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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