Are you ready to embark on the journey of learning Chinese?
Perhaps you’ve already unfurled your sails and are charting a course towards the distant horizon.
Perhaps you’re standing on the shore looking up at all that complex rigging and wondering:
Well, that’s easy: the answer is that it will take you… 3 years, 253 days and 57 minutes to learn Chinese.
You probably guessed… I'm kidding.
If only it were that simple!
Clearly, there’s no such predictable answer to this question; just like life, everyone’s language learning journey is different.
So, while I can’t unveil a magical number to you, let’s explore some of the factors that can help us estimate how long you might need to learn Chinese.
By thinking about how each of these factors apply to you, you'll be able to better estimate how long it might take you to learn Chinese.
There are two main varieties of Chinese: Mandarin and Cantonese.
Here I'll focus on Mandarin Chinese, which is the most widely spoken and the official language of Mainland China and Taiwan.
Everyone has their own purpose in choosing to learn a language. What's yours?
Clearly, these goals require vastly different amounts of learning, and likewise will require different amounts of time and dedication.
This debate crops up sometimes regarding learning Chinese.
Unlike the alphabet systems of English and many other languages, each Chinese character represents a word or unit of meaning.
There are thousands of Chinese characters. And you need to learn around 2500–3000 of them to be able to comfortably read most things such as a newspaper or online article.
You may find this intimidating—which is understandable!
There’s sometimes a misconception that because Chinese has the Pinyin pronunciation system, there’s no need to learn characters. This isn’t the case, though—Pinyin is only used as a learning tool, and not for writing in the real world.
Once you get past basic spoken phrases, reading becomes important.
To be proficient in today’s digital world and build social and business relationships with Chinese speakers, you’ll need to learn characters sooner or later.
Aside from this, characters are fascinating
And this will actually make the learning process easier!
Chinese characters convey a lot of meaning that isn’t conveyed by the sound alone. So they're essential to understanding how the language fits together.
Ok, so you’re gearing up to learn Chinese characters—but which ones should you choose?
There are two types of Chinese characters: traditional and simplified.
Traditional characters were the only ones that existed until around the 1950s and have developed over thousands of years.
In the 1950s, the government in mainland China came up with a couple of initiatives to combat illiteracy.
One was the invention of Pinyin, the Roman-alphabet spelling system that we now use to represent the sounds of Mandarin.
The other was simplifying many (though not all) Chinese characters.
Simplified characters are now standard in mainland China. Many second language learners choose to begin learning simplified characters for the very reason they were invented — they're simpler to learn!
Traditional characters are still standard in Hong Kong and Taiwan though, so if you’re planning live in or mainly interact with those places, then it makes sense to learn traditional characters from the get-go.
Otherwise, it’s generally faster to start with simplified characters.
If you later want to broaden your sphere of interaction, or study anything related to history or literature, it'll be easier to learn traditional characters once you already have a solid grounding in simplified characters.
Immersion plays a big part in the language learning process.
How much exposure you have to Chinese language and culture in your daily life will clearly affect how long it takes you to learn.
Of course, if you’re in a full-time language program in China, you’ll clearly be getting more immersion than if you’re attending class once a week in a non-Chinese speaking country.
But outside of formal study, there’s nothing like real-life context to accelerate the learning process.
The character 串 (chuàn, meat or veggies on a skewer) is much more memorable when it’s strung up in red lights above your local street-side barbecue than when it’s just ink on a page!
Likewise, most of us who have learned another language have at least one super-embarrassing memory of using totally the wrong word.
And you’ve never forgotten that word, have you?
Culture plays a huge part in language learning, too. And living among the language and culture will deepen your understanding of both.
Even if you're not living in a Chinese-speaking place, you can still create this immersion in your own daily life outside of formal study time. Here are some ideas on how to get started:
More fun than a textbook, right?
Our planet is home to a vast array of different languages. Some have more in common than others!
One study by the US Foreign Service Institute (FSI) categorised languages into 5 groups in terms of their similarity.
The more different from English, the longer it will take for English speakers to learn.
Mandarin is part of a group of languages which are considered “super-hard” for English speakers to learn.
(I know, ouch! But think how much more satisfying it will feel when you’ve learned it!)
Other languages in this group are Cantonese, Arabic, Japanese, and Korean.
Chinese has some shared history with two of these: Japanese and Korean.
So if you are native in either of these languages, or have learned some already, this can make it easier to learn Chinese.
Both Korean and Japanese share some word origins with Chinese and use some Chinese characters in their writing systems. Both use variants of traditional Chinese characters.
In Japanese, Chinese characters are called kanji, and are used in combination with two other types of script, hiragana and katakana.
In Korean, Chinese characters, called hanja, were used as the main writing system in the past and now still appear occasionally along with the hangul alphabetic script.
Having answered the above questions, let’s try to answer the big one.
According to the FSI (Foreign Service Institute) study mentioned earlier, “super-hard” languages, including Chinese, take about 2,200 learning hours to achieve “general professional proficiency.”
Of course, this could be divided up in very different ways depending on how you structure your learning.
Studying five hours a day, five days a week? FSI says you will need 88 weeks, somewhere between 1.5–2 years.
Another yardstick is the Hanyu Shuiping Kaoshi (HSK)—the standard proficiency test for Mandarin Chinese.
The HSK level 5 (of 6) is meant to represent the level you would need to comfortably read magazines and watch movies.
It's also the level required for admission into Chinese-language university programs.
Anecdotally, most students who study language full-time at a university in China are able to pass the HSK 5 after 1–2 years.
As another generalisation from all the people I’ve met who've learned Chinese to a proficient level (both spoken and written), I’d estimate that it took most people somewhere between 3–5 years.
This takes into account varying amounts of formal classes, independent study, and time spent living or travelling in China.
Everyone’s journey is different, and it’s not all that meaningful to try to predict a timeframe simply in hours spent.
It’s not just about quantity. The good news is YOU are in control of your own learning!
This is a whole topic in itself, but here are some tips based on what we’ve touched on earlier.
Spend time in a Chinese speaking place if you can. The chance to live everyday life in Chinese and get familiar with Chinese culture will make a huge difference.
That said, you can do this outside of China, too! Immerse yourself in the language and culture in daily life with these ideas:
Whether you’re studying independently or supplementing your classes, make the most of your time by using spaced repetition techniques.
This means taking breaks in between revision, which is beneficial for memory and reviewing words and grammar at set intervals so they stick in your mind.
You can find plenty of SRS (spaced repetition software) out there to help you. My favourite is Flashcards Deluxe.
Learning anything becomes vastly easier if you enjoy and care about what you’re learning.
Find ways to focus on topics and activities that are relevant to your own life—be it books, movies, hobbies, karaoke, snacks, politics, or pop stars. Choose whatever helps you stay interested and motivated!
How long does it take to learn Chinese? Well, everyone’s language journey is different.
There are lots of factors that can influence how long it will take you to reach your goals, like your native language, your motivation and the time you have available for language learning.
Of course, there is no real “end” point to learning a language—all progress is valuable, and it’s a lifelong process.
Just like a sea voyage, you can keep sailing forever and you’ll still never reach the horizon—but you’ll certainly encounter some exciting lands along the way.
Enjoy the journey!
What about you? Where are you on your Chinese learning journey? Has this post encouraged you to get started? Share your thoughts and experiences in the comments below.
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