How Long Does It Take To Learn Chinese?

Learning a language like Chinese is an amazing process, and every stage of it can be very fulfilling, let alone your progress. As China continues to surge, learning Chinese is not only one of the best ways to get a closer look of this superpower, but also a bridge to the East.

While there is no doubt learning Chinese is worth it, time is money, and although we would all love to have limitless time to improve our language skills, the truth is that our personal and professional lives leave little time to learn a language. And let's face it: whether it be for an upcoming vacation to Beijing or a business trip to Shanghai, you want to be fluent in conversational Chinese as fast as possible.

So how long will it take to learn Chinese?

This is one of the first questions anyone interested in language learning asks, and unfortunately, there's no easy way to answer it. Learning a language is a complex process that is different for each individual based on several different factors.

Let's take a look at these different factors and how they impact how fast you learn Chinese:

1. Your Previous Language Learning Experiences

If you already speak a foreign language or were raised bilingual, you may save yourself some time as you learn Chinese. Bilinguals find it easier to learn a third language, as several linguistic studies have proven. This is because they are naturally more accustomed to being exposed to different languages. Fluency and skills in one language aid fluency and skills in another.

If you're not bilingual or multilingual, however, don't worry: Even that year of French in high school or that business trip to Tokyo was helpful.

One of the first steps to learning a language is learning a little bit about what makes up a language and the unique linguistic aspects of the language you want to learn. If you have already experienced studying foreign grammar, memorizing vocabulary, listening to different sounds and looking at different letters, your mind knows what to expect when faced with a new language. There aren't as many surprises and language learning becomes easier and faster.

Just being exposed to different languages--especially when one of those languages is the language you wish to learn--can make language learning faster.

2. The Language You Are Learning

Even if Chinese is considered one of the most difficult languages for English speakers to learn, this fascinating language is very conceptual, and this means that once you understand a framework, it's very easy to get to the details. For example, a "country" or "nation-state" is called 国家 guójiā in Chinese, and therefore a lot of the countries on Earth are referred to as __. And whenever you catch up on more than one __'s in a conversation, you could assume that international relations are being discussed. Let's look at some countries and how they are called in Chinese!

Easy peasy, right? Good news is, this modality can be extended to even the continents, or 洲 zhōu in Chinese. Here they are:

This rule applies to smaller things as well, like flowers, or 花 huā. We just take what the flower looks like or what fruit it produces and add the character at the end to indicate a specific kind of flower. Also, for anything flower-related or made of/from flower, we tend to keep the character in the phrase so it's easy and clear to recognize the presence of flowers. If this sounds a little vague to you, why not take a look at the examples below?

For more of this, you can go to the Fish in Chinese free lesson, where a variety of 鱼 yú are introduced. And guess what? As long as it's a fish, it ends with !

These are just a tiny scope of the interesting characteristics of Chinese. The more you get to know this language, the more fun tips you'll find, and the better you will be at learning it!

3. How You Are Learning

Your learning methods also play an important role in how fast you learn Chinese. If your language learning is limited to a classroom setting, then it will probably take you a little longer to learn.

If, however, you also are exposed to Chinese outside of classes, then you can cut down the time needed to learn it. Reading, listening to the radio or eBooks, speaking, watching Chinese movies, and traveling to China can all help to speed up your learning process. We also recommend taking advantage of today's technology to spice your daily life up with some Chinese elements! For example, switch some of your mobile apps to Chinese; sing along a Chinese pop song on Youtube; or catch up a Chinese TV series on Netflix! These immersive and contextual scenarios will help you gain affinity and even appreciation for not only the language, but also the culture behind the language that you're learning.

4. The Time Dedicated to Learning

Naturally, how long it takes you to learn Chinese also depends on how much time you plan to dedicate to language learning daily, weekly, or monthly. Studies have proven that learners who are willing to dedicate an hour a day to language learning--whether that be by studying grammar, memorizing vocabulary, watching a movie, or reading a book--learn significantly faster than those who just attend a weekly class.

That's why online programs like Rocket Languages work so well for many language learners: they encourage frequent study and are easy to access on a daily basis. And that's also why full immersion is, by far, the fastest way to learn a language.

5. Your Attitude

You attitude also plays a huge role in how fast you learn Chinese. If you approach language learning with a positive attitude and see it as a fun and fascinating opportunity to broaden your horizons (and to sound like a pro when you perform a comedic segment, 相声 xiàngshēng, also known as "cross-talk"), you'll be more open to learning. You'll be more motivated to study and learn as much as possible, and the entire process will be more enjoyable and, consequently, faster.

6. Your Motivation

It's no secret that staying motivated is key to learning a new language. There have been so many studies proving the importance of motivation in language learning. Staying motivated is the number one reason why many people have language success, and also the number one reason why some fail.

Reminding yourself why you want to learn Chinese, how it will improve your life, and everything good that can come from learning it can help you to stay motivated and, therefore, speed up the time necessary to learn it.

It's no secret that Chinese can be very hard, even to natives sometimes, so people in Chinese-speaking countries really appreciate it when foreigners take even just some small efforts in trying to communicate with locals in Chinese. That is to say, they will be more than willing to slow down, use easier vocabulary and even body languages to make sure you are in sync with them. The rewarding experience of being able to hold a meaningful conversation in another language should really keep you motivated, so do keep up the good work!

