Do you have around 2,200 hours to spare?
If the question, “how long does it take to learn Chinese” has popped into your head, this is what you’re looking at!
But, before your jaw gets stuck in that awe-struck position, you should know that the real answer to this question is completely dependent on each individual learner and several key factors.
And believe it or not, considering these factors can also help you dramatically speed up your progress.
Whether you’re a beginner who’s just started learning, someone who’s still on the fence or an intermediate-to-advanced learner stuck in a plateau; the following six factors will apply to you.
The Truth About Learning Chinese
There’s a lot of buzz around the question of how long it takes to learn Chinese. Learners and linguists alike want a straightforward answer.
It seems like most linguists, though, have their own opinions, studies and statistics to back up a number. However, time and time again, Chinese learners have proven them wrong.
You know what I’m talking about—people who say it’s taken them 10 years to achieve an intermediate level versus other people who’ve achieved conversational fluency in six months.
The truth is, there’s no one-size–fits–all answer.
The 5 Levels of Learning Chinese
The Foreign Service Institute has classified Mandarin Chinese as a category 5 language—meaning it’s one of the most difficult languages to learn alongside Cantonese, Korean, Japanese and Arabic.
They’ve also broken down Chinese proficiency into five categories:
1. Elementary Proficiency: You can form basic sentences, including asking and answering questions.
2. Limited Working Proficiency: You’re able to communicate at a basic level in a work and social environment. This level includes “small talk.”
3. Professional Working Proficiency: You can perform most work tasks in Chinese, including participating in meetings and communicating with clients, superiors and coworkers. Your vocabulary is extensive at this level, but you might still not catch all subtitles and informal nuances.
4. Full Professional Proficiency: This is the level you’ll likely need if you’re working for a Chinese company or one that communicates regularly with Chinese-speaking clients and investors. At this level, you can carry out both professional and casual conversations with ease.
5. Native/Bilingual Proficiency: You did it! You’re full-on fluent in Chinese! Congratulations!
To work your way through these five levels, FSI estimates that the average person needs to dedicate around 2,200 hours of active learning. This can be reasonably accomplished over the course of 88 weeks.
Hyperpolyglot Steve Kaufmann states that if you study for 10 hours a day, you should only need 72 days to learn Chinese. Steve Kaufmann currently speaks 16 languages!
In his TED Talk, Josh Kaufman goes a step further and describes his method for learning anything in 20 hours.
Obviously, studying anything for 10+ hours a day is close to impossible, unless you literally have nothing else going on in your daily life.
Another (quite obvious) point to consider is that studying any language for 20 hours won’t make you fluent, but it is enough to set you up with a basic foundation for continuing your language journey.
Depending on how fast you learn, you could be well into level 1 proficiency in a level 1 language like Spanish or French, but this is likely not obtainable in the case of learning Chinese.
How Long Does It Take to Learn Chinese? 6 Fundamental Factors That You Should Consider
Regardless of the study, there will always be exceptions to the conclusions. This applies to learning Chinese, as well.
Whether you end up being that anomaly who reaches Chinese fluency in six months or it takes you 10 years, it all boils down to a few key factors.
These factors greatly contribute to how the question, “how long does it take to learn Chinese,” is answered for you.
So, if you want your answer, read on!
1. Your Time Commitment Each Day
The amount of time that you dedicate to learning Chinese every day has a huge effect on how long it’ll take you to learn Chinese.
While you don’t necessarily need to spend 10 hours a day for 72 days, if you want to achieve a conversational level without taking a decade, you should at least put in 30 minutes to an hour daily.
Putting in this amount of time is also the most beneficial for long-term memory. When memorizing large amounts of information over an extended period of time, you risk everything you learned being put into your short-term memory.
In other words, it’s easier and more effective to learn in smaller chunks of content and time.
Whether you have hours a day to spare or not, the biggest take-away from this factor is that you incorporate Chinese learning, studying and practicing into your daily life.
