw,

    Did he tell people he wanted to practice German? Honestly I’ve met a lot of people that claim learning language X was impossible because everyone pushed them to speak in English but found it almost universally not the case. I’m inclined to believe this claim is mostly because people aren’t insistent enough on learning the language and give in too easily.

    Rob,

    Possibly. The grammar is supposedly much more complicated, so we’ll see!

    Anon,

    Soon. Vat’s still editing it.

    Chris,

    You can see my preparation breakdown with each language here:

    http://www.scotthyoung.com/blog/the-year-without-english/

    Craige,

    We have posted some here (link above), but not as many recent ones, in part because we weren’t spending as much time together in the later half. I’m going to upload some new ones here in Taiwan, and I’m also going to include some video recordings I did with some Chinese speakers for reference.

    Erik,

    Yes–feel free to write them here so if I get a chance to follow-up everyone can read my response.

    Deborah,

    That’s true, I’ll definitely need to look out for that in Korea!

    Kevin,

    No offense taken, but there’s two misconceptions in underlying your question:

    1. Neither Vat nor I have native-level Spanish. I’ve never once said anything to resemble that. For a full account of the level of Spanish we reached in 11 weeks, check here: http://www.scotthyoung.com/blog/2013/12/05/spanish-3-months/

    2. Second-language acquisition is not the same as first-language acquisition. In principle the latter should be much harder since you can’t use an existing communication tool as a basis point, however there is also some evidence that our brains as children are more plastic and can do some things our adult brains can’t as easily: http://www.scotthyoung.com/blog/2013/09/27/language-critical-period/

    -Scott

  18. Anthony says:

    One observation: seeing as the idea was to not speak English for one year, why didn’t you speak to each other in either Spanish or Portuguese while you were struggling in China?

    Problem solved!

    Anthony.

  19. Hello Scoot,
    Very well and detailed answer for the question of Kevin Goetz. I appreciate your efforts. Your blog post is great as well as your journey. Keep writing such blogs for your readers. Thanks

  20. Scott Young says:

    Anthony,

    Actually the difficulty of switching languages while learning another is an important factor. Switching to Spanish for short periods of time (say a 5-minute conversation) because Chinese is difficult, can be quite difficult if we’ve been mostly speaking Chinese for months.

    That wouldn’t mean it would have been impossible. Of course, it wasn’t impossible for us to only speak in Chinese, we just failed at upholding it.

    -Scott

  21. Peter says:

    I agree, people give in too easily and happily entertain an English response. It can also be very frustrating when someone replies in English, even rude, but there’s a simple solution: tell people you don’t speak English. I’ve used it for years, problem solved.

  22. Kent Stearman says:

    Scott,

    Thank you for the good update. I’m really hoping to meet both of you when you are in Korea. I have lived in Seoul for about 6.5 years, but, sorry to say, I only speak survival Korean. When your job is teaching English, a no-English rule is impossible.

    I think several people make some good points:

    1) The Korean writing system is actually quite easy to learn. It can literally be done in a day or two if you set your mind to it. I Highly suggest you get the basics down before you land here. While there is LOTS of English here, there are lots of situations where there isn’t enough or any. This is actually a good thing in some respects, but a problem when you have learned to depend on it, and then it isn’t there.

    2) The sentence structure, being often almost the total reverse of English, does not come naturally.

    3) Korean’s (at least in Seoul) assume all non-Koreans CAN’t and WON’t speak Korean, and either won’t talk to you, will speak English to you, or will speak native speed Korean to you–none of which are very helpful when you are trying to learn Korean.

    4) It would be very wise to already know how to say, “I can’t speak English.” (영어(를) 말할 수 없어요)

    5) Your knowledge of Chinese (at whatever level) will probably be quite helpful to learn Korean, since some 50% of Korean vocabulary comes Chinese. It is also true that there many words borrowed from English. They are nouns for the most part, so are of limited help when learning to put sentences together.

    When you are here, I will be happy to communicate with you in Spanish.

    Kent

  23. Ryan says:

    I love this idea of a no English rule and I try to abide by it whenever I am in a foreign country. I would love to read an article about how to enforce the non English rule in social situations and how to be a cool guy about it at the same time. I imagine in your situation, having a blog made it very understandable and interesting for those who were wanting to practice with you. But how would you recommend the rest of us to not succumb to the “peer pressure” to speak English and still be likeable?

Debate is fine, flaming is not. Pretend that this comment form is a discussion taking place in my house. That means I enjoy constructive criticism and polite suggestions. Personal attacks, insults and all-purpose nastiness will be removed especially if it is directed at other readers.

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