onedoesnotsimplylearnchinese

Chinese proficiency in 1.7 years — *really*?

New Year’s is a great time to plan out language learning goals. But it helps to be smart about it.

There’s a language study infographic floating around comparing the difficulty of various languages for native English speakers. It says you need 1.69 years/2,200 classroom hours to reach proficiency in Chinese:

People always disagree about how long it takes to learn Chinese, mostly because they talk about it with mushy terms: “learn Chinese”, “speak Chinese”, “know Chinese”, “fluent”, “proficient”, etc. I’m not gonna bother arguing with this graphic’s fuzzy term, but here are four other somewhat authoritative takes on how much time you need to learn Chinese. Accurate language learning expectations are important, so it’s well worth comparing.

Linguist John Pasden’s Sinosplice post “How long does it take to get fluent in Chinese?” quotes two Chinese experts. First, Da Shan aka Mark Rowswell aka the most famous foreigner in China:

2 years to lie on your resume and hope no Chinese speaker interviews you for a job…

5 years for basic fluency, but with difficulty.

10 years to feel comfortable in the language.

Second, Chinese linguist Dr. David Moser:

The old saying I heard when I first started learning Chinese was, “Learning Chinese is a five-year lesson in humility”. At the time I assumed that the point of this aphorism was that after five years you will have mastered humility along with Chinese. After I put in my five years, however, I realized the sad truth: I had mastered humility, alright, but my Chinese still had a long way to go. And still does.
[…]
My own experience, in a nutshell: French language students after 4 years are hanging out in Paris bistros, reading everything from Voltaire to Le Monde with relative ease, and having arguments about existentialism and debt ceilings. Chinese language students after four years still can’t read novels or newspapers, can have only simple conversations about food, and cannot yet function in the culture as mature adults. And this even goes for many graduate students with 6-7 or 8 years of Chinese.

Third, Joann Pittman, consultant, trainer, teacher, researcher, and writer with 28 years in China shares some research stats in her post, “How Long Does it Take to Learn Chinese?” Among her conclusions:

Even though I started ‘learning’ Chinese 22 years ago, I don’t yet consider myself to have ‘learned’ Chinese
[…]
a learner with average aptitude should plan to spend 50 weeks (@30 hours per week) to reach limited working proficiency level

Fourth, linguist and Chinese textbook author Martin Symonds in our post, “Learning Mandarin: Realistic Expectations”:

Full-time Mandarin Study
# of years 1 2 4 8 !??!
Proficiency Level Survival Daily Living Minimum Work Full Work Native

Like Joann says, the point isn’t to scare people off or kill their enthusiasm for learning Chinese, but to give them realistic expectations so they can become better language learners, and craft their study according to their language goals.

There’s lots more in our Learning Mandarin topic.

Make civilized students.
Constantly use the Common Speech. Everywhere use civilized language

文明学生
时时普通话处处文明

4 thoughts on “Chinese proficiency in 1.7 years — *really*?”

  1. As I’m getting to that 5 years of studying Chinese (first part-time, then full-time) I agree with the professionals you quoted on this blog post. I’m not sure if I’m ever confident enough to call my Chinese fluent, but lets see after another 5 years.

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