How Long Does it Take to Learn Chinese?

Since I’ve been in China for 28 years, and speak Chinese reasonably well, I am often asked 2 questions (by foreigners), neither of which have easy answers.

One is “are you fluent?”

My response is usually “fluent enough to get myself into and out of trouble.”

The second question is even harder: “how long did it take you to learn Chinese?” It’s a tough question, because it assumes that the words “learn” and “Chinese” are easily defined. Unfortunately they are not.

I usually respond that even though I started ‘learning’ Chinese 22 years ago, I don’t yet consider myself to have ‘learned’ Chinese,

When I do training/orientation sessions for newcomers to China, I get a generic version of that question, namely “how long does it take to learn Chinese.” This question is rooted in their enthusiasm and eagerness to learn Chinese, something I love about newbies. Most have visions of becoming functional (if not fluent) in a relatively short period of time.

The trick in responding to such a question is to do it in a way that doesn’t put a damper on all that enthusiasm, yet helps them be realistic about the immensity of the task.

One way to help set realistic expectations (and measure progress) is to use foreign language proficiency guidelines. For English speakers (in the US), there are two major sets of guidelines. One set is produced by the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL Guidelines). The other set is produced by the Interagency Language Roundtable, and is used by the Foreign Service Institute, the arm of the US State Department that trains diplomats. It is also commonly referred to as the FSI scale.

The FSI Scale divides foreign language proficiency into 5 different levels, each with a sub-level (1+, 2+, etc). The five are identified as follows: 1 = elementary proficiency; 2 = limited working proficiency; 3 = professional working proficiency; 4 = full professional proficiency; and 5 = native or bilingual proficiency.

To help learners set realistic language learning goals, the FSI also classifies foreign languages according to how difficult they are for English speakers to learn. These charts (courtesy of SIL) indicate how long it normally takes for learners to reach the different FSI levels for different language groups. The three different lines on the charts represent learners with different aptitudes.

You Chinese language learners know where this is going, don’t you?

In other words a learner with average aptitude should plan to spend 50 weeks (@30 hours per week) to reach  limited working proficiency level (2).

Again, I don’t post these to discourage any one learning Chinese but to help you set realistic expectations and goals.

Where ever you are in your language learning, I say JIAYOU! (加油)

What other methods do you have of setting realistic goals and measuring your progress?

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34 thoughts on “How Long Does it Take to Learn Chinese?

  1. Wow. Not looking forward to that 325 week slog into Mandarin, but my darling wife says I can do it… Just subscribed to your blog. Hope to enjoy your posts often.
    Ken

  2. Glad you’re posting about this now! I feel like we’re settled enough at this point that it’s time to start really digging into the language learning, thanks for the encouragement :)

  3. I just subscribed to your blog. We have four daughters adopted from China (soon to be five), and I also volunteer with an organization that works in China. I’m looking forward to making annual/bi-annual trips to China in the future. Looking forward to learning some basic phrases. Also enjoy your insight on your blog.

  4. My son has been studying Mandarin full time for the last two years (20+ Hours of classes+ Private Tutoring/week)…and according to your charts he is about on schedule! Thanks for the interesting info!

  5. This makes me feel better. Sort of. (By the way, you’re a great teacher. I still remember how you taught us to count to ten, nine years ago. Every time I say 六 I think of you telling us “Just remember Uncle Leo.”)

  6. Nice post for us engineer-types! I just subscribed, and finished my first 3 year term in NE China. My first 2 years were the 30 hours a week…not sure what proficiency level I reached but now you’ve got me curious to find out. My third year cut that by 2/3rd…but still far from engaging in basic conversation since most people speak too fast!

  7. Thank you so much for helping to set my expectations in learning Mandarin. I have taught in China five times in the past and plan on moving to China permanently next year.

  8. While it may be a long road, an unending road even, I look forward to the journey. I look forward to it because along the way I will make many new friends. I’m finding that learning a language is wonderful way to break down cultural barriers, even if you don’t grasp the language yet. Just expressing an interest is enough to open up doors. Thank you Joann, your words are encouraging.

  9. I am from China and currently living in the States. I always think it is hard for westerners to learn Chinese, as the Chinese language is vastly different from any western language. Also, it is hard to even learn some Chinese characters, let alone mastering a lot of them.

    But that said, Chinese grammar probably is easier, closer to English than German, I would think. As the Chinese language doesn’t have tense or plural/singular forms. So sort of free form type of language, making it easier to learn. I learned a bit of Deutsch before, boy, I found it hard to learn as there are different genders for words, etc. Just making my head spin :-(

    Compared to English where you probably need to master over 20,000 words to read NY times, Chinese is easier, you only need to master 6000 or so characters to read newspapers ;-)

    • 20,000 words and 6,000 characters isn’t comparing two equal things, though, is it?

      After all, to read an English newspaper you need only need to read 52 characters (26 small letters and 26 capital letters). English is obviously thousands of times easier than Chinese! ;-)

      A better comparison would be to put those 6,000 Chinese characters into words. Just think how many different words you can make with 时, 公 or 平. That’s even before we begin thinking of complements/particles like 过, 去 and 到!

      I spent several years learning German, and found it much easier than Mandarin. On your specific point about grammar: yes, basic German grammar is more complex than basic Mandarin grammar. Spelling is a joy though. If you can say a word in German, then you can always spell it. The spelling follows simple rules perfectly.

  10. Yes, it sort of depends on the definition of a “word”. As a Chinese, I feel like difficult to remember all the English words. Also, I guess I am more referring to Chinese character as the notion of a “word” in Chinese.

    So I think the comparison goes like this, each Chinese word could bear a lot of different meanings depending on situation, vs. a English word, that is less ambiguous.

    So, pros and cons. You either learn/remember a lot more words, for English, or, have to master all the meanings of a character, for Chinese…

  11. I’m just back from a fortnight in Shanghai and am very interested in all things Chinese – language, culture, history and politics.
    Delighted to have found your blog!