How Fluent is your Chinese?

I don’t think about my Chinese level very much. I speak it everyday and ever since I’ve been able to watch Chinese news and movies comfortably without subtitles, I’ve considered myself fluent. But what does fluent mean? There are varying levels of fluency and there always inevitably seems to be more to learn.

According to the Interagency Language Roundtable (ILR) scale, there are 5 levels of fluency:

Level 1 – Elementary proficiency
When I think of elementary proficiency I remember these conversations:
Yes, back in the day, I got praised for my amazing ability to say just a few words. Being able to say my name and order a bowl of rice was often considered “fluent.”

Level 2 – Limited working proficiency
This level is where you can be understood, but people still don’t want to talk to you because it’s frustrating and they don’t have patience. From what my friend who tutors Chinese says, most students who study Chinese in America stay at about this level. I think a lot of people give up right about here. This is also the level where every few words or sentences people ask: 能听明白吗?

Level 3 – Professional working proficiency
This is where you can talk about mostly anything, but still sound like a foreigner and have to reword things for lack of proper vocabulary. Most people who study Chinese in China end up at about this level. This is level where you hear: 你说真不错但还不是大山

Level 4 – Full professional proficiency
When people talk about fluency, I think of it at about here. This is where people stop asking you if you can understand what they are saying and assume you can. Even though people sometimes praise 哇,你说比中国人还好,you know in your heart that you don’t. People who speak this well usually have spent a lot of time living in China.

Level 5 – Native or bilingual proficiency
This is where you can start quoting Confucius and use idioms to prove all points.

So I had an oral language assessment today. It’s made me think about what level of fluency I actually am. My husband makes fun of my Chinese all the time so I know I really don’t speak that well. I do like to watch those Chinese competitions on TV and laugh at how easy the questions are and yet the people can’t answer them. The thing is though, I think I did poorly on my assessment. I got nervous and started rambling and couldn’t think of anything to say. The proctor kept pushing me towards more serious topics like pollution or history, but I kept rambling about other things. It reminded me of my Chinese 6 final oral exam where I got a low score for not demonstrating higher levels of vocabulary, though the teacher asked me if he could use my written thesis to teach his other classes. It makes me look at those foreigners on TV and think that they are probably pretty nervous too. I bet they speak better when not under duress. Actually, some of those contestants are amazing and could speak circles around me, but anyways. I won’t know the results of my assessment for two weeks. I’m afraid to know what my assessment is. If you can already communicate fluently, does how fluent you are really matter though?

So what would you say is your Fluency?
Is it worth it to strive to a level 5?
Do all Chinese spouses make fun the other’s language skills?



Filed under language

8 responses to “How Fluent is your Chinese?

  1. thelocaldialect

    I’m probably at about a level 4 and really I can’t be arsed to reach a level 5. I don’t really have the time or desire to learn loads of chengyu and to be honest I think I’d feel like a bit of a jackass if I could speak like Dashan. I used to have a friend when I lived in Kunming who spoke pretty decent Chinese, and the guy went and studied Chinese in Beijing for a semester and came back full of er-hua and chengyu, having studied 相声 of all things, and I just remember thinking “who does this guy think he is, anyhow?” It would be like if I went around quoting Shakespeare and throwing GRE vocab words into every sentence in English.

    I do get the “whoa, you speak better Chinese than the Chinese” comments, and, you know, I do think I speak better Chinese than a lot of Hong Kong movie stars I see on TV, so maybe it isn’t a total lie! My husband also makes fun of my Chinese sometimes, but he also compliments me fairly often. He likes rating my Chinese versus that of other foreigners we see on TV and out and about and luckily I usually win. My husband knows that he has no room to talk about anyone else’s language skills what with his 20-year-out-of-date high school English anyhow.

    Seriously though, I think unless you plan on being a professional interpreter getting your spoken Chinese up to the Da Shan level is probably not necessary. Written language is different, and you can do very good work as a translator while still having relatively mediocre spoken language skills. I think being able to use the language and communicate effectively is far more important than learning the flashy stuff. I suppose if you have a lot of time on your hands, a real talent for languages, and a real desire to become one of those rare foreigners who actually does speak better Chinese than a good percentage of the Chinese population (seriously! how many farmers can speak like Da Shan?) the go for it, otherwise it probably isn’t necessary.

    • I think even Chinese people are starting to catch on that there just isn’t a reason to learn that much Chinese. I’ve seen Chinese sitcoms where they make fun of foreigners who speak Chinese so well that they sound like a book. I agree that 4 is the place to be.

      That and living in Shenzhen will give any Mandarin learner a confidence boost.

  2. I’m so late to this convo, so my apologies, but it’s an interesting topic.

    I definitely know what it’s like to struggle with Chinese, as I certainly did in the beginning, when I first came to China and could speak no Chinese at all. It’s hard b/c China’s educational system is so competitive, so people always compare themselves with others — and by association, Chinese will compare your Chinese skills with others as well. I remember how once, one of my students told me that my partner (an American woman who, like me, came here with almost zero Chinese ability) spoke better Chinese than I did. I don’t know why it hit me hard, but his words did. After that, I was determined to learn, but of course, I needed a while to get to fluency.

    For most of us, 4 is really good enough. I’m sure my ego would love to get up to a 5 level — and certainly, foreigners who do feel entitled to bragging rights. I remember that, for a time, I used to feel “unworthy” because I might never reach a Da Shan level. But most of us don’t really need that — and, for that matter, most of us don’t really enjoy getting up on TV (or on stage) and performing! So, it really depends on your needs, and even your future job.

  3. scottishlaura

    I found your blog from Jocelyn’s speaking of China, and already know Jess from Local Dialect, seems like the community of foreign wives is gradually getting bigger and better connected.

    Anyway, regards, language level I agree 4 is good and think I am there spoken wise, although there are still big holes in my vocab. What I would like now is to be able to read better and retain more written Chinese but I know there’s no magic pill for that, just hard work. Interesting too though. And my husband is very supportive of me speaking Chinese, he rarely makes fun of me, except when I am reading something and say “shenme shenme” when I come across characters I don’t know – he says our 6 year old son now does this too!

    Did you get the results of your oral test yet?

    • It’s really nice to find other women out there.
      I just got a simple pass. They won’t tell me my actual level until/unless I get invited to do more formal testing. Makes me wish I had taken the HSK so I’d have a better idea of my own level.

  4. Justin Liu

    If you guys have kids make sure to teach them whatever language you want them to have at a young age. Language it seems gets harder and harder as you get older. German at age 4 took no time at all, english took longer at age 10 and now the Chinese I’ve forgotten (after going to grade 4 in China) is taking forever to relearn. It seems that while going from level 1 to 5 is very hard work, it is quite easy to go from level 5 to level 3 and functional illiteracy.

  5. Stephanie Feng

    Super late reply and I hope this interesting post is still alive. I really don’t know in which I should consider myself in, maybe around lvl 3 and 4 since I speak chinese with my parents at home and have no problems communicating but if I try to get deeper into chenyu and try to enrich my sentences with proverbs it’s hard. Justin has got a point there, when you are a kid you’re like a sponge. (Quote from Little Fokers xD) I recently went to China and found out that many new words are created and different meanings added to a word, creation of the youngsters there. That’s not really something you get to learn at a school and people look at you weird when you use what they’d call ‘ancient words’.

    • I agree, textbook language is different from what you hear people use conversationally in real life, sometimes laughably so. Language seems to be changing even faster with texting and the Internet too. More challenges to ever feeling truly proficient.

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