Fluent Mandarin

June 06, 2013

Fluent Mandarin - reading, writing, talking like a native

Can you be fluent in Mandarin in 3 months? Can you learn to speak Mandarin fluently in 6 months? How long does it take for a native English speaker to become fluent in Chinese?

"When I started learning Chinese, I was horrified to hear that it would take me 10 years to become fluent. 27 years later I'm still working at it. Due to my work on television, some Chinese language learners may consider me a role model of sorts, but every day I'm reminded of what I don't know and how much more there is to learn....One lifetime is not enough to attain the level of a native speaker, unless you start before the age of 10." - Mark Rowswell, AKA Dashan

I love my polyglot friend Benny Lewis for his enthusiam, talent and love of languages, but his fluent Mandarin in 3 months, is a very different goal than ours for Chinese fluency and literacy for our trilingual kid.

My kid working on writing Chinese at an airport...I think Bangkok headed to Bhutan

Learning ANY language is a lifelong pursuit, (probably even more so for Mandarin since it is one of the world's hardest languages),so the definition of ‘fluency’ depends on each individual’s goals. Reading and writing well in Chinese was part of our goal as well as speaking Mandarin fluently.

"Getting fluent in Mandarin is extremely difficult, and very few non-Chinese people are able to become functional speakers and writers of Mandarin" Truett Black

Our goal has been to get Mozart as close to native level fluency and literacy in Mandarin and Spanish that we could during childhood and we started in the womb. She was somewhat fluent in Mandarin as a toddler, but we had to drop it for a while because as monolingual and non-musical parents, raising her in three languages with two instruments, just became too much. We found ways to raise a multilingual child at home as well as abroad using worldschooling ( our own unique blend of homeshooling with dips into local foreign schools for immersion).

"Becoming fluent in any language is a dream many people have, but few achieve." Olle Linge

 The U.S. State Department’s Foreign Service Institute says Mandarin is one of the five most difficult languages in the world for native English speakers to learn. The British Foreign Service believes that less than 3% of the population is actually able to learn languages of a completely different concept and alphabet, such as Mandarin.

little girl doing Mandarin Chinese homework in Barcelona under the trees

There is a myth that says a child who is proficient in speaking a language is fluent, but this is just not so as there are different levels to being "fluent" in a language. Proficiency in face-to-face communication doesn't imply proficiency in more complex academic language needed in a classroom or in life. Mozart has been fluent in Spanish from birth, but having gone to a local school in Spain  for 4 winters where she was totally immersed with teachers who spoke no English, learning written Spanish and reading Spanish in the same way as locals,  her "fluency" level is much greater than any other way we, as monolinguals could have given her.

American girl at 6 on first day of school in Spain

The same is true about learning Mandarin in Penang at a Chinese school where our child, at just  10 years old, was the youngest, smallest, only Caucasian to go to this large campus, 1000-kid Chinese High School ( with a majority of male pupils) where caning, after school tutoring, long hours,6 days a week and a "Dicipline Master" are all  part of the traditonal curriculum.

"Unfortunately, it is unlikely that you will turn the corner to full spoken fluency until you have lived among Mandarin speakers in a primarily Chinese environment for at least six months." truettblack

Trust me, we DID worry on that first day of school in Spain at barely 6 and then in Penang at 10, when  we sent our most beloved baby off to these schools and environments.She did thrive in the sink or swim method because she is a brave kid who is very supported, but there can be no gain without taking some calculated risks, and we have always had great confidence in her abilities.

Gaining this "American fluent trilingual" status has been a HUGE, long term family goal that has taken a lot of sacrifice and work (similar to raising an Olympic champion). It's not the kind of thing that happens by accident or you'd see a lot of fluent triliingual Amercian kids with monolingual parents.

Only American kid in a Chinese High School

Many Chinese parents in America and even in Malaysia, do not raise kids who are fluent in Mandarin Chinese, just as many Hispanic native Spanish speaking parents in America ( and other nationalities) fail to raise their kids as fluent biliguals ( even when they try). Many travelers and expats in Spain, China and everywhere can be there for years or decades and never learn the language. Why? It takes a huge and long commitment with LOTS of hard work to become fully fluent and literate in a second language.

That is why we are extremely proud that Mozart won the trophy for the Mandarin Elocution contest at her Chinese school...the first time in it's 63 year history that a Caucasian won it!  What can say FLUENT IN MANDARIN better than that? Perhaps all the native Chinese Mandarin speakers who said if one could just hear it without seeing her, they would think she was Chinese!

