How Long It Takes to Learn Mandarin?

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First of all, I believe that we are our habits and that our habits are influenced by our goals and the external environment.

Hence I think you can roughly predict how long it will take you to learn Mandarin by honestly answering to which of the following categories you belong.

The swim or sink dude

I know a guy from New Zeland, Marc, that moved to Shanghai and within a year was able to speak quite good Mandarin. I mean, he was writing emails and answering business calls in Chinese.

No, he didn’t study Mandarin before to come to China. He actually never spoke any foreign languages before landing in Shanghai. And no, he didn’t join a miraculous school once he arrived.

His secret is pretty simple.

He was living in a neighborhood where there were no foreigners and avoided the expat bars. He chose to only stay among Chinese people.

Also, he was teaching English to Chinese kids so that his job implied a daily immersion into the language.

This is a “swim or sink” strategy and it works. I know it because I went from zero English knowledge to the level of delivering a presentation of ten minutes in front of 200 people in five weeks (English is easier than Mandarin).

How did I do it? I moved to London and pushed myself to speak English full time even if at the beginning I had no clue. It worked because I had the right motivation (a presentation in front of the American CEO of my firm and other 199 people).

Am I suggesting you should adopt a “swim or sink” strategy?


Not everybody would be able to do it.

However, besides my friend from New Zeland I know several guys that managed to become fluent in Mandarin in about a year. And by “being fluent” I mean that they have the ability to handle face to face meetings, business calls and emails.

What I noticed is that the people that succeed with this technique usually have an uncommon motivation. Many of them are entrepreneurs willing to start an import-export business or a consultancy firm in China.

These people really need to be proficient in Mandarin. They cannot afford to bullshit themselves. It would cost them too much money.

Also, depending on the job you do, you cannot spend eight hours per day answering the questions of twelve curious Chinese kids. Let’s say that you are a software engineer. Unless you have the ability to have daily conversations in Mandarin with your laptop you are pretty much stuck.

how to study chinese

The full-time student

These are the guys that pursue a Chinese degree. They often study Mandarin but they may also have a different major. They are usually already experienced with foreign languages and, in many cases, spent a year or more learning Chinese in their home country before to come to China.

They often aspire to become language professors, found a language-learning start-up or a consultancy firm. They are damn motivated, they often have a part-time job and, as the swim or sink dudes, may prefer to stick with Chinese people till they reach the level of Mandarin they want.

Also, the full-time students have good chances of becoming fluent within one year.

The long-distance Chinese learner

These guys are either full-time language students in their home country or guys that study Mandarin as a hobby. They are usually very proficient when it comes to grammar and characters but lack the everyday practice to speak with confidence.

Don’t get me wrong, you can become fluent in Chinese by living in Hungary. However, the odds you will succeed in a reasonable number of years are against you.

The long-distance Chinese learners are often highly motivated and, if they manage to arrive to China or Taiwan, they will probably “evolve” into a swim or sink dude or a full-time student.

The exchange student

These are the (in)famous students that populate Pyro Pizza and the Propaganda Club in Beijing or similar spots in Shanghai. These guys come to China because they got a scholarship from their government or the European Union.

Their only goal is to get stoned and have as much sex as they can, possibly with multiple partners. Then, if there is still time, they may think about learning a bit of Chinese.

Hey, I’m not judging. I’ve been there and it’s actually a great way to spend your time : P

Since their contract generally requires some kind of certificate, the exchange student is forced to follow a Chinese course and take a final exam. So, in the end, he learns some Mandarin.

While many of them will return to their respective countries after a year and forget all the Mandarin they learned, someone will decide to stay in China and switch to one of the other categories.

study chinese languageThe Chinese Language Department at BFSU (also known as Beiwai University).

The “I would love but I can’t” guy

These are the long term expats that chose to live in China because they love its culture and people. They are often freelancers, specialists who work for big firms (engineers, designers, researchers and so on) or language teachers (though many language teachers belong to the next category).

These people call China “home” and often have a Chinese wife (or husband, even if it’s less common to see a foreign woman with a Chinese guy) or girlfriend.

They usually speak decent “survival Chinese,” that is they can get around in Mandarin with all the everyday tasks but they will call their Chinese partner or friend every time there is a problem they do know how to solve (that is the ATM ate their Credit Card, they need to go to the hospital or they got arrested).

They would love to take their Mandarin to the next level and sometimes – not too often – they succeed. The main obstacle for them is that they are not students anymore (that is they are busy) and, since they do not need to speak Mandarin at work, they lack the motivation to study Chinese at night.

Also, since they plan to stay in China still a couple of years (someone plans to stay here indefinitely), they have no deadline.

I belong to this category and the main reason that I started to write about the Chinese language in my blog is that this gives me the motivation that I didn’t have before.

And I did manage to learn more Chinese in the last six months than in my first two years in China.

The angry expat

Many people came to China attracted by the spirit of adventure, the idea that finding a job in China is easier than back in their country or the promise of a higher status and a favorable exchange rate.

Sadly after a couple of months, many of them realize that China is not the right country for them and become angry expats stuck in the Middle Kingdom.

There are mainly two kinds of people that belong to this tier.

The first category encompasses all those guys that came to China because they were not able to find the position they wanted in their country. They often become foreign language teachers as nowadays there is a huge demand for it in China and no particular skills are required.

Of course not all language teachers belong to this category as they may be full-time students that teach part-time, swim or sink dudes that need money to start their new business or, more rarely, “I would love but I can’t” guys.

