FULL INTERVIEW: This Medical Student Learned To Speak Phenomenal Chinese Within **One Year** in the UK with his Efficiency Focused Methods Have Sending Shockwaves Reverberating Throughout The Language Learning World

As promised, here is my full interview with Will Hart, a 20 year old medical student who on the eve of the first UK lockdown in 2020 had never been to a Chinese speaking country, had no Chinese family and had never had any meaningful contact with the language in any form.

Fast forward 12 months and he posted a short video to YouTube speaking with the kind of fluency many people fail to reach after more than a decade studying the language immersed in Chinese speaking countries.

How did he do it? That’s what I wanted to find out when I invited him on my podcast.

Are you afraid of early output and tempted by input purism? Wondering why you’re not fluent yet even though you’ve read 100 novels? Frustrated that you can never remember corrections?

See how you feel after listening the full podcast on this link: How This Medical Student Became Totally Fluent in Chinese Within One Year While Living in the UK (Podcast) – I'm Learning Mandarin

For more podcasts please subscribe via email on link above or on Apple/ Spotify. Enjoy!!

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Whoever is gonna listen to the podcast, please describe it in a nutshell here in the comments. Here in Russia we have only the Big Brother Radio now, ain’t no spotify-shmotify.

@Michilini, you deserve an award for the title :smiley:

This is a great listen, thank you!

It’s not an exaggeration to say it has made me rethink my entire approach.

I saw that the blog post which preceded this podcast generated a lot of discussion on the forum - I think that in itself demonstrates that there is something interesting going on here. As somebody who has been learning Mandarin for a while, I agree that what Will has done is pretty much unheard of. I am really excited about trying out some new methods off the back of this podcast.

One of the challenges in talking about language learning is that it can be hard to precisely quantify ability, and there are so many variables that each person’s experience will be slightly different, and can never be replicated exactly. So rich qualitative insight (like this interview) is often our best bet in giving a sense of what best practice might look like. Thank you for sharing it with us :slight_smile:

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Thank you, titles are indeed an art and I am still learning my craft :slight_smile:

Here are some alternative links where you’ll hopefully be able to listen to the podcast:

Good conversation. Really appreciate it. A lot of good points to take away but for me, it was trying to interact with natives as much as possible and creating personal experiences. It helps you to think in your target language. Also doing those dull things like shadowing/imitating every day. Consistency is key.

Once again thank you for sharing this interview.

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Thanks Essie, really glad you liked the podcast :slight_smile: This was one of my favourite interviews I’ve done so far.

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Thanks for listening and really glad you enjoyed the podcast. Stay tuned for more great interviews & podcasts soon :slight_smile:

Great stuff! Some standout points:

Friends
Will’s circle of Chinese friends was not only a constant motivating factor but provided a source of meaning. It is easy to see language learning as an activity apart from ones “real” life, thus making it unnecessarily abstract. This reminds me of Benny Lewis, who deliberately put himself in high-stakes situations to speed up his learning. I’m sure similar mechanisms are at play here.

Deliberately
By soliciting corrections from native speakers and making corrections to his speech, Will created a feedback loop. This can be very powerful, but how can one get Will’s result without access to a pool of infinitely patient, friendly natives? A potential solution might come from the YouTuber “Language Lords”, who created a self-directed feedback mechanism by recording himself speak, then watching the resulting video, noting mistakes, and then retaking a hopefully improved video. Maybe that can approximate the effect? This is at least what I plan to use to activate my Chinese.
I’m glad Will mentioned the Shadowing technique, which used to be a favorite of mine. Since I have recently fallen out of the habit it’s good to get a reminder to pick it up again.

Chill
For a number of reasons, our hero, Will, has gotten really good really fast. These reasons may include his circumstances, his talent, his methods. Some of these components, we may be able to incorporate in our own study routines, some we may be able to substitute, some not. In the end I find it most important not to stress out and endlessly cogitate about the optimal approach to language learning or brood over other people’s successes. My choice is to just run my own race: less think, more do :slight_smile:
Have a good one everyone.

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Listening to the podcast now…should be a good inspiration!

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Great! Hope you enjoy it. Let me know your thoughts :slight_smile:

Thanks for listening. Yes I agree completely. I think the best thing to do with these cases is to mine them for wisdom and then apply that wisdom to your own learning in a way that suits you best.

For me these are the main takeways from Will’s story I will be applying to my own learning in future and suggest for others who have a similar goal of learning to speak languages (especially Chinese) well::

1.) The “early output is dangerous” myth is dead and buried. Will alone didn’t discredit it but the evidence is now so strong and there are so many cases that contradict it that I see him as the final nail in the coffin. Please nobody ever repeat this again. If you hear ever anybody state this myth as fact ask them for evidence and when they inevitably reply they don’t have any ignore them and go on your way.