As much as anything this is a post to acknowledge the VERY hard work Mozart has put in and sacrifices she has made to get this fluency in Mandarin and Spanish while keeping up with other passions like singing, writing, reading, advanced maths, violin, piano, art, environmental issues etc. We were open to her quitting and even suggested it a few times as the "finish" point is really up to her,  but she wanted to continue.

Girl dressed in Bedoin clothes in Wadi Rum doing Chinese homework

We are back to homeschooling now, but she works with an excellent Chinese tutor one-on-one in person four times a week ( plus lots of homework)  and talks to friends in China almost every night for a few hours on Skype. She is almost midway through the fourth grade Primary school curriculum ( having completed the first 3 years) and we will complete through the 6th grade level before leaving ( by early next spring). At this point she can actually go faster outside of the school as she doesn't have to wait for the other students, but can go at her own pace.

She will likely also take the Mandarin AP course or exam( for high school and college credit) and HSK test before we leave ( which I am told she should be able to pass at the highest level 6). Pretty amazing for a 12 year old American kid and allows her eligibilty for University classes in China if she should want that. Harvard, Yale, Johns Hopkins etc  already are in China and many say China's Universities are headed for the global clout of Oxford or Harvard.

Kid in California doing Chinese homework

We have all sacrificed some freedom and travel to help her get this Mandarin. Because of her age ( language learning is easier before puberty) we wanted to get as much deep Mandarin in her as possible, so added it strongly again when she was 9 while in Spain before basing in Penang with travel to China.

But as you can see by all these photos from around the world, whenever we traveled she kept up with her Mandarin practice and homework and skype lessons. She almost never had to be reminded and would do it on her own ( she was also motivated because she wanted to stay with her classmates and not get behind).

  Girl at the Dead Sea doing Chinese writing

For us, the risk and hard work has paid off and we can almost see the finish line for this commitment and goal and she is excited to start on French next spring in France ( after time in Spain with beloved friends) which should be MUCH easier than Chinese ( because she is fluent in Spanish).

According to this site:

Average years of school for people 25 years and older in China is  3.6 years for females; 6 years for males (Compared to 1.2 years for females and 3.5 years for males in India; and 12.4 years for females and 12.2 years for males in the United States. According to the World Bank 93 percent of Chinese males complete the 5th grade.

So if it is correct, that makes Mozart's Mandarin education better than your average female in China ( although obviously not as good as a wealthy city dweller Uni grad).

Interestingly, she has just got her first job at 12...teaching a Danish child Spanish in Asia! I think she will be using these skills for many years to come, what do you think?

American girl wins two trophies for winning Chinese and English eloction contests
We don't get many comments on this blog. I am not sure why.  BUT we sometimes do get lots of comments on Facebook. The trouble with that is they soon disappear and out of site, out of mind.

I want Mozart to always have these wonderful comments, so I am adding them to this post as a way of keeping it for her as a permanent record. Some may see this as a braggy post, but I see this as an acknowledgement post to a kid who has worked very hard to earn this Mandarin fluency and I probably don't tell her enough in person, just how proud I am of her and honored to be her mom.

She is such a happy and great kid, and I am not sure what I ever did right to deserve her. I am so proud of what a good team we can be together...all three of us, in reaching hard goals. Thank you all too for being such a supportive audience!


MUST see! Mozart's Mandarin Speech is a FIRST in 63 year history of her famous Chinese High School! Woot!!

  • Woot!! My 12 year old just won FINALS ( one of just 5 picked in her 1000 kid Chinese high school in Asia) in the MANDARIN elocution contest!! This week she competes in front of the whole school and hopes to win first prize!

    She won the English elocution contest at 10 here, but wanted to push herself to something more demanding this year! She is the only one who wrote her own speech...a great one about Lao Tzu.

    The current youtube video coming soon ...which will also give you an idea how great her Mandarin is these days! ;) She loves public speaking and seems to have a knack for it. ;)

  • We have a soultravelers fan page, soultravelers group on facebook as well as my Jeanne Dee personal page ( so we get comments on all three )

  • The post was shared over 20 times and got even more comments like this from people who do not know anything about us from around the world:

Huge benefit of making money abroad. Bilingual children. Very inspiring for children around the world. Huge congrats to this young woman from California! 祝贺您! @Elliott Ng. Thanks for posting
Unlike · · March 14 at 5:05pm ·

She is so amazing! It was a wonderful speech, well done and she presented it so well in her Mandarin between a couple of years in Penang Chinese High School...
Unlike · · March 15 at 8:32pm · This post is part of the Multilingual Blog Carnival too.
"Getting fluent in Mandarin is extremely difficult, and very few non-Chinese people are able to become functional speakers and writers of Mandarin" Truett Black

« previous | | next »


TrackBack URL for this entry:

Listed below are links to weblogs that reference Fluent Mandarin:


Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.

