Learning a language like Chinese Mandarin is an amazing journey — there are so many ups and downs just like learning any other language. And after a few months, or probably years, you’ll notice the time and ask yourself “Am I doing the right ways? Why is it taking so long?”
There is no doubt that learning Mandarin is worth the time, money, and effort. If you are really into something, you’ll neglect the “time” it’ll take to get it. Annoyingly right, isn’t it? However, the length of time is different for each and every learner based on some factors. An average native English speaker can be fluent on Mandarin for about 2,200 hours of learning.
After reading this article, you will definitely know the answer to the question “How long am I going to be a fluent Mandarin speaker?” and more details about learning the language. Let’s check out first the factors that affect the learning duration of an individual:
1. Your Learning Experience
If you’re currently bilingual or multilingual, you’ll save some time learning a language. It’s faster to learn Mandarin for people who already speak more than one language according to several linguistic studies. It is because you are already accustomed to being exposed to a foreign language. Your fluency and skills to other languages will affect your fluency and skills in Mandarin. Interesting, right?
But if you’re not bilingual or multilingual, it doesn’t mean that it’s the end of the world. Your one-year Spanish class in junior high or your one-week family trip to Indonesia can help — exposures to other languages will do!
First and foremost, you need to know a bit about what makes up Mandarin — the unique linguistic aspects and making complete sentences and appropriate responses. If you already have the experience of studying a foreign language, memorizing “alien-like” vocabularies, listening to sounds you don’t even understand, looking at unknown alphabets, then you already have the expectations once you started learning Mandarin. If you have this “learner’s mindset,” then learning Mandarin becomes easier.
Again, it doesn’t mean that you need to be bilingual or multilingual to make Mandarin easier to learn. All you need is exposure to different languages — and it’s even more helpful if it’s Mandarin. Maybe today’s a good time for Chinese food, what do you think?
2. Your Learning Methods
Of course, how you study Mandarin affects your learning duration. If your method of learning is limited only to online classes, then it’ll take longer to learn. Why? Because you only depend on your online Mandarin classes. Outside the scheduled time, you don’t do anything to enhance your Mandarin skills.
However, if you’re exposed to Mandarin outside your classes, it’ll be quicker for you to master the language. Other methods of learning that you can do alongside online classes are reading books, newspapers, and novels, listening to music, radio, audiobooks, and podcasts, watching movies, TV shows, and news, and speaking the language — complete immersion! These ways of learning can help you speed up the process. And one easiest method is to spice up your life with Mandarin, like changing your smartphone language to Mandarin, eat out in Chinese restaurants, and if possible, try to visit the countries that speak Mandarin such as China and Taiwan.
3. Your Learning Time
Basically, the duration of your learning process depends on how much time you dedicate in learning Mandarin. Do you plan to study every day? Every weekend? Twice a month?
Studies have proven that learners who study at least one hour every day learn faster than those who study 7 hours for one day. It’s actually okay if that one hour a day is divided into four — 15 minutes after breakfast, 15 minutes after lunch, 15 minutes after dinner, and 15 minutes before going to sleep.
That’s why most online Mandarin classes prefer daily (though short) classes to encourage frequent studying — and that is also why immersion is the best way to master a language.
4. Your Attitude
Yes, your attitude plays an important role in mastering Mandarin. Once you have a positive attitude as you approach language learning, you’ll see the journey as a fun experience. That’ll make you more likely to be open in learning as if it’s your favorite hobby! You’ll be more excited to learn new words and use them whenever possible. In that way, you’ll learn faster without even noticing the time spent.
But if you have a negative attitude towards learning Mandarin, as if your parents forced you to learn it, you’ll be more likely to just keep blaming everything to the existence of Mandarin. You won’t even try hard to memorize words and phrases. You’ll just “read and forget” everything and be more excited to finish the study time. If this is you, then Mandarin would definitely be impossible to learn.