  1. With Chinese, please for the love of god (if it isn’t already too late) focus on tones and pronunciation from the start. Don’t read novels before you’ve learned how to pronounce properly. If it is already too late please read my in-depth guide for the majority of learners who have bad tones at intermediate-advanced levels. There are interventions that will help you get back on track. The road will be painful, long and arduous but these interventions are effective as I have found from personal experience: It’s Never Too Late to Learn Chinese Tones. Here’s How – I'm Learning Mandarin

  2. Also with Chinese specifically, use a space repetition system that focuses on WHOLE SENTENCES and phrases rather than memorising thousands of words in isolation. Internalise the grammar in this way and DO NOT, under any circumstances, approach the challenge of Chinese grammar in a similar way to how you might approach european languages. Memorise some common patterns and structures but do not spend lots of time reading about abstract grammar rules.

  3. Make hundreds of thousands of mistakes, get native speakers to make you aware of each and every single one, write them all down and drill them with a space repetition system like Anki. Find native speakers who aren’t polite (this is quite hard in Chinese) and instruct them to correct you not only on pronunciation and grammar violations but on use of language which sounds slightly “off” and now how a native speaker would say it. If the language you are studying is Chinese and the native speaker is being honest with you, it is likely that at first every sentence you might wish to utter will be at least slightly wrong. Don’t be put off, just drill the correct way of saying it and get it right next time.

  4. Mass input is one key component among others NOT the end of the story. Input extremism is damaging. So is the idea that adults learn languages in the same way as Children acquire their L1. WE DON’T. The differences may have been exaggerated in the past but the swing in the other direction has been too violent and extreme. Will shows us that efficient adult language acquisition requires major intervention: space repetition, constant and relentless correction and feedback from native speakers. This is worth saying because there are people out there who think that because they’ve immersed in 100 novels that means one day they will be able to open their mouth and magically speak. This is deluded and tragic.

  5. If your goal is to learn to speak and understanding the conversational language within a reasonable time frame then focus on learning the things YOU want to say and understanding things which are relevant to conversations YOU want to have.

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Good points, Michilini!
However, each of the points you mention is worth discussing in depth, as none of them is as obvious as it seems.

Unfortunately, I’m hard pressed for time right now because I’ve got to prepare a project involving various business processes so here are just a few brief remarks on your first point (let’s say as an appetizer for the near future):

The myth “early output is dangerous” is dead and buried.

  1. Apart from certain input-oriented online groups (MIA, AJATT, Refold, etc.) early outputting is the norm both in schools and universities (not only in Germany, but also worldwide).
    And this means: The lack of exposure to a lot of compelling and comprehensible content is still the main problem in these environments!

  2. Krashen, Steve, Matt, and others would reply to you that the crucial thing in interacting with others is the input you get from them. So the deciding factor would still be input, not output :slight_smile:

  3. However (and that’s my position based on advanced research reg. communication as social emergence):
    The “input/output” relationship and the corresponding “sender-receiver” model per se are deeply flawed when applied to human communication and lead to nonsensical conclusions:
    a) Input (listening/reading) = “passive” and output (speaking, writing = active

b) And even better:
There is “active and passive vocabulary” and “active and passive listening”.

  • We discussed on the LingQ forum a few months agp that the distinction “active / passive listening” is completely useless: Blog post: Why "passive listening" is bad for you - Open Forum - LingQ Language Forums
  • A similar “logic” applies to the distinction “active / passive vocabulary”.
    c) And as if that wasn’t enough, there are more than enough people who seem to believe that communication is the transfer of “thoughts” from one mind to another mind or the “fusion” of minds (“social mind”, “intersubjectivity”, “global consciousness”, “group consciousness”, yada, yada, yada).
    The absurdities seem to know no end!

I don’t intend to open that can of worms right now, but definitely in a few months when I’ve finished an updated version of German texts that I wrote a few years ago as parts of my PhD project.

Anyway, the only thing that is still valid right now is this: exposure to a lot of comprensible content both by immersion and social interactions is a must!

Everything else (i.e. communication models, Universal Grammar à la Chomsky, innatism vs constructivism, etc.) is open for discussion. And this means also that a lot of the old stuff (esp. the sender-receiver / IO model of communication applied to humans) has to be updated because we’re living in 2022, not in the 1950s any more :slight_smile:

To be continued.

Cheers
Peter

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Related to 1) I tend to break things into “you can do it now or do it later, but you have to do it”. With learning you can’t cram or force yourself to learn anything within a time, so you need to plant the seed far earlier than when you need it.

