Learning Chinese over 3½ Months | 12-Min Documentary

As we did with Spain and Brazil, we filmed a short documentary chronicling our experiences learning Chinese over a little more than three months. Vat also spent hundreds of hours doing timelapses, hyperlapses and videos to try to capture a different perspective on what life is like in China. We both felt that the China we saw wasn’t always portrayed that way in Western media, so we wanted to try to capture our experiences of the largest, oldest and possibly soon-to-be most powerful culture in the world.

For my Chinese readers, unfortunately, Vimeo is blocked in China. Never fear, we’ve made a special Chinese version of the video that we’ve uploaded to YouKu. This one has Chinese subtitles so it will make it a bit easier to follow along despite the many mistakes we made in Chinese. Click here to watch the Chinese edition.

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Since this is a more impressionistic video, rather than a fuller assessment of my actual Chinese, I’ll be uploading a little later two interviews I conducted in Chinese, one with John Pasden of Sinosplice.com (and previously, ChinesePod) and another with Olle Linge of Hacking Chinese. I’ll save a fuller and more technical analysis of my thoughts on learning Chinese until then, in the meantime, enjoy the show!

  • Pierre

    You guys are amazing; you are an inspiration.
    Big thanks

  • Ryan Chen

    Wow, you’ve made great progress in such a short period! Awesome!

  • Peter

    Wow, that video was awesome. What great videography by Vat. It’s really amazing to see how confident you guys became at speaking such long, involved sentences in Chinese during the course of just three months. This language learning experiment is really enlightening!

    All the best in Korea!

  • Mimin

    Hey,

    this was my morning motivation! You guys did a great video, inspiring 🙂

    Thanks for the upload.

    –Mimin

  • Chris

    Scott,

    Will you tell us the songs played in this video?

    Thanks,

    Chris

  • Nitin

    Awesome job, Scott and Vat! I’m blown away by Vat’s video editing skills. Any reason why you aren’t uploading these videos to Youtube?

  • Berkan

    The video was awesome, it looked very professional until the recorded audio kicked in. Still a good video though.

  • Maribel

    Congratulations on your learning so much and really, it was a great video!

  • emmie

    Hi Scott,

    you have done a wonderful job! XD I’m really impressed your video!

    a bit curious, were you using Canon 5Diii for it??

  • Ryan

    Hey guys,

    Great video and what an awesome adventure you have undertaken.

    Yesterday one of my friends suggested I check out your site because I feel like I’m on something similar, having recently quit my job to move to China to learn Mandarin, and then maybe Spanish depending on how this pans out.

    My plan is to spend my first 6 months building the foundations by taking a Chinese course at university in Beijing or Shanghai and then to move to a second-tier city (I’ve been recommended Qingdao) for the following 6 months to accelerate fluency. I’m thinking now though that spending the majority of that in a second-tier city may be better as it would get me closer to 100% immersion, like you guys aimed for.

    If you have 5 minutes spare I’d love to hear your thoughts on that plan, any comments or suggestions based on your experiences so far. How would you structure things if you were doing a year in China starting from scratch? And how did you find Kunming in terms of providing an immersive experience?

    Thanks a lot in advance and all the best,
    Ryan

  • Evan

    This video and your abilities after just 3 months are quite staggering. Do you think that you guys possess unusually high intelligence or this is possible with the right approach and discipline?

    Very impressive what you guys have accomplished.

  • yifan

    酷极了!!great!!

  • Scott Young

    Chris,

    If you go to the description of the video on Vimeo, we have it in the credits. 🙂

    Berkan,

    Yes, audio has been a bit of a sore spot. Unfortunately shooting on a budget, with mostly outdoor shots, makes it a bit hard to fix.

    Ryan,

    That sounds like a good plan. My advice is to (a) start using your Chinese as soon as possible. Get in the habit of speaking only in Chinese, if not with everyone, then with a few select people. (b) Consider going no-English for your second stay, at the very least. Both of these will help you make friendships that are mostly in Chinese, which is the fastest way to accelerate your learning.

    Beyond that, I recommend getting a subscription to ChinesePod and listening to their lessons. Try to get to intermediate as soon as possible, since that is when they are speaking half in Chinese, so it’s possible to learn a lot of vocabulary and expressions passively.

    Evan,

    I can’t speak for Vat, but I believe, at least in my case, method has been about 80% of my results and 20% talent. When I first learned French, I did so much more slowly, and I believe, often ineffectually, despite having a serious motivation to learn French and the same intelligence I possess today. The difference was that I wasn’t pushing myself towards immersion–forming fewer friendships in the language and using the language less in my daily life–that resulted in a much slower acquisition rate.

    -Scott

  • Ryan

    Hey Scott,

    Thanks a lot for the advice. Reading your posts and watching the videos has been very helpful for formulating my approach and also good for my own confidence heading into this.

    It’s great to see your unorthodox mindset being validated by the results. Keep up the good work and enjoy your time in Korea.

    Ryan

  • Matt

    Hey Scott,

    I lived in China for about a year, and I can say from experience Mandarin is an extremely hard language to learn! You guys immersed yourself in it and its amazing how much you learned. I love the video too, it really brought me back to my experiences in China – especially all the neon lights at night. You guys did a great job capturing it all.

    Matt

  • Norbi

    Scott, do you know Benny Lewis’s blog about language learning, Fluentin3months.com?
    His ideas are great, I really recommend his blog for you.

  • Vivian

    This video is amazing!
    But hey, the footages used in this video has nothing to do with China.
    You should provide your readers with correct information.
    This video was obviously filmed in Taiwan.
    Notice all the writings for store signs are written in Traditional Chinese, and also CKS Memorial Hall – it’s in Taipei, Taiwan. Definitely not China.
    Loved the video, you did a great job.
    But the title and blog post is misleading.

  • Vivian

    Sorry, forgot to add that yes, some footages were filmed in China, but you should definitely add Taiwan to video description on this page. 🙂

  • Scott Young

    Vivian,

    Since the video is about learning Chinese, not just China, we included shots from our three-week stay in Taiwan. I’ve modified the description to include Taiwan.

    Norbi,

    Of course! Benny’s a good friend. We both happened to be living in Valencia during the first leg of the trip.

    -Scott

  • Linda Peng

    Hey
    I was just reading the book ‘Learn more&Study less’ a few hours ago through my lunch. It’s amazing!!! and I am a Chinese student in Beijing. The University Entrance Examination(高考) was just over and the topic of composition was ‘the old rules in Beijing’. Most Chinese students study English HARD.(for it is contained in Zhongkao&Gaokao) (敲中文了)个人觉得中文比英文难学的方面是独体字的排列,中文中没有太多的grammar口语说话也相当随意,可以说“吃了吗您?”也可以说“您吃了吗”。但相同的字在不同的句子里有不同的意思和读音,像“一个”“单一”“一些”。。。总之,作为一个Chinese看到那个video太振奋了!!!

  • Elvis li

    I’m very excited that you come to China and introduce your learning experience. I hope you can go to Xi’an, Beijing or Nanjing if you have chance in the future because they stand for the long history for China, and language is part of history.
    Thank you for your sharing.
    Good video, good job.

  • xinwei

    Wow, this is so exciting! I think you guys made excellent progress. Your immersion technique is spot on but I think additional reading materials will help advance your Chinese (that is, if you guys will continue pursuing). Have you guys notice the dialects from the places you’ve visited?
    Great job and best wishes wherever you guys go!

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