How long does it take to get fluent in Chinese?

Great post, with some good links.

Of course, the clown gets in with the first comment, and a shameless plug, but worth the read nonetheless.

Interesting post, and definitely reflects my experience in Korean. It’s good to see Mark Rowswell weighing in as well. After 5 years now with Korean, I can certainly get by, but every day I’m reminded of how much more room for growth there really is!

In this case I like Benny’s comment.

I also agree with the comment that number of hours is a way better way to gauge the amount of time it takes to learn a language than number of months or years. Languages seem to be one of the few disciplines where people are under the impression that a small amount of time a day should be enough to learn one. Imagine transposing this to another area: Person X begins work at a company with a shift starting at 8:00 am, and works close to an hour until about 8:50 am after which he forgets all about it and does other things for the rest of the day. After a year he wonders why he hasn’t learned much even after all those 8:00 to 8:50 shifts he put in, and then deems the job to be too hard for mortals to learn in a year or two or three.

Such a situation would be completely ridiculous, but if the person is putting the same amount of time into a language most would deem it to be a massive investment and many would agree that yes, the task is simply too herculean to accomplish in a decade or less.

Not that a few months is doable, mind you. I agree with Steve’s video back in January that a year of absolutely fanatical immersion (at least 8 hours a day, no using anything but Chinese) would be enough to bring a skilled learner of other languages who already knows a number of tricks to near fluency in Chinese.

After six months Benny is A2, at best, in Chinese. In three years time he will be B1, at best.

We all have the same amount of time each day.

Most of us have jobs, families, lives.

At best, we can go 3-4 hours a day and keep our foot on a language’s throat.

At the end of the day, you need a number of years for the language to really sink. Even after putting in many hours each and every day.

One can certainly achieve ‘Benny-fluency’ in Mandarin within the space of three months.

But real genuine fluency…now that’s another matter! :-ь

I doubt learning many hours a day to be a good idea.

Now my joke for the day.

Fluency in any language is reachable in a matter of minutes. The only thing you have to master is to say “I do not understand” - it is all you need.

In any conversation you will answer “I do not understand”. This will very soon leads to you looking quite stupid but you will sound perfectly fluent.

I am not pretending people who say they don’t understand something are stupid - on the contrary - but you will look very stupid if you say you do not understand something very basic.

I found that spending 6-7 hours a day on a language works well, very well. I learned Chinese to B2 in nine months spending 6-7 hours a day on it. I found that the the more time I spend, the faster I learn. In other words 1000 hours spent in 9 months is more effective than 1000 hours spread out over 5 years.

It depends on whether you have the time, and can arrange enough different types of activity to keep it interesting.

Of course we did not have the European Framework at that time. I passed the British Diplomatic Exam for Mandarin and I remember we had to translate newspaper editorials from Chinese to English and from English to Chinese, and write a diplomatic note, and speak of course, amongst other things. So I guess the level was around B2 at least.

I agree different types of activities help to learn for more hours.
I also agree the one who learns for 6 hours every day will learn more than the one who learns for 3 hours every day.

However more hours you learn every day greater is the risk of burnout ;
more hours you learn every day greater is your hope for fast fluency and false hope often leads to lost of motivation ; more hours you learn every day more the last hours will be less effective.

I think there is no advantage to learn a language too quickly because if you do not keep in touch with the language you will lose a lot.

As for burnout, I guess it depends in the individual. In my case, my goal was to learn about China, and not just to study Chinese. I was reading interesting content, listening to things of interest, as well as doing the obligatory writing and learning of characters. There was enough interest, motivation and variety to keep me going. After studying I stayed on and worked in Hong Kong for a year and a half, involved with Canada’s trade with China, which included bi-annual visits to the Canton trade fair.

I lived in Japan for nine years after my stay in Hong Kong. I found that my absence from Chinese did not cause me to lose it. It actually improved, possibly as a result of my learning Japanese. That is just my experience.

After years of first hand experience I side with what Mark Roswell, Julien Gaudfroy and other heavyweights say about learning Chinese. It takes many years of sustained hard work to get good at it. After nine months of full time learning one might pass a test, but one is cetainly not in B2/C1 territory for all main aspects of the language (hand writing, reading, speaking and comprehension). Reading and writing takes so much more effort compared with mainstream European languages and that eats into your time budget for listening and speaking.