A learner of an L2, with the goal of having native like abilities in all areas, will have to make a lot of these decisions. They could start with everything from Day 1, but that is going to overwhelm almost anyone, at least for distance L2’s with alien writing systems.

So for most it will make sense to strategically stagger aspects of the L2. “Parking Lot” them or “plug holes” with the intention of fixing it later.

Some might choose to ignore writing, some might choose to ignore gender, case, tones, or forego speaking altogether for a period of time. There is probably an “optimal” way to stack them, but IMO the order should come from what’s important to the individual.

Where I think “speaking early” might become a “trap” is where we never try to address the things we put in the parking lot. If we become comfortable and stop trying to improve, those areas we ignored will stay unrefined. This is easily rectified by the individual, but, like everything else, it requires intention and deliberate effort.

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Two more thoughts for food for the following days:

  1. “drill them with a space repetition system like Anki”
    Extensive reading works like a “natural SRS.” That is, we know from SLA research that extensive reading amazingly expands learners’ vocabulary (not to mention the fact that reading is usually more interesting and motivating than using only artificial SRS)!

  2. What we should compare is

  • not fluency first vs (ultra)reading while listening (after learning complex writing systems), for example,
  • but the whole package, i.e. listening + speaking + reading (while listening) + writing.
    That is:
  • If someone adopts an MIA / input first approach, (s)he will still need to speak (and write) a few hundred hours to reach a high (or even native-like) level of speaking and writing. But his / her advantage is that speaking in particular will be a breeze.
  • If Will wants to have the full skillset as well, he still has the harder part ahead of him, i.e. learning thousands of Chinese characters, reading and writing a lot.
    The comparison for the whole language package is therefore, e.g.:
  • fluency first + learning the writing system + (ultra)reading while listening
    versus
  • learning the writing system first + (ultra)reading while listening + fluency second.
    In other words:
    Will’s approach is, in my opinion (so far), only the clear winner when two conditions are given:
  1. Learners are happy to speak fluently (speaking + listening), but are also content to be illiterate.
  2. There are complicated writing systems involved.

This would mean, for example, that in my next language experiment (Dutch) I expect Will’s approach to no longer have many advantages over “(ultra)reading while listening from minute 1 plus Fluency Second”.

In sum:
it depends on the specific use cases (goals, time constraints, etc.) and the distance of the L2s, especially the difficulty of the pronunciation and writing system(s), which mix of approaches is superior.

To be continued.

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My last comment for today.

From my perspective, it probably boils down to these three use cases:

USE CASE 1:
Relatively “easy” languages (let’s say: Germanic / Romance languages for closely related Indo-European native speakers): when it comes to mastering all four language skills, it doesn’t really matter if a “fluency first and then URL second” approach or “an URL first and fluency second approach” is adopted.

USE CASE 2:
For distant languages with difficult pronunciation, an unfamiliar writing system and the whole skillset: fluency first à la Will and URL second is IMO the way to go.

USE CASE 3:
L2s between these two extremes,e.g.: Russian, Vietnamese (with its Latin script), etc. as L2s to be acquired by German, English, etc. native speakers - or vice versa: I don’t know :slight_smile:

Use case 1 is probably not interesting, but the decision for use cases 2 and 3 is:

  • Hard first (learning the writing system + URL), easy later (beyond conversational fluency)?
  • Easy first (conversational fluency). hard later (learning the writing system + URL)?
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Hi Peter. First off, many thanks for listening to the podcast and for your detailed response.

  1. Krashen, Steve, Matt, and others would reply to you that the crucial thing in interacting with others is the input you get from them. So the deciding factor would be still input, not output :slight_smile:

First of all I don’t think Steve or Krashen have ever said that early output is dangerous so this doesn’t apply to them. Secondly, my point stands. If someone wants to say it is dangerous - despite the mountains of evidence to the contrary then the way to proceed is simple. Present the evidence.

Extensive reading works like a “natural SRS.” That is, we know from SLA research that extensive reading amazingly expands learners’ vocabulary (not to mention the fact that reading is usually more interesting and motivating than using only artificial SRS)!

Really. Have you tried learning characters to advanced literacy in a character based language? If so I have no idea how you managed it without some kind of space repetition intervention. In my experience, reading acts as a natural space repetition system for the most common words and characters. But in Chinese if you want to be literate you need 3000+ characters. Good luck getting from 2000-3000 without something like Anki. Some people use memory techniques but that’s still an intervention. In either case immersion is clearly insufficient rendering your argument null and void.

In other words:
Will’s approach is, in my opinion (so far), only the clear winner when two given conditions are given:

  1. Learners are content to speak fluently (speaking + listening), but are also content to be illiterate.
  2. There are complicated writing systems involved.

