Chinese is often seen as one of the most difficult languages to learn. While it does take a longer-than-average time (compared to other languages) to learn,
it is not as difficult as many people think it is. Here we answer the question ‘How long does it take to learn Chinese’ in two ways?
A not super scientific quiz
You can get an answer here, but obviously reality is much more nuanced and variable than the quiz. Anyway, have a go!
How many hours per week do you self-study?
Usually, this number is overestimated. Be honest. Time on your phone during self-study doesn't count!
How many hours per week do you take classes?
Do you take private or group class?
How good are you with language learning?
We add a tiny bit of a multiplier into the scores this way, but not a huge one. We are 100% sure that everyone can learn Mandarin. You can also replace this question with: How motivated are you?
Do you live in China or do you have a Chinese speaking environment?
Background knowledge on how long it takes to learn Chinese
“I want to learn the Chinese language and be fluent in a year, do you think it’s possible?”
It’s a hopeful question that we often get from beginning Mandarin students. And because the last thing we want to do is dampen someone’s enthusiasm, we say yes, of course, it’s possible to reach fluency in the Chinese language, and learning how to speak beginner Mandarin may not be as hard as you think. But we’ll quickly add it’s only possible with the right methods and great persistence.
Managing a student’s learning expectations is an important part of long-term learning, so it’s good to be down to earth and prepared with the ups and downs that come along that realize the immensity of the task.
How long does learning Mandarin Chinese really takes
On average, conversational skills can develop in 2 years, but expect the overall journey to fluency in Mandarin Chinese to take 3 or 4 years (2200 hours or 88 weeks of learning) for most students. If you’re an English speaker, the first thing that can help you set practical goals is the FSI scale, the foreign language proficiency guidelines used by the Foreign Service Institute, a training institution for U.S. foreign affairs staff.
They divide language proficiency into five levels:
- Language level 1 – Elementary level
The person can fulfill basic courtesy requirements and ask for basic things during traveling.
- Language level 2 – Limited working proficiency
The speaker can fulfill basic social conversations and basic working conversations.
- Language level 3 – Minimal professional proficiency
The person freely speaks full sentences and can participate in most conversations about practical, social and professional topics.
- Language level 4 – Full professional proficiency
The person uses language fluently and accurately on all topics.
- Language level 5 – Native or bilingual proficiency
The person has a speaking ability equivalent or above that of an educated native speaker.
They also have difficulty rankings for foreign languages, seen from the point of an English native-speaker:
- Group 1 – Closely related to English
Languages like French, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch, and Scandinavian languages like Norwegian, Swedish and Danish
- Group 2 – Languages similar to English
- Group 3 – Languages with linguistic/cultural differences from English
Indonesian, Malaysian, Swahili
- Group 4 – Languages with significant linguistic and/or cultural differences from English
A long list of languages like Greek, Turkish, Urdu, Hindi, Nepali, Thai, Vietnamese, and a lot of Russian-related languages like Ukrainian, Bulgarian, Croatian, Polish and Czech
- Group 5 – Languages which are exceptionally difficult for native English speakers
Arabic, Chinese (Cantonese & Mandarin), Japanese, and Korean
The two charts below indicate how long it normally takes for learners to reach different FSI levels for two different language groups. The three different lines on the charts represent learners with different aptitudes.
It takes a learner with average aptitude only 15 weeks to reach level 2 for Spanish or French, but about 50 weeks to reach a similar level of the Chinese language. If you want to be fully fluent in Mandarin, you’d better plan to spend about 230 weeks, which is about 4 years.
There’s also this (partial) world map by Redditor u/Fummy, that gives a more geographical view of language differences (& distances):
Chinese language in HSK levels
Another way to get your head around the difficulty of Mandarin is to look into the guidelines of (汉语水平考试 Hànyǔ Shuǐpíng Kǎoshì, translated as the Chinese Proficiency Test) – China’s only standardized test of Standard Chinese language proficiency for non-native speakers.
HSK divides the Chinese language proficiency into five levels and focuses more on listening, reading and writing:
|Suggested learning Duration
|Understand and use some simple Chinese characters and sentences to communicate
|2 to 3 lessons per week, for one semester
|use Chinese in a simple and direct manner
|2 to 3 lessons per week, for two semesters
|use Chinese to serve the demands of their personal lives, studies and work
|2 to 3 lessons per week, for three semesters
|can discuss a relatively wide range of topics in Chinese
|2 to 3 lessons per week, for four semesters
|Can read Chinese newspapers and magazines, watch Chinese films
|2 to 3 lessons per week, for more than 2 years
|Can easily understand any information communicated in Chinese
So according to the HSK levels, ‘more than two years’ will be the duration you should give to yourself to reach a good fluency – if you take 2 to 3 lessons per week.