I am trying to understand what you are saying Friedemann which is difficult since we think quite differently I tend to look mostly at what I can do in a language, not at what I cannot do. There are always gaps in our knowledge of a foreign language.

Since when is handwriting a requisite of a B2 level? I must admit that my Chinese handwriting skills have declined since I wrote the exam 43 years ago. I essentially never write. For that matter I rarely write in Japanese, yet in both languages I consider myself between B2 and C1, although better in Japanese than Chinese in many ways. I do not worry about what I cannot do, and focus on what I can do.

You dismiss “passing a test” but do you have any knowledge of the British Foreign Service Exam in Mandarin that I passed 43 years ago?

Yes Chinese is more difficult than Spanish. That does not mean that it is some unbearably difficult task.

Re CEF levels:

B Independent User
B1 Threshold or intermediate
B2 Vantage or upper intermediate
C Proficient User
C1 Effective Operational Proficiency or advanced
C2 Mastery or proficiency

Can understand the main ideas of complex text on both concrete and abstract topics, including technical discussions in his/her field of specialisation.
Can interact with a degree of fluency and spontaneity that makes regular interaction with native speakers quite possible without strain for either party.
Can produce clear, detailed text on a wide range of subjects and explain a viewpoint on a topical issue giving the advantages and disadvantages of various options.

Can understand a wide range of demanding, longer texts, and recognise implicit meaning.
Can express him/herself fluently and spontaneously without much obvious searching for expressions.
Can use language flexibly and effectively for social, academic and professional purposes.
Can produce clear, well-structured, detailed text on complex subjects, showing controlled use of organisational patterns, connectors and cohesive devices

C1 in Chinese is a big achievement for most westerners. Most that get there, do it over many, many years. And I think that is the main crux of most people’s comments regarding being able to declare fluency in Chinese in a short period of time.

Iaing, what do these many years consist of? Are these years of studying the language or just years of enjoying using the language, to read, listen, speak and write?

Both, Steve. I do not know of any laowai who is C1 that didn’t first spend 5+ years doing both. Most westerners I have met who I would class as C1 first put in over a decade of both studying and regularly using the language. I actually challenge anyone to point me to a clear example of one who did it in less than 5 years.

There is always more to learn in any language. How many non-native speakers do we meet who really “master” English. I mean in daily life. Not many. Language learning is personal.
I am opposed to the idea of levels, tests, and all other artificial categories and hoops placed in the way of enjoyable language learning. I communicate in Chinese, I read, I understand, and yet I am well aware of my shortcomings. I studied for less than a year. I have listened to a lot of Chinese audio material and read books since. I have visited China perhaps a dozen times. I occasionally speak Chinese in Vancouver, but only very occasionally. I have never lived in China.
My level? Is it B2, C1, who knows? Who cares?
One day I would like to get deeper into Chinese, including classical Chinese. I will do it with the help of LingQ. Maybe I would like to spend a few months in China. But, for now, I am happy with what I have.

@Steve: “…I am opposed to the idea of levels, tests, and all other artificial categories and hoops placed in the way of enjoyable language learning”

Steve, why do you reckon the Canadian Government wanted you to pass the exam in Chinese before giving you an active posting to China? Might it perhaps be that they wanted to be sure that you could actually speak Chinese to a high level, and that you were thus able to do the job required of you?

(It seems to me that a world without any testing would be a kind of ‘Benny-paradise’, in which any fruitcake could simply declare himself to be a virtual native speaker of Brazilian Portuguese!! :-0)

Who cares what others declare themselves? Language is about communication and enjoying the language. I enjoyed my Chinese studies. I was the only one, amongst the government language students, who read widely, including novels, and listening to XiangSheng, and I am the only one who really uses the language today. The others all passed the test.

It does not take long to figure out if a person can communicate in a language. The tests are largely a waste of time, although an important part of the present distorted system. I have no use for them.

I agree with Steve here.

It’s usually easy to check whether you have the skills or not, in just about any area of interest.


I would also be inclined to trust Steve’s subjective impressions to a very considerable degree. However, I think there are some “blaggers” and “fast-talkers” out there, whom Steve might find quite hard to pin down exactly…

Formal testing is also about proving a point in a concrete way. You might say that it wouldn’t take anyone very long to figure out that a professional Olympic athlete can run 200m faster than Steve - but if Steve refused point-blank to accept the fact, then the best way to demonstrate and prove the point might well be to hold the race! ¦:-[]