Three words that instantly and completely demolish your argument here: Will. Can. Read. He hasn’t practiced reading much, but nevertheless he can read. This is actually a very commonly reported experience among people who achieve excellent oral skills and drilled flashcards to learn characters while learning to speak. Their literacy skills advance at lightning pace because, like children, they already know the words. And, better than that, they already know the characters.

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@michilini:
The “early output is dangerous” myth is dead and buried.
By itself maybe. But I’m not sure you can tease out the combination of other factors. Unless you’re just saying that output is part of the mix. I’ll buy that with output the other factors are complemented. I don’t by that output in and of itself is key. Benny Lewis showed it isn’t when he attempted Mandarin. So other factors are necessary.
2. With Chinese, please for the love of god (if it isn’t already too late) focus on tones and pronunciation from the start.
This is probably fair. And for distant languages in general (tonal or otherwise) that have very different pronunciation
than your native language.

  1. Also with Chinese specifically, use a space repetition system that focuses on WHOLE SENTENCES and phrases rather than memorising thousands of words in isolation. Internalise the grammar in this way and DO NOT, under any circumstances, approach the challenge of Chinese grammar in a similar way to how you might approach european languages. Memorise some common patterns and structures but do not spend lots of time reading about abstract grammar rules.
    I’ve been thinking about this one and to me this is the least solid conclusion of all. For grammar in particular, how do you know he didn’t obtain the grammar from taking part in conversation (i.e. immersion) and passively from his massive input.
    So while this might be true, there was no double blind control so it’s not statistically valid enough to be able to draw a solid conclusion. So I’m not buying it.
    I do buy the part about not spending lots of time reading about abstract grammar rules. That’s a given and most polyglots know this already.

  2. Mass input is one key component among others NOT the end of the story.
    While I agree with most of your points here I think you have missed something. Will spent a massive amount of time. Much more than most people would. It is not therefore legitimate to discount mass input in the way you have hand waved away. In fact, a large component of his success is immersion for a solid year every day pretty much every day for the first six months and several hours for the rest. He had a chinese girlfriend. He had/has chinese friends. I don’t think you can say this doesn’t count as mass input.
    My personal theory about immersion is this: get dropped into prison. In a year you’ll speak the language fluently.

  3. If your goal is to learn to speak and understanding the conversational language within a reasonable time frame then focus on learning the things YOU want to say and understanding things which are relevant to conversations YOU want to have.
    I don’t agree with this at all. In fact unless you are immersed this will be counterproductive. You need to learn the most relevant frequency words or you’re done.

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@michilini: But in Chinese if you want to be literate you need 3000+ characters
But not just the characters you’re interested in or like the look of right?
The 3000+ most frequent characters.

Michilini,
Do not write off other approaches. This is David Long who learned to speak Thai through listening and no speaking, writing, and reading in the meantime. He listened, listened and listened. He ended up speaking Thai almost as a native speaker with no prior speaking practice. However, it took him 30 months of listening 6-7 hours every day. Speaking emerged on its own. All he had done was listening and guessing like a child does. It is a long time and plenty of patience is required for this method to work.
If Will is honest about his timeline, what he has done is commendable.
Just watch this conversation with an open mind and see if you agree with Davids ALG approach which is based on input and observing silent period in terms of speaking output.

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@Michilini, I largely agree with you, but I feel two points could use some clarification.

Regarding speaking: I would like to differentiate between:
1 making sounds:
For example using the shadowing technique. Starting to make sounds as early as possible, seems sensible to me: it trains the muscles, sharpens the hearing, reduces fear of speaking…

2 talking to people:
Will is a great example of how this can work early on, but it needs the right conditions: kind, patient, willing native speakers, but also in the case someone like Benny Lewis the ability to discard fear of imperfection and being judged.

My opinion is that delaying 2 somewhat to improve one’s vocabulary and listening comprehension can be beneficial. Understanding the other party gives you at least a chance at formulating a response. That’s why I plan to develop my listening comprehension to a “practical” level (let’s say: understanding podcasts effortlessly) before bothering native speakers. This choice is of course a reflection of my own personality and circumstances and has no bearing on Will’s example. I would say I’m closer to Steve Kaufmann on this matter than to antimoon.com / AJATT. The latter two are also opposed to 1 of course.

3 speaking to yourself / thinking in the target language:
I feel this is a good practice for the phase between 1 and 2. It doesn’t require listening comprehension but still allows practicing the sentence structure, formulating thoughts in the TL and provides at least some feedback, albeit not from natives.

Re: SRS
I do not do Anki, nor have I ever. So whatever I know about characters, I have learned by writing them out by hand, watching subtitled videos or listening and reading on LingQ. I don’t have an argument it’s just that I don’t think Anki is strictly necessary. Lots of people on the internet seem to love Anki and are very successful, so go ahead everybody.

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