Firstly, have you watched my live streams on YouTube? I go live every Tuesday to discuss the best tips, tricks, and resources for learning Mandarin Chinese here in China.
You might be wondering how I live stream so well while in China. Check out last week’s post which covers the VPN I use and how to navigate the world inside the Great Firewall of China. It’s easier than you think.
The hard-hitting truth
When I’m introduced to a new Elementary Chinese community member on Instagram, WeChat or through comments on YouTube, I ask them a very simple question. ‘How is your Chinese coming along?’
The most common response is ‘I’ve been in China for three months now and my Chinese is terrible.’
Three months? Are you crazy? Do you think this is Spanish? Spoiler alert. You cannot learn Mandarin Chinese in three months.
We’ll be discussing two articles by Olle Linge, the mastermind behind Hacking Chinese. He holds his Masters in teaching English and Chinese. He is extremely knowledgable, and talented.
Article one: Can you become fluent in Chinese in three months?
Article two: The 10,000 hour rule – Blood, sweat and tears
This is a summary article from my YouTube Live Stream. If you want to watch the full unedited version head over to YouTube. Click Subscribe if you like the video and want to see more of my content. Thanks in advance!
Can you become fluent in three months?
The short answer is, no. The State Department says that for a native English speaker, you need 2,200 hours of solid study to become fluent in Mandarin Chinese.
To put that into perspective the State Department also says that it takes around 600 hours of study to become fluent in Spanish.
You’re in China. You have a full-time job. Let’s say you’re super diligent and you want to study for 5 hours per week. Divide 2,000 by 5 then multiply it by how many weeks you’ll study per year. Let’s say 46 weeks so you can go off and holiday in Thailand for the remaining weeks. That’s 230 hours. My quick math shows that it will take you 9.5 years to learn Chinese fluently.
Almost 10 years! It’s okay. You’re allowed to cry now.
Adjust your expectations
Can you see now that you’re setting the bar too high?
If you’ve been in China for a year working a full-time job, as most of us are. And, still, don’t feel good about your level of Chinese, give yourself a break!
You’ll feel a ton better if you set yourself realistic goals and lower your expectations. You won’t be fluent in three months, six months, or even a year. Does that lift a weight off your shoulders?
Why do so many people give up on learning Chinese?
Their expectations are too high. If you’re learning Chinese and you want a quick short cut. Watch this video or read this article.
Remember, that State Department figure is diligent study. Using your Duolingo or Memrise APP doesn’t count in my opinion. Are you going to use your APP for 23 minutes straight without distraction? According to Gloria Mark, it takes 23 minutes and 15 seconds to focus on a task.
I believe that APPs are great for additional study. I have a vocabulary APP, but it’s no substitute for a teacher, a comprehensive book, and learning fundamental grammar rules. It’s certainly not going to expose you to spoken Chinese in the real world. In my opinion, real-world Chinese is the most effective way of absorbing language, picking up nuances in daily speech, and interpreting dialects.
Three things you need to learn Chinese from scratch:
- A real person to practice with (possibly a tutor) — if you’re really busy at work and you’re not confident enough to practice every day in the real world, then grab a friend or hire a tutor. Expect to ask questions and fail. Failing is key. You learn from your mistakes.
- A book — whichever book you choose, will provide structure in the beginning and help you formulate your own lessons. Don’t just grab any old textbook. Head over to my reviews article to make an informed decision about which book is best for you.
- An APP — Now you can layer an APP on top of your two foundations, to brush up on vocab or quiz yourself. Do not rely on APPs to teach you Chinese.
Let’s define fluent
From paragraph two in Hacking Chinese’s article, Olle refers to C1 level. That is a European standard. A, B and C. C means you’re basically fluent.
If you want a good fluency rating use the ACTFL Proficiency Guidelines. They are an American description of what individuals can do with language in terms of speaking, writing, listening, and reading in real-world situations in a spontaneous and non-rehearsed context.
They do real-world testing in Speaking, Listening, Reading, and Writing. The speaking test is super difficult. They call you up and begin chatting with you in Chinese. Once they understand your interests they will slowly begin to ramp up the difficulty level until you are no longer able to hold a conversation. A test result will be delivered to you a few weeks later.
Chinese isn’t French
In linguistics, there is a term called language distance. The closer the language you are learning is to your native language the easier it will be to learn. Language distance includes grammar, syntax, semantics, and culture. If the culture overlaps then you are more likely to grasp sentence structure or spelling rules from a roman alphabet. To put simply, the further away the language is from your native language, the harder it will be to learn.
Olle says “I think that there is only one way to overcome this problem and that is huge amounts of exposure. You need to see and hear the language an awful lot, but you also need to practice to make sure you get it right.”
We are together on this approach. Get outside. Speak to your neighbors. Learn with a native tutor. Converse with the lady at your local fruit store.
After studying Chinese full time for just over a semester I felt pretty confident in speaking day-to-day Chinese. If you’re here for a year and don’t have time to take Chinese classes you could pick yourself up a comprehensive phrasebook such as Get Talking Chinese. This book has phrases that are used in real life and audio for every page so you can actively listen to the correct tones and pronunciation.
Study on your commute and practice with your Chinese colleagues. Keep going until everything hurts. Your brain, your ego, your pride. Keep going until you go home and cry because your Chinese sucks. Push through until you can navigate your day with ease.
Podcasts for learning Chinese?
Wow! My Podcast game is so weak. But, I love using ChinesePod. And, this is news to me, but they do have a podcast called Newbie. You can listen to it on Apple Podcasts.
I’ve used ChinesePod from the get-go. Their free plan gives you access to a free library lesson — it’s just a taster. You can always sign up for their two-week free trial to get an insight before you buy. Otherwise, they have more inclusive plans which include tons of amazing features.
Side note: this is not an affiliate link or paid advertisement. I’m just a super fan!
So, how long does it take to learn Chinese?
Everyone is different. Yes, you hate me. I know. No one can tell you how long it will take you to learn Chinese. But I’ll say this. It’s going to take a long time to become fluent.
Let’s end with Olle’s wise words:
“Learning Chinese takes a long time (measured in hours, not in years) and hard work. If you’re smart, you’ll make sure the road is enjoyable, but you’ll still have to walk it. Everyone can invest 10,000 hours if they really want to and if they think it’s worthwhile. As I’ve stated earlier, the number itself isn’t the point, what’s important is that it’s there and that you have no real excuse of not getting there, provided you are really interested.”
Are you new to learning Chinese?
I’m so glad you stumbled across my blog.
I’ve compiled a list of resources that I personally recommend to help supercharge your learning process. Check it out here.
If you’d like to find out in a little more detail the best ways to learn Chinese as a beginner, read this article.
Considering buying a book to self-study? Great idea. I’d highly recommend this method. I review a ton of Chinese books to save you time and money. Find all the reviews here.
If I could recommend one book for beginners it would be Talk Mandarin. Check out my review on YouTube.
A quick and important disclosure:
Some of the links above are affiliate links, which means that if you choose to make a purchase, I will earn a commission. This commission comes at no additional cost to you. I recommend them because they are helpful and useful.
The Great Firewall of China
Want to use the VPN I use for a stable, quick connection in China? I depend on it to upload more than six videos a week and live-stream on Facebook, YouTube, and Instagram. And here’s my second choice for a VPN. Plus, when you download from either link, they share some of the cost with me, so I can keep creating the videos you love.