The short answer is 3,285 hours.
That’s how long it took me to be able to read Chinese novels extensively (at 98%+ comprehension), which was my primary goal with the language.
Those 3,285 hours consisted of:
- 20 hours of classroom study in Shanghai.
- 30 hours of online classes.
- 40 hours of 1:1 tutoring online.
- 80 hours of 1:1 tutoring in Taipei.
- 3,115 hours of self-study in my home country of the United States.
You can probably tell from the above answer that “how long does it take to learn Chinese” is a ridiculous question. The answer will vary dramatically based on your specific goals, study methods, and previous experience learning languages. Additionally, for most people you are never truly done learning Chinese; it is a lifelong pursuit. These 3,000+ hours do not indicate mastery (or anything close to it). Instead, they represent the achievement of a very specific goal that I set for myself. So, why even ask the question? I believe that reflecting on it can help streamline and simplify your Chinese-learning journey.
What does it mean to learn Chinese?
To me, saying “I want to learn Chinese” is similar to saying “I want to be a good skier.” That can mean different things to different people. For example: it could mean a casual cross-country skier, an Olympic-level slalom racer, or an expert back-country skier. The amount of time it will take to achieve each of these goals is different. Furthermore, being good at one of these does not necessarily imply you will be good at the others. Some of the skills may translate, others may not.
The difficulty I see is that for most Chinese beginners (myself included, when I started) the answer to the question “what does it mean to learn Chinese” is to be able to read, write, speak, and listen with 100% fluency in all circumstances. Unfortunately, this is probably not a realistic goal for most of us—achieving it could take a lifetime, especially given the diversity of vocabulary, dialect, etc., that exists in modern China. Furthermore, that level of advanced fluency may not be necessary for most people. Instead, you need to decide what you want to do with Chinese and focus on that. You should also understand that while some of your progress may naturally translate to other areas, some of it may not (reading novels may not help you read microwave instructions, for example).
How do I minimize the amount of time it will take to learn Chinese?
To reiterate, if you focus on the specific areas of the language that you want to master, “learning Chinese” (achieving whatever goal you defined at the outset) will take you less time. So, it is critical to determine exactly what you want to learn before you start to learn it. Your goals can always change along the way, but you need to start out with an end in mind. For example, if you love detective novels, you may make it your goal to read one in Chinese. If you want to work in a Chinese office, make it your goal to be able to follow a meeting or write a coherent email.
So, when you first start learning, the most important thing you can do is to:
Define what “learning Chinese” means to you, and build a specific study plan around it.
Don’t try to absorb the monolith that is Chinese all at once or you may spread yourself too thin and burn out. Instead, focus on smaller areas that are specifically useful to you; where you can feel yourself moving closer to your goal day-by-day, week-by-week, and month-by-month. It will make your learning experience that much more enjoyable.