5. Your Motivation
I don’t disagree that being motivated is your key to success, not only in language-learning but also in life, career, and goals. There are so many studies proving that motivation plays an important role in learning any language — some people succeeded and some have failed.
And if you want to succeed in learning, again, you need to stay motivated. To do that, always keep reminding yourself of the reason why you want to study Mandarin, the possible outcome once you mastered it, and all the hardships you went through right before you started learning it. Motivation will boost your learning process, and being excited again will encourage you to learn more.
I won’t argue with anyone that Mandarin is really difficult, even to native speakers. Some learners even chose to study slowly to make sure that they will tackle every single thing. But the difficulty will never be an obstacle if you have the strong determination of reaching fluency.
Learning Mandarin: Sample Timeline
Now that you already know the factors that affect the learning duration, you’re still craving for more. You want to see a timeline — the one that you can use as your guide for your learning process to be more productive. You want to see the dates and numbers. Fortunately, there are several studies which will help us know the learning duration for each and every learner, and for you.
But before we move on to the timeline, I want to clarify to you that most of these studies use “language proficiency” or “fluency” to decide if the language has been completely “learned.” However, you know that it’s not necessary to be perfect in Mandarin. Although that’s absolutely a plus, just reaching the low intermediate level in Mandarin can surely get you a decent job.
Sample Timeline 1 – One course that is equivalent for 8 weeks
✔ One 3-hour Mandarin course per week
✔ One 1-hour weekly assignment
✔ At least a 2-hour self-study per week
You need to finish 25-30 courses for Mandarin. For a year, you can do 3 courses — which will take you 8-10 years to reach the low intermediate level with online classes.
Sample Timeline 2 – One year of Mandarin classes in a language school
✔ 4 hours per week
✔ 2 hours of weekly assignment
✔ At least a 2-hour self-study per week
There are 12 weeks in one semester. And for a year, there will be 2 semesters. You need to attend approximately 10-12 semesters — which will take you 5-6 years to reach an intermediate level with Mandarin classes.
Sample Timeline 3 – One hour per day of independent study
If you keep studying every day for at least one hour, it will take you 3 years to reach an intermediate level. But in those hours, you need to be completely focused on your studies. You should be dedicated and determined.
This method of learning consists of using all the possible learning ways, whatever they are — reading, writing, listening, and speaking.
Sample Timeline 4 – Eight hours per day of active immersion
This will look like you’re in a full-time job. For 8 hours per day, you need to be fully immersed. Of course, if you are really into Mandarin, you can also exceed from 8 hours. But our brain needs to rest, so outside 8 hours, maybe give yourself a reward for your hard work — watch your favorite movie, play your favorite sport, order your favorite pizza, and hang out with your friends. You’ve done enough for the day!
For 8 hours per day of active immersion, it will take approximately 3 months to reach an intermediate level in Mandarin.
As you know, every result differs from one person to another. These findings ignore various factors, so this isn’t really accurate. Who knows? Maybe you’ll reach an intermediate level as early as 3 months if you’re really determined. (Fingers-crossed.)
How Fast Can You Learn a Foreign Language?
The Foreign Service Institute (FSI) examined a group of native English speakers ages 30 and 40 who were studying foreign languages at their institute. To measure the learning results of the students, the institute used the Interagency Language Roundtable Scale, whose goal is to calculate the learning duration of a student to reach professional proficiency or higher.
And according to the Foreign Service Institute, you will learn faster if the language you’re learning is closer to your native language. The FSI have broken down the languages into five basic categories according to the similarity of the language to English.
Let’s check out the FSI timeline and see how fast can you learn a foreign language.
Group I: Languages Closely Related to English
- Haitian Creole
If you’re a native English speaker, learning these languages will only take you 24 weeks (575-600 hours).
Group II: Languages Similar to English
Yes, if you’re an English speaker and planning to learn the German language, it’ll take you about 30 weeks (750 hours) to master the language.