Getting Down to Business: a Timeline for Learning Chinese

The complex interaction between all of these factors determines how long it will take you to learn Chinese.

But you don't just want to know all of the factors, do you? You want a timeline. You want numbers. You want to know just how long it will take you to learn Chinese.

Luckily for you, there are several studies that sought to tell us just that.

But first, a disclaimer: In many of these studies, language proficiency or fluency is the bar set to determine whether or not the language has been "learned." As you may know, you don't necessarily need to be fluent to be able to speak a foreign language and to be comfortable interacting in that language. A low intermediate level can get you pretty far in China.

Keeping this in mind, it's important to take these studies with a grain of salt and remember that you can and will be able to interact in Chinese long before you're fluent.

Guided learning hours required to learn Chinese

Realistic estimates in the field of linguistics have studied the number of hours really needed to learn a language like Chinese. The Common European Framework for Reference for Languages, for example, uses the "Guided Learning Hours" framework to measure the amount of classroom time total needed to reach a B2 (high intermediate) level. It assumes that for every one hour of classroom time, learners will spend two hours of independent study time. In the end, this equates to a total of between 1,000 and 1,200 hours.

Let's take a look at this in several different scenarios:

Scenario and the time needed to have an intermediate level of Chinese:

1. One 3-hour Chinese course per week for 8 weeks, plus a weekly homework assignment (1 hour), plus independent practice of any type (2 hour). 3 courses per year. You will need between 25-30 courses. At 3 courses per year, it may take you between 8.3-10 years to reach an intermediate level.
2. One year of Chinese language learning in school. (4 hours per week + 2 hours of homework + 2 hours of independent practice X 12 weeks X 2 semesters). Between 5-6.25 years to reach an intermediate level.
3. Dedicated independent study (1 hour per day). Approximately 3 years to achieve an intermediate level of Chinese.
4. Total, active immersion (8 hours per day). Approximately 3 months to have an intermediate level of Chinese.

This calculation neglects so many factors, however, and still isn't a very accurate way of determining how long it could take you to learn Chinese.

The U.S. Foreign Service Institute Timeline for learning Chinese

In their study, the Foreign Service Institute examined a group of native English speakers between the ages of 30 and 40 who were studying foreign languages at their institute. The students' resulting levels were measured using the Interagency Language Roundtable Scale with the goal being to calculate how long it took students to reach "General professional proficiency" or higher.

According to the FSI, the closer a language is to your native language, the faster you will learn that language. They divided their findings into five basic language categories based on the languages' similarity to English, which determined how long it took learners to reach general professional proficiency or higher.

Let's take a look at their timeline.

FSI Timeline

Language Group I    

  • Languages Closely Related to English
  • Afrikaans, Catalan, Danish, Dutch, French, Haitian Creole, Italian, Norwegian, Portuguese, Romanian, Spanish, Swahili, Swedish
  • 23-24 Weeks (575-600 Hours)

Language Group II    

  • Languages similar to English    
  • German    
  • 30 weeks (750 hours)

Language Group III    

  • Languages with linguistic and/or cultural differences from English    
  • Indonesian, Malaysian, Swahili    
  • 36 Weeks (900 Hours)

Language Group IV    

  • Languages with significant linguistic and/or cultural differences from English    
  • Amharic, Bengali, Burmese, Croatian, Czech, Finnish, Greek, Hebrew, Hindi, Hungarian, Icelandic, Latvian, Lithuanian, Mongolian, Nepali, Pashto, Persian (Dari, Farsi, Tajik), Pilipino, Polish, Russian, Serbian, Slovak, Slovenian, Thai, Tamil, Turkish, Ukrainian, Urdu, Vietnamese
  • 44 Weeks (1,100 Hours)

Language Group V    

  • Exceptionally difficult languages for native English speakers    
  • Arabic, Cantonese Chinese, Mandarin Chinese, Japanese, Korean    
  • 88 Weeks (2,200 Hours)

Therefore, according to FSI findings, Chinese is in Language Group V and it will take you around 2,200 hours to learn it.

Chinese may be one of the most difficult languages for English speakers to learn, but that makes it all the more rewarding!

This study can be used to help you estimate how many hours it will take you to learn Chinese and calculate how many weeks--or months, or years--based on how much time you want to dedicate per week.

Keep in mind, however, that the quality of your study is more important than the quantity. Immersion experiences or daily practice can significantly limit how long it takes for you to learn Chinese.

Check out our Top 10 Chinese Hacks for some ideas on improving the effectiveness of your study time.

Don't be discouraged. You can and will learn Chinese faster than you expect. There are even cases (as the internet will surely tell you) of people who learn it in less than a year.

Now that you know how much time it takes to learn Chinese and which factors can help you achieve your goals faster, it’s also important to keep in mind that language learning is synonymous with practice. That means that reaching a certain level doesn’t guarantee that you will keep it for the rest of your life.

Taking care of your Chinese is like taking care of your pet: you have to feed it, cuddle it, and take it out for a walk every once in a while.

In the end, YOU decide how quickly you become fluent in Chinese and how good your skills remain. With the right attitude, dedication, situation, and motivation, any language is within your reach

For more, check out what to look for in the best Chinese learning software.
Huí tóu jiàn (!)
Lin Ping
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