2. The Quality of Your Learning Resources
Believe it or not, but the obstacle in your path to faster fluency could very well be the resources you’re using.
It’s crucial to your success that your primary resources should be very high quality.
What does this look like exactly?
Your resources should be:
- Full of practical lessons
- Easy to use
- Fun and exciting
- Diverse in content and practice material
If you haven’t found a quality learning resource yet or need to replace your current one for something better, FluentU is definitely your best bet!
FluentU takes authentic videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language learning lessons.
A bonus is that by watching authentic Chinese content, you’ll be exposed to native Chinese speakers naturally using the language.
3. How Motivated You Are (and Stay)
It’s no secret that motivation has a direct impact on how long it’ll take you to learn Chinese.
Think about it—the more excited you are to learn, the more you’ll learn, which means the faster you’ll see progress.
It’s easy to be a motivated go-getter in the early stages of learning, but eventually, you might find that your steam has run out. This is especially true if you take on too much in the beginning (like studying for 10 hours a day).
No matter what level you are, every learner has their good and bad days. And no one is immune to becoming unmotivated and falling into a plateau.
But the good news is there are ways to prevent it (and combat it).
My favorite way is to constantly immerse myself in Chinese media.
I love browsing the internet for YouTube videos, listening to Chinese music while I go for a run and chatting with my language partner (who’s now one of my best friends).
In other words, it’s important to have fun with learning Chinese!
4. Previous Language Learning Experience
Let’s face it—if Chinese is the first language you’ve ever tried to learn, it’ll likely be harder for you than someone who has already learned a second or third language.
Someone who already has experience with language learning will likely already know their preferred way of learning, studying and practicing and already have some favorite resources.
As a beginner, you’re probably wondering:
How much should I spend on resources?
What does a good language routine look like?
How do I even start learning?
It can take a while to get into the swing of things and find out what works best for you. So, don’t worry if you don’t sort all of that out right away! You’re not alone.
But don’t get discouraged if you’re a beginner, and don’t rush the process.
We all want to see progress fast, but rushing it will only demotivate you and cause you to overlook important first steps (like coming up with a language learning roadmap).
5. Your Organization and Chinese Learning Routine
Speaking of routines, let’s dive a little deeper here!
How well you organize and measure your progress, as well as abiding by a consistent routine, will play a critical role in your learning journey.
This can be as simple as keeping flashcards in one place, marking off a checklist or keeping a diary of what you do each day (my personal favorite).
Something important to note is that your learning routine will always be subject to change—and that’s okay!
As you approach new phases of life, reach new levels, face a potential learning plateau and finish resources and courses, your routine will need to adapt.
Rather than bringing yourself to the routine, bring the routine to you.
Besides, the whole point of having a solid language learning routine is to learn in the best and most efficient way possible for you!
6. Whether You Learn Characters or Not
Did you know it’s totally possible to learn Chinese without learning characters?
Not only will it save you some materials, notebooks and possibly a few headaches, but it’ll also save you time.
This is something I did for a long time.
Especially if you’re a beginner, mastering pronunciation, Pinyin, vocabulary and grammar should take priority over learning how to write (at least for the moment).
If your goal is to communicate verbally, writing doesn’t need to be a top priority right now.
I’m not dissing characters, though.
They’re fun to learn and are simply part of the language!
But you have to be okay with the time it adds to your routine and pace.
You’re now fully equipped with the factors necessary for answering the question, “how long will it take me to learn Chinese?”
While there’s no magic number, if you consider these factors, we know you can come up with a solid action plan.
So, what are you waiting for?
Time is ticking!
There’s no better time to start learning Chinese than right now!
Brooke Bagley is a freelance writer and passionate language learner. She’s learned Mandarin Chinese for seven years, Spanish for three and Indonesian for one. Aside from languages, Brooke runs her freelance writing business, Writing & Thriving and specializes in B2B copywriting, content marketing and holistic health and wellness.