Tenzing Thinley

Thanks for this information. I have the same goals for my kids and I think it is super important for kids to learn Chinese and other languages because of the global setting for future careers. Plus you never fully understand cultures unless you learn their languages.

I will be following your guidance very closely in the future as we travel. Thank you .


Many congrats, Miss Mozart. I have been following your story since you were studying in Spain, and its been incredibly inspiring to see a young person put so much courage and work into this.

I also have a goal to learn four languages (I am at a sixth grade reading and writing level with my second language, which is also an Asian language); unfortunately I did not start until I was an adult. But I get the hard work involved. *high five*

Jeanne @soultravelers3

Thanks and good for you Tenzing! I so agree that it is important to give our kids languages when young, but it is definitely a long commitment for the whole family to make that happen.

We had to slow our travel down for the Mandarin, but it was worth it.

Happy travel planning...after almost 8 years of it, we feel that it has been more than worth it and the best decision of our lives!

Jeanne @soultravelers3

Thanks so much Marlana! We've really enjoyed having you along on our journey through the blog and facebook! ;) One of these days soon hopefully we will meet when we head up that way to northern Thailand to meet those tribes you have told us about.

Good for you and your language learning goals and hard work! Keep it up!!


Bravo Mozart !

Je suis sûre que tu feras aussi bien en Français et que tu aimera notre belle langue.

(Congratulations Mozart ! I'm sure you'll do just as good in French and that you will love our beautiful language.)

Maybe we'll get a chance to meet you all IRL. Have you already decided where you will be staying?

Great accomplishment guys!



Oups... That´s "tu aimeras", must not get you confused!

Jeanne @soultravelers3

Aw, thanks or Merci Gabrielle!

Mozart already loves French and has been wanting to learn it for a long time, but we wanted to get the Chinese in first as it is a harder language...especially writing.

Not that French is so easy, but should be easier for her than Chinese. ;)

I hope we do get to meet. We don't really have it planned out yet, but will likely spend more of our time in southern France as we love it there. ...and the sun. ;)


What great parents! What a hard-working and talented child! She certainly did a great job! And this is her third language! How impressive is that!! My 11 year old daughter speaks with no accent because I speak Mandarin with her, but her vocabulary is not as advanced as Mozart's. I wish she would work as hard as Mozart does, or as motivated... Well, as a parent, I haven't tried hard either. Way to go, Mozart and family! You have my deep respect and admiration!

We are going to Spain for a few weeks this fall. Hope it will be a good experience for us too.

Stephanie @InCultureParent

Wow- this post was so inspiring and you guys must be so proud! I am so impressed by how self-motivated she is to study Chinese so hard in so many places around the world. We are on a similar trilingual journey with our kids with Spanish and Arabic. You are a very inspiring family- keep up the great work! (And if you are ever interested in submitting a post to us, I would love it!)

Jeanne @soultravelers3

Thanks so much River for your kind words! I know many Chinese parents that don't raise their kids in you certainly have worked hard to give it to your daughter. Congrats!

Mandarin writing is hard, so I can't say Mozart is always super motivated and she does sometimes just write fast like she is doing above just to get it done..although she can do better if she wants. ;)

She doesn't really bulk at the work, thankfully, but that is her weakness...just wanting to get it done when there is a lot of writing to be done. Although she is also pretty good at Chinese Calligraphy as she loves doing it with a paint brush.

I wish she had the gift of a Mom speaking it to her, but the writing is a challenge even for Mandarin speaking kids in practice makes perfect and comes with the territory. ;)

Vocab also takes time with reading and talking..but worth the effort, but like I said above, learning languages is a life long challenge that never ends.

Have fun in Spain!!

Jeanne @soultravelers3

I so appreciate that Stephanie. especially from a parent who understands the challenges.

I'd love to submit a post some day as I certainly have deep passion about raising a multilingual and multicultural kid. ;)


Great. I'll email you all soon.


First of all, if I were you I'd definitely be bragging about it too! Adding the FB comments to this blog post was a wonderful idea. Congrats on her winning the Mandarin Elocution contest! I saw the video, and though I didn't understand a word she said, I truly enjoyed just listening to her. Wonderful blog post! By the way, passing through from the Multilingual Carnival. :)

Post a comment

Comments are moderated, and will not appear on this weblog until the author has approved them.

If you have a TypeKey or TypePad account, please Sign In.

Enter your email address:

Delivered by FeedBurner