An American with native fluency in Taiwanese Mandarin

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Here's a video clip of a young American businessman named Ben Metcalf (Mai Banda 麥班達) in Taiwan making a presentation for his company's first public launch as part of their IPO process.

Ben has native fluency, more natural than Matt Pottinger and much better than Kevin Rudd.  What's striking is that Ben speaks Taiwanese Mandarin (Táiwān guóyǔ 台灣國語), that is, Mandarin with a noticeable Taiwanese accent.  This ability and accent he acquired from living in Taiwan for 14 years, working only for Taiwanese companies, and marrying into a Taiwanese family.  In fact, Mandarin has become his first language to such a degree that, when speaking English, he occasionally has a difficult time remembering how to say certain things in that language.

How did Ben's Chinese get to be so good?

His mother and father could both speak Mandarin, but neither of them were native speakers, and the family did not speak Chinese at home.  So I wondered how Ben set about learning Chinese so well when he only began it as a young adult.

Formal instruction: while a video analyst for the Orlando Magic, in June 2007 Ben started an 8 week basic Chinese program (4 hrs/day) in preparation for the team's trip  to China later in the summer. He quickly got into the language and, at the end of the course, he decided that he wanted to continue to study Chinese, resigned from the Magic, and headed to Taiwan to teach English and study Chinese during the Fall of 2007.  He studied at Taipei Language Institute (Taichung) for 2 years.

That's the formal part of Ben's language learning.  Note that it was not done in an academic setting (college or university), but rather on the ground, so to speak.


Selected readings

"Professional Basketball in Taiwan:  An EAA Interview with Ben Metcalf", Lucien Ellington, Education About Asia, 21.2 (Fall 2016), 9-11.

Ben Metcalf is currently the Head Coach of the professional Pure Youth basketball team in Taipei, Taiwan. A lifelong basketball fan, he spent his formative years living overseas in Japan, England, and Turkey before moving back to the US. After graduating from George Washington University in 2003, he worked for the Orlando Magic before ultimately moving to Taiwan to learn Mandarin. In the following eight years, he was a part of four Taiwanese professional basketball championship teams and helped coach the Chinese Taipei (Taiwan) national team to a fourth-place finish in the 2013 Asia Championships and a gold medal in the 2013 East Asian Games.

"Can the N.B.A. Learn From Taiwan's Basketball Bubble?"  Marc Stein, New York Times (4/10/20)

There are no fans in the training center where the games are hosted.  "It feels like an adult league," said one player


[Thanks to Mark Metcalf]


  1. Philip Taylor said,

    March 20, 2021 @ 6:32 am

    I want to say "most impressive", but I cannot help but feel that this would be almost as insulting as telling a native Beijingren that he speaks good Chinese. Ben is, to all intents and purposes, effectively a native speaker, even tho' he learned the language later in life than most.

  2. Victor Mair said,

    March 20, 2021 @ 8:20 am

    Here I must invoke "Mair's Law of Second Language Acquisition", which is formulated solely on empirical observation of the thousands of students from abroad whom I have taught over the past five decades. Namely, it is progressively more difficult to attain full fluency in a second language when one begins to study it after the age of around 11.5, while it is progressively harder to lose one's native language ability the longer after the age of 11.5 that one moves to a new language environment. Conversely, the earlier the time at which one relocates to a new language environment before the age of 11.5, the more likely is one to lose native fluency in one's original mother tongue and the easier it is to acquire native fluency in one's new language.

    Consequently, I find Ben's native fluency in Mandarin to be truly remarkable, since he didn't start studying it until he was an adult, already out of college and working in a regular job.

    The same thing happened to me in Nepali when I was in the Peace Corps. Through "total immersion" in Nepali in a remote, isolated location for two years, by the time I left Nepal I was even dreaming in Nepali and could easily express any ideas, thoughts, and feelings that came to mind. On the other hand, now that I've been away from Nepal since 1967, my quondam fluency in Nepali has atrophied. However, if I encounter a Nepali barista in a coffee shop or a Nepali waiter in a restaurant, my Nepali language ability starts to revivify fairly quickly.

    I have stated this law in various ways during the past few decades, and could surely come up with a more succinct, elegant formulation if pressed to do so and had the leisure to concentrate on it for awhile, but today I have a lot of other things weighing on my mind, such as taking care of my taxes and getting my car inspected. Suffice it for the moment to say that I believe some sort of hard wiring occurs in human physiology and neurology around the age of 11.5, which makes acquisition of second languages more challenging and retention of original languages more secure after that time.

  3. Peter Grubtal said,

    March 20, 2021 @ 10:05 am

    I'm surprised that Victor Mair puts the cut-off age at 11.5. I'd always thought it was about mid- to late teens.
    Trawling for some research produced this:

    which tends to support a later age. But of course it depends to some extent on your definition of native fluency.
    Even allowing for his immersion advantage, Ben Metcalf is obviously very gifted in the department of language acquisition.

