The first time I lived in Taiwan and China, I was desperate to learn to speak. Asia is much harder than Europe, if you don’t speak the language. And in countries that use a different writing system, such as China and Thailand, you can’t even read street signs. You try taking a taxi, because you can’t read the directions how to go somewhere, but you aren’t able to tell the taxi driver where to go. In fact, for most foreigners, their own address remains a mystery.

Possibly, the worst part of not knowing the language is that you can’t read menus. Most of us find out the name of a few dishes, which we like, and always order them. My first year in Taiwan, I ate pork fried rice nearly every day because I knew how to say it. A lot of foreigners wind up at McDonald’s, not because they are culturally insensitive or unwilling to sample local food, but because McDonald’s has a picture menu. Before I could even put together a sentence, such as “‘my name is,” I knew how to say, “I will have a number 5. And super-size it.”

When I signed up for Chinese classes I was desperate to learn speaking as quickly as possible. I wanted to learn reading too, but right away, I realized that I had to make a choice.

To survive in a foreign country, you need a basic vocabulary of about 500 words. If you want to start having conversations, real conversations, you need 1,500 or more words. When you sign up for Chinese classes, they will usually ask you if you will choose the speaking and reading option, or only speaking.

Most foreigners living in Taiwan are working as English teachers. Some are working at corporations. Very few are full-time students. Students have the luxury of taking an academic approach to learning the language. But working people cannot. We have jobs, and lives, and learning Chinese is a matter of survival, not a hobby. Attending classes one or two hours, four days a week, is already a lot for most working people.

At that rate, learning to read, you would be doing very well if you could pick up ten words per week. So, to get to your goal of 500 words would take a full year. If you chose a speaking only option you may be able to do thirty or more words per week. As a side note, if you chose a writing option, you may only learn between three and ten words a week. And if you aren’t doing homework, that number won’t be attainable.

Most of us start with good intentions, but then realize very quickly that we will be miserable till we learn at least basic Chinese. And, the reading option will take just too long. So, we quit reading and concentrate on speaking. At least, that’s what I did. A lot of people just quit, give up. You find them ten years later, still unable to put a basic sentence together. There is even a surprisingly large market to teach private lessons in European languages, such as Spanish and German, to foreigners who gave up on Chinese, but still want to learn a language.

After a few weeks of struggling with Chinese characters, you are convinced that you could master German in about a week.

If you don’t speak Chinese, you are no longer an independent adult. Every time you need to buy something, or settle a problem with the landlord or your cell phone, or fix your motorcycle, or mail a package, someone will have to go with you to translate. Without speaking Chinese, you feel like a retarded uncle who everyone has to help and make excuses for.

I originally signed up for a few hours of classes per week, planning to supplement this with tons of homework, done on my own. At the end of the first week of classes I shut off the phone, laid in a supply of food and coffee, locked the door, and said I wasn’t coming out of my apartment till I had memorized 500 words. I opened my textbook, took one glance at it, and realized that not being able to read also meant I couldn’t do homework. There was almost nothing I could do on my own to help my Chinese.

(Author’s note: There are Chinese phonetic writing systems, such as Romanization and Buh Puh Muh Fuh, but for the most part, you can’t just sit and write out vocabulary or even use a dictionary, like you can when learning a European language.)

I went back to school and signed up for twenty-four hours per week of classes. It cost me 25% of my income, but I realized that the only thing I could do to improve my Chinese was to spend time with my teacher. I have written extensively elsewhere about the myth of immersion. The fact that your are living in China doesn’t mean that you are being exposed to Chinese. And even if you lived in a house with a Chinese family who talked to you twenty-four hours per day, seven days per week, if you didn’t have any Chinese base at all, you just wouldn’t learn it.

The goal, as I saw it, was to acquire 1,500 words as quickly as possible. After that, immersion, talking with Taiwanese friends, and all of these outside methods could be used. In my case, I went to Mainland China, and studied in the Shaolin Temple. For three months I lived and trained with monks. No one spoke a word of English, and my Chinese listening and speaking soared.

Toward the end of my three months, however, I really began to question the value of the exposure I was getting. I was living with a bunch of uneducated Chinese guys, most of whom couldn’t read. We trained in Kung Fu about twelve hours a day, so much of our conversation revolved around martial art. In the end, what was I learning? What was I being exposed too? Would these guys be able to provide me with the vast breadth of vocabulary and subjects I would need to achieve real fluency? Probably not.

I left China with a new theory, which I called “The Immersion Sandwich with a Side of Rice.” To become fluent in Chinese, the recommended method would be, first acquire 1,500 words by-hook-or-by crook. This could even be acquired in the States or a university outside of China. Next, live in a true immersion environment for a period of months. This will activate your listening and speaking. But step three has to be a return to school. Unless you learn to read, you won’t be able to teach yourself more Chinese, and your vocabulary and language growth will stagnate.

A classmate of mine, Dr. Craig Callender, from University of Mainz, is now a professor of linguistics at an American University. In discussing language competency, often referred to as fluency, he explained that there were two kinds of competency. BICS (basic interpersonal communication skills) and CALP (cognitive academic language proficiency). He went on to explain, “Being good in one does not guarantee that you will be good in the other.”

Basically, the first, BICS, is your ability to hang out in a bar and talk to people. For many foreigners, living abroad, this is the goal, just to be able to communicate or chit-chat. For most adult learners, even this level of competency is an unattainable goal. Those who reach this level, of being able to hold a conversation, often overestimate their abilities and call themselves fluent.

Once a foreigner learns passable Chinese, everywhere he goes, native speakers say to him, “Your Chinese is very good.” And he believes it. Next, they ask him the standard questions, “where are you from? How many brothers and sister do you have?” He answers all of these questions accurately. If his Chinese is good enough, he may even get invited out with a group of Chinese people, who will sit with him, drinking beer from big bottles and small glasses. In between karaoke songs, they will each ask him the same set of twenty question, times five friends, a hundred exchanges, which he has dutifully mastered.