To dominate the HSK Test, check out Goeast’s guide Dominate the HSK Test: The Only Guide You’ll Need for 2024
Goeast Mandarin has been teaching and preparing Chinese language students for over a decade and — when we say they’re ready — nearly all of them pass the HSK exam on the first try. Click here to try Goeast’s HSK Preparation Course for FREE.
How Long Does it Take to Reach Beginner Levels of Chinese?
For most learners, it takes around 6 months of consistent practice to reach basic conversational Chinese considered a beginner level. At this level, you’ll be able to introduce yourself, make basic transactions, understand simple questions and media, and build vocabulary around common daily topics. Reaching a beginner proficiency level also requires starting to grasp Chinese tones and some fundamental grammar concepts.
Aim for at least one hour a day of speaking practice, vocabulary drills, grammar exercises, and listening reinforcement. Using validated curriculums or language apps can aid your progression and targeted development areas too at this stage.
How Long Does it Take to Reach Intermediate Levels of Chinese?
It takes approximately 1 to 2 years of ongoing study to progress to an intermediate level for most students. At the intermediate stage, you’ll be able to engage in longer conversations, understand the main ideas of complex text or speech and express abstract ideas in Chinese. Expanding vocabulary and understanding of sentence structures is key during this phase.
Be sure to immerse yourself regularly in native content such as films, books, news and media examples. Getting advanced feedback from your teacher on speaking and writing is also essential to hone language production abilities at the intermediate stage.
How Long Does it Take to Reach Intermediate Levels of Chinese?
It’s estimated that it takes serious learners around 3 to 5 years of total practice to progress to an advanced level. At an advanced stage, you’ll be able to speak very fluently on a range of topics – from casual to professional. You’ll also be able to understand broader vocabulary, culture references, and dialects. Reading comprehension includes understanding sophisticated articles, essays and literature. Writing skills involve creating detailed texts with technical vocabulary and advanced grammar structures.
Reaching an advanced fluency requires many hours of exposure via varied immersion paired with learning strategies to intentionally tackle difficult vocabulary, characters, tones and language aspects at this last stage. Maintaining consistent challenge is key to further refine skills during this ultimate journey toward fluency.
What to Consider Before You Start Learning Mandarin Chinese?
Here are some key factors to consider before you start your Chinese language journey:
Prior Language Experience
If you’ve studied another second language before, especially one that is linguistically distant from English (such as Japanese or Arabic), that experience will help you approach learning Chinese. Having language learning strategies that worked for you in the past will give you a head start.
Learning a language as complex as Chinese requires strong, sustained motivation. Be clear going in about why you want to achieve Chinese proficiency so you can anchor yourself to that motivation during difficult times. Is it to interact with Chinese culture? For career advancement? Because you find languages fascinating? Identify your drivers.
Get specific about what level of proficiency you want to achieve and in what timeframe. Do you want conversational skills? To pass the HSK exam? Read Chinese literature? Your goals should align with the level of commitment you are prepared to give. If your goals don’t match your level of commitment, frustration can set in.
How do you like to learn?
If you know auditory or visual methods work better for you, seek out appropriate Chinese learning resources. Discovering and leaning into your learning preferences will make studying Chinese more enjoyable.
Consistently spending time studying, especially in the beginning stages, is crucial for language acquisition. Can you realistically commit 8-10 hours per week? An hour per day? Assess your schedule and attention span so you choose a manageable time commitment.
Quality language learning courses, tutors, books, apps etc. do incur some financial cost. Figure out what amount you can reasonably dedicate towards high-quality learning materials per month. Developing an idea of budget will allow you to evaluate programs and resources.
Chinese language levels at GoEast Mandarin
At GoEast, our courses are designated as 6 levels with 10 courses. And it takes 45 hours or so to finish level on average. If you want to learn conversational Chinese onlineas soon as possible, we recommend you do 2-3 lessons weekly in persistence, and at least set your goal to finish both beginner and elementary (4 levels) courses so that you can reach a conversational level and also not lose it easily.
If you want to learn conversational Chinese online, we propose 300 hours of lessons to first reach an intermediate level and at the same time, you’ll need to spend the same amount of time outside class to review and practice.
It is definitely not easy to learn a brand-new language when you are already a grown-up, but we believe persistence, cheerfulness and good instruction bring you victory.