What Do I Mean by Mastery?One of the most common questions I receive is, “What do you mean by ‘mastery’?”

First of all, “mastery” does not mean “perfection”. Such a thing doesn’t exist in languages.  And even if it did, it would not be a “S.M.A.R.T. goal” (covered in detail in my Master Japanese and Master Mandarin guides) and is therefore irrelevant to our purposes as language learners.

So if “mastery” does not equal “perfection”, what does it mean?

I define “mastery” as follows:

The ability to use a language well for your communicative purposes.

That’s it. Mastery is completely relative to your personal and professional needs:

  • If you are learning Chinese to work in China or Taiwan, then “mastery” would mean being able to easily communicate with your boss, colleagues, and customers.
  • If you want a meaningful social life, then “mastery” might mean being able to understand and contribute to casual conversations at a quiet tea shop on Maokong, māokōng (貓空) or at a loud Taipei dance club.
  • If you are a kung fu film fanatic, then “mastery” for you might mean being able to understand your favorite flick without relying on English (or even Chinese) subtitles.
  • If you are a hitherto monolingual Chinese-American, perhaps “mastery” entails finally being able to talk with relatives in their native language.

In all of these scenarios, “mastery” does not entail learning every last word you may hear or read. Even native speakers come across vocabulary they don’t know, or encounter Chinese characters that they have forgotten how to write or pronounce. The key is to know enough of a language that you can ask about the meaning of an unfamiliar word or character and then actually understand the answer.

Am I saying that you shouldn’t worry about how well you speak or write? Absolutely not. You should constantly strive to expand your vocabulary and improve your grammar, but the focus should always be on quality over quantity. Just as in martial arts, having lots of moves is not as important as mastering a small set of techniques. As Bruce Lee famously said:

“I fear not the man who has practiced 10,000 kicks once, but I fear the man who has practiced one kick 10,000 times.”