Group III: Languages With Linguistic Differences From English
Are you surprised by this group? These languages have some sort of differences from the English language. So if you’re a native English speaker, it’ll take you for about 36 weeks (900 hours) to master these three languages.
Group IV: Languages With More Linguistic Differences From English
- Filipino (Tagalog)
- Persian (Dari, Farsi, Tajik)
And now we have a long list! These languages have notable and more differences from English. So learning these will take you 44 Weeks (1,100 Hours) to master the language.
Group V: Exceptionally Difficult Languages for Native English Speakers
- Cantonese Chinese
- Mandarin Chinese
There you go! Mandarin Chinese falls into the “exceptionally difficult” languages. Sounds pretty scary, huh? If you will learn a language from this group, it’ll take 88 Weeks (2,200 Hours) for a native English speaker to master it.
That being said, it will take you approximately 2,200 hours to reach fluency in Mandarin, and the number of hours may either increase or decrease depending on the factors that affect the duration of learning a language, as mentioned on the upper part of this article. But again, these findings are based on the similarity of the language to English. So if you’re not a native English speaker, that still depends on how close your native language is to Mandarin. If you’re Japanese, then that is on the different side — being fluent in Mandarin might only take half a year!
But if you’re not Japanese but planning to learn it, you might want to check the article “Which Language Should You Learn First? Chinese or Japanese?” to help you decide between these two awesome languages.
You can use the FSI study to help you estimate the number of hours that will take you to completely learn Mandarin. Those findings can also be used to make your learning process more productive. You can even set your own schedule on when and how many hours in a day you’ll study. However, make sure that you’re not rushing yourself. Quality first than speed! It’s okay to learn Mandarin for 10 years as long as you’re “fluent” in it rather than pushing yourself to learn faster but cannot remember anything in the end.
The Final Verdict
Once you started learning Mandarin, the way is now open to important fields in Chinese, such as history, politics, economy, and archaeology. Learning the language also means that you should learn and accept Chinese culture. You will discover the rich heritage of novels, poetry, stories, drama, and film. These things reflect the values, struggles, joys, and sorrows of the greatest people. Opening yourself to the Chinese world will help you understand what is behind the Chinese language, which makes it powerful, and how it works in society.
Mandarin Chinese may be one of the most challenging languages to learn. And that’s the beauty of it — hard to achieve but rewarding! I know that you found this article because you’re concerned about the time you’ll spend to be a fluent Mandarin speaker. And I’m pretty sure that looking at the numbers above, you’re having second thoughts. Just like the popular belief, “The greater the risk, the greater the reward.” Think of what will happen once you become fluent in Mandarin!
1. Should I learn Mandarin or Cantonese?
If your goal is to be understood by most speakers, you need to study Mandarin. It is the official language in China and the United Nations and is also the most spoken Chinese language with over 1 billion speakers. Mandarin is the language used in Chinese schools, universities, news and newspapers, TV programs, movies, music, and radio stations. Even Cantonese speakers are now learning Mandarin. To know more about their similarities and differences, check out this video:
How Similar Are Mandarin and Cantonese?
2. Do I need to learn Hanzi?
Hanzi is the Chinese writing system. And YES, to completely learn the language, you need to study Hanzi. If you’re learning Mandarin for short-term purposes such as traveling, then maybe you can skip learning it. But for long-term purposes, you will never be fluent in Chinese if you don’t study Hanzi because one way or another, you will be dealing with Hanzi characters. You can’t survive Chinese without it.
3. What language should I learn after Chinese?
Good question! The easiest language to learn after Chinese is Japanese because one of the three Japanese alphabets, Kanji, is originated from the Chinese characters, Hanzi. Kanji is also the most difficult part of learning Japanese. So basically, if you already know Chinese, then you’re halfway through learning Japanese!
And if you’re planning to study Mandarin abroad, check out this link for some outstanding learning centers located in China and Taiwan: Learn Mandarin Abroad!