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Language distance

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I came to an interesting realisation yesterday: I have probably spoken considerably more Chinese than English in my life so far. Exactly how much is impossible to know, but I did some rough calculations that suggest that I have spoken Chinese for almost twice as many hours as English. Note that I only estimated how much time I spent actively using the language in conversations, not how much I listened, read, wrote or otherwise studied the language.

This might be surprising to some (including myself, actually), but it’s not that strange after all. Compare these two scenarios and we shall see that there are some major differences:


  • Slow start in a foreign language environment (from age: 10)
  • Bilingual high school education (a lot of hours here)
  • Three semester of English at university
  • BUT: I have never lived in an English-speaking country
  • BUT: I had no native English-speaking close friends before 2009


  • Slow start in a foreign language environment (from age: 23)
  • Arduous studying and semi-immersion in Taiwan (one year)
  • Real immersion and language studies (one year)
  • Semi-intense Chinese usage while in Sweden (two years)
  • Complete immersion in a master’s degree program (two years)

I have learnt English as a foreign language (meaning that I didn’t live in a country where the language is spoken), but I have learnt Chinese mainly as a second language (meaning the opposite, that I have lived in a country where the language is spoken).

Comparing language levels

I think my English is roughly at the level of an educated native speaker (C2), but it’s not surprising that my colloquial English isn’t excellent (note that I say ”colloquial”, I don’t mean to say that my speaking ability is bad, but I’m actually much better at talking about politics, philosophy or phonology in English than everyday topics). My Chinese, however, is not really comparable to the level of my native classmates and I would put myself at roughly at C1. So if I’ve spent so much time speaking Chinese, why is my English far superior to my Chinese?

The role of exposure and language distance

The most obvious difference is exposure. I only included speaking the language in my calculations, not how much I listened, read and wrote. I have read more than 500 novels in English and listened to more than ten thousand hours of audio (I’m not exaggerating here, we’re talking about ten years of audio book addiction). In comparison, I’ve just read about 50 books in Chinese and even though I’ve listened to a fair amount of Chinese, I’m nowhere near ten thousand hours of pure listening (yet).

Another important factor is language distance. Anyone who says that all language are equally easy (or hard) to learn is just plain wrong. Learning a language that is very distant from your native language to an advanced level takes several times longer than achieving the same for a closely related language. I’m convinced that I could reach my current level of Chinese within just a year or two if I went all-in full kamikaze on learning German.

There are of course other factors, such as age of onset and social factors being very different, but I think the main difference is still the amount of exposure combined with the language distance between the languages involved.

Some final thoughts

I still find the idea that I have spoken more Chinese than English a bit surprising. It doesn’t feel like that. However, it does explain some things. I actually feel more comfortable idly chatting with people in Chinese than I do in English (although that’s about the only situation where I feel like that). I’m pretty sure my Chinese will never become as good as my English is now, but who knows, give me ten thousand hours of exposure and ten years to read more books and we’ll see!

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