How Long Does it Take to Learn Chinese?

3 crucial factors you should consider.

Congratulations! Since you found Maayot, we suspect you are considering to learn Chinese or have already started. Despite what you have heard about its tones, complicated writing system and cultural differences, you still decided to give it a try. It is impressive, since Chinese (Cantonese and Mandarin) is widely considered to be very hard to learn. The U.S. Foreign Service Institute (FSI) has divided the world’s foreign languages into four groups depending on their difficulty level for a native English speaker. Unfortunately, Chinese (Mandarin and Cantonese alike) has made it to the very bottom of the list in the “super-hard” category, alongside Arabic, Japanese and Korean. Therefore, it is really brave for an English speaker to study Chinese!

How long does it take to learn Chinese? If you search for a fast, typical answer to this question, here it follows: according to the FSI, an English speaker needs 88 weeks to learn Chinese, which gives total 2200 class hours. Let’s assume your native language is English and you are a dedicated learner, studying daily for 3 hours. In this case, the FSI estimates that you would need only 2 years to reach proficiency. However, if you sacrificed around one hour daily (still a lot!), Chinese would require at least 5 years of studying. 

As you can see, learning Chinese won’t be an easy task. However, we would like to specify that the difficulty of Chinese depends on your own set of circumstances. Yes, it is hard. Grammar may be easy, yet memorising hundreds of characters and learning a proper pronunciation make learning Chinese a difficult task. However, let’s put aside class hours and weeks of study. In real life, there are more things to be considered. We want to focus on you, not on average calculations. Therefore, we assure you that how hard Chinese really is eventually depends on you. Everyone is different and has different needs and expectations when it comes to learning languages. We advise that you focus on yourself and what you want. 

Our main advice is, don’t spend time trying to calculate how much work awaits you. Worrying in advance is not what you need to focus on. Look at that questions below instead and see yourself what it actually takes. 

1. Why do I want to learn Chinese?

Since modern China develops very fast, learning Chinese becomes more and more popular worldwide.

When you start to learn Chinese, this may not be the question you have a good answer for, and that is fine! Some people are very goal-oriented, yet others start learning languages without a precise reason. If you already have a reason, congratulations! The precise reason is what will make you keep studying, and consequently make studying faster. Even if you don’t have it now, you will either find one in the future, or probably stop studying. Studying Chinese must be important for you to make you keep going. 

What is a good reason?

Let’s see an example of a bad and a good reason to study.

I want to study Chinese because it is the most spoken language in the world. – This sounds fine for the start; however, it is too general and not good enough in the long run. The fact that Chinese is the most spoken language in the world does not help if you do not intend to spend time among Chinese people. The reason why you want to learn a language is because you a) are passionate about it, b) need it in your work/family life etc. Chinese is getting very popular and this itself is a good reason to start studying it, however, do you seriously consider making it part of your professional life? Or maybe you have Chinese friends, neighbors or even a family that made you feel passionate about the language? If you do, then you have a good reason!

I want to study Chinese because I think it will be very useful for me; I am particularly interested in doing business in China (or Taiwan). I also consider pursuing a master degree abroad and I think China (or Taiwan) would be a great place for it. – Now this is a much better reason: it is complex, more detailed. It sounds more like a plan than a reason and that is the point! If you incorporate Chinese into your life and make it part of your future, then you are more likely to not only learn it faster, but to continue to learn it at all. You can search here for other reasons. 

Going to live in a Chinese speaking country may greatly enhance your language abilities.

2. How much time can I spare for learning Chinese? 

How long does it take to learn Chinese? We will answer that question in this paragraph, or rather you will do it for yourself. 

Usually when people meet a multilingual person, they often assume that he or she is gifted with some special language abilities. It may be true to some extent, but for most people it actually isn’t. There are very few language geniuses in the world, and there is little chance that you will ever meet one. The truth is, there is no hidden secret behind successful language learning, there is only hard work.

Note that when you meet people that have successfully learnt a foreign language, they never talk about any special abilities. The usual things they say is that they studied it at school, they spent long time reading in this language or watching media, they could also practice it with friends or abroad. What is the key to their success then? It is the large amount of a consisted effort dedicated for it over a long period of time 

Hard work is behind every success.

People tend to dismiss this argument by claiming that polyglots are indeed more talented and simply too humble to admit it. Moreover, everyone knows at least one person that seems “incapable” of learning any new language, or at least he or she claims to be so. However, there is no such a thing as being incapable of learning a new language, cause we all have already learnt at least one in our life. People who claim to be incapable just don’t have time for it or don’t want to do it.

Therefore, the answer to the main question is: the more you study, the faster you become proficient in Chinese. 

3. Can I make Chinese part of my everyday life?

This is probably the most complicated question, but not less significant. It is directly connected with the fact that us, humans, learn things faster when we need them. This is why the so-called language immersion helps so much in the learning process. 

By being immersed in the language environment, we mean making it part of your everyday life, and consequently convincing your own brain that Chinese is something you need to know. It involves all kinds of things, from accessibility of learning materials to having Chinese friends, speaking Chinese at work, watching Chinese movies or even travelling and living in China or any other Chinese speaking place. If you don’t live in China or don’t have any Chinese speaking friends, then being immersed will be a hard for you, as it involves your daily life activities outside the classroom. 

Reading in Chinese is the best way to study characters.

There is no one-size-fits-all way to become immersed in Chinese language environment, as it all depends on your life choices. Maayot is here to help you with that problem: we offer a big range of Chinese articles to help you improve your Chinese at every level. Since Chinese characters are arguably the biggest challenge for foreign learners, we strongly recommend you read as much as you can. Check out some of our materials here:

Good luck! 加油!