  4. John Rohsenow said,

    March 20, 2021 @ 3:27 pm

    Victor says: "..Ben speaks Taiwanese Mandarin (Táiwān guóyǔ 台灣國語), that is, Mandarin with a noticeable Taiwanese accent.
    To describe TW Mandarin I'd also look for slight vocab. differences (e.g. shuiping vs. shuijun; use of the nousn suffix -zi (xiezi vs.xie, etc.) and gram. differences, like using YOU (aux.'have'): in the perfect, e.g. "you meiyou qu?" vs. "qu le meiyou?"– I have long felt that the "price" of the popularization of '"Putonghua"/'Mandarin' is 'southernification', not only loss of the zh-,ch-,sh- vs. z-,c-,s- initial consonant distinction [Is that why they put that H in there in the first place? It IS the only consonant digraph :-) but also increasing use of auxiliary YOU/'have' in the perfect construction, through mainland China (and overseas), NOT just in Taiwan.

  5. David C. said,

    March 20, 2021 @ 5:17 pm

    Ben's mother is from Taiwan, according to this article, so I wonder if he has had substantial exposure to Mandarin in his childhood. One shouldn't discount that exposure, even if just to the general phonology and basic grammar structure of the language. Youtube comedian Paul Taylor has a native-like French accent from having lived in France as a young child, but didn't really learn French until well into adolescence. This explanation would fit in well with Prof. Mair's "Law of Second Langauge Acquisition" above.

    I think of course that it's an accomplishment to achieve such a level of fluency, but it's unfortunate also that, once learners reach such a level, the small imperfections that would otherwise make them virtually indistinguishable from native speakers are probably not being pointed out, since it seems like such nitpicking. Or maybe even native speakers find it difficult to pinpoint what exactly is "off".

    The degree of Ben's natural fluency with the use of vocabulary and sentence structure is remarkable. In this case, it seems it's like it's rather the mislearned tones of certain words and tone sandhi patterns that have clung on. One example is 鞋子 (shoes; xiézi), where he pronounces it at times as second tone but mostly as third tone. Another is 年 (year; nián) pronounced in a tone profile that is closer to the third tone.

  6. Victor Mair said,

    March 20, 2021 @ 7:11 pm

    Tones are not sacrosanct.

    "When intonation overrides tone, part 5" (9/25/20)

    I've demonstrated that scores of times on Language Log, as in the above post and in the numerous other posts cited in the "Selected reading" section at its conclusion.

    Often, the natural modulation of a tone is more the mark of a native speaker rather than the wooden production of the canonical tone which may sound stiff and foreign. And I have also shown that some individuals admit they consistently use non-canonical tones for idiosyncratic reasons.

  7. alex said,

    March 20, 2021 @ 8:14 pm

    In China now they have tiny robots that use english with kids. I like tv shows to provide helping of native accent.

    I can see a day when star trek like mini holodecks in the home will provide for native environments.

    "The Holodeck is a fictional device from the television franchise Star Trek. It is a stage where participants may engage with different virtual reality environments."

  8. David C. said,

    March 21, 2021 @ 9:53 am

    In a way I am describing my own frustrations with language learning, where sometimes small but noticeable errors are hardened into speech patterns over time. It is difficult to know that they exist and then difficult to unlearn after a long period of time. It takes a lot of self-awareness to know where one should improve on.

    It depends on what standard we are measuring against for native fluency, and I argue that it should be a very, very high bar. The ACTFL Proficiency Guidelines and Common European Framework of Reference for Languages either explicitly or implicitly point out that even the highest proficiency levels on their respective scales are not intended to represent native speaker or near native speaker performance.

    The clip here demonstrates highly successful mastery of the spoken language, but my point is that there is an objective difference in accent between Ben and the other native speakers in the same video.

    The (unscientific) test for native fluency I would put forth is this: Are the differences in speech imperceptible to a native speaker, or if they are perceptible, would a native speaker ascribe them to a difference in dialect, style, or error (slip of the tongue)?

  9. Alyssa said,

    March 21, 2021 @ 11:53 am

    "it's unfortunate also that, once learners reach such a level, the small imperfections that would otherwise make them virtually indistinguishable from native speakers are probably not being pointed out, since it seems like such nitpicking."

    This is actually why I'm skeptical of a biological age cut-off in language acquisition (though of course I'm not a linguist so my opinion shouldn't hold much weight). There's such a huge difference between how child and adult learners are treated socially: if a child makes small pronunciation mistakes, their peers will ruthlessly mock them for "talking funny". While an adult might go years without ever being told their error as long as they are comprehensible, even for fairly basic errors.

    For an example: I have a coworker whose english is excellent, but he consistently pronounces the word "our" like "or" instead of "are," and I don't think he has any idea that this is incorrect. Who would tell him? We all know what he means.

    Meanwhile, I remember from childhood how a friend was teased just for pronouncing "ice cream" with the stress on the second word – we all thought it was hilarious and ran around saying "ice CREAM" for an afternoon. There's no way she could have missed her mistake and how to fix it.

  10. Victor Mair said,

    March 21, 2021 @ 12:52 pm

    "I scream, you scream, we all scream for i(ce) scream."

    Do you remember?

  11. alex said,

    March 21, 2021 @ 11:06 pm

    ""I scream, you scream, we all scream for i(ce) scream.""

    wow that is a blast from the past!

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