Then there are the white-collar angry expats. They often work for a foreign firm that has a branch in China or for one of the hundreds embassies, consulates and foreign offices that populate the streets of Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou.

You can recognize the angry expats from the following characteristics:

  • They don’t like the food (Chinese food is not for everybody indeed) and make sure to let you know it every time they eat with you (usually in some expat bar that prepare hamburgers and fake Italian spaghetti).
  • They hate the weather (well, it must be pointed out that Chinese weather is terrible unless you live in the South West) and make sure to let you know it every time you meet them.
  • They hate the people (there are 1.? billions of people here, which makes everything extremely competitive, even when it comes to buying a yogurt) and try their best to never interact with a Chinese person. They will usually make you notice how stupid was the fuwuyuan and why.
  • They don’t get the “face culture” (if you want to understand the Chinese culture you need to put some effort on it and the angry expats are not willing to do so) so they always end up thinking that Chinese people are impolite or dishonest.

These guys never tried to learn Mandarin so, in order to dissimulate their complete failure, internalized the fact that it’s an horrible and illogical language.

The indifferent person

Arrived in China by chance (often because of a scholarship or a short term job contract), the indifferent person leaves China without any strong feeling about the country or the language, which he didn’t try to learn because, as stated by a reader of this blog, “Learning Chinese or any other language is futile for a English speaking person.

They are rare. China is a country that you either love or hate.

Some final words

One. I talked about dudes and guys all along the article but all the things I wrote also hold for the ladies.

Two. This article contains wild generalizations so take it with a grain of salt!

Three. And you, dear reader, to which category do you belong?

Frequently asked questions

What is the best way to learn Chinese?
If you’re serious about learning Chinese, you should spend at least one year in mainland China or Taiwan. You need to talk and read Chinese on a daily basis.

You should preferably study Chinese at a private school or university as the curriculum is created for students to learn Chinese in the most efficient way. It’s very hard to become fluent in Chinese if you study on your own. You should also try to meet Chinese friends at an early stage, and perhaps a partner.

This will allow you to talk and listen to Chinese on a daily basis. Be serious with your homework and read, listen and talk as much as you can. Another recommendation is to buy other Chinese learning books, in addition to the books that your school provides you.

This will help you to expand your vocabulary even more and you’ll be able to read more texts, which is important to improve your reading skills and grammar.

Is Chinese worth learning?
Definitely. If you learn Chinese, you can communicate with more than 1 billion people globally. Keep in mind that Chinese is spoken in other countries and regions where foreigners have good chances to find jobs and to settle, such as Singapore, Hong Kong, Taiwan and Malaysia.

That’s not the case if you learn, let’s say, Thai or Vietnamese. For the record, learning Chinese can also increase your chances of landing a good job overseas too, like in the US or Europe.

Which language has the most global speakers?
Mandarin Chinese! Below you can find the top languages with the most global speakers.

  • Mandarin Chinese (more than 1.1 billion speakers)
  • English (around 980 million speakers)
  • Hindustani (around 540 million speakers)
  • Spanish (around 520 million speakers)
  • Arabic (around 420 million speakers)
Can I learn Chinese in 3 months?
Not really. Sure, you can study in a way so that you perform well on tests and get a decent score on Hanyu Shuiping Kaoshi (HSK). HSK is the equivalent of TOEFL or IELTS. This is significantly easier for Japanese learners as they’re already familiar with many of the Chinese characters.

They have an advantage in terms of reading and writing. To be able to speak fluently and master the tones flawlessly, you need to study hard and speak Chinese for at least 1-2 years, but preferably longer.

What is Hanyu Shuiping Kaoshi (HSK)?
HSK is a standardized Chinese language proficiency test, which is similar to TOEFL and IELTS. The test comes in various forms, but normally tests your skills in listening, writing and reading. There are six different levels, where the sixth level is the most difficult.

Nowadays, you can sign up for a computerized version of the test, which is easier and where foreigners generally score higher. One of the benefits of doing the HSK is that you sometimes need to provide a certificate of your HSK results when looking for jobs or when enrolling in bachelor’s or master’s programs.

You should preferably do the HSK directly after you’ve finalized your studies, or before going back to your home country.

Where can I learn Chinese in Shanghai?
You have plenty of options if you decide to study Chinese in Shanghai. You can go for a private school or a public university. Some of the most popular universities to study Chinese are Fudan University, Jiaotong University and Shanghai International Studies University.

These universities are some of the most reputable in China and have decades of experience in teaching Chinese. Studying at a private school can also be beneficial as you study in smaller groups and they solely focus on teaching Chinese.

Where can I learn Chinese in Beijing?
Beijing is a popular option among Chinese language students as Mandarin is based on the dialect of Beijing. It’s the capital of China, attracts many international companies and one of the most culturally sacred cities.

Beijing has a number of top-ranking universities with Chinese language programs, but also many private schools. Some of the most well-known universities include Beijing Language and Culture University, Peking University and Tsinghua University.

Photo Credits: Creative Commons License Chinese Characters by Bjoern

4 thoughts on “How Long It Takes to Learn Mandarin?”

  1. Nailed me pretty dead on with that linkback to my LLW post :) It’s a tough category to be in, and you’re absolutely right that busyness is up and motivation for learning is down. There are a handful of reasons for me to become fluent in Chinese, but the biggest one (“because I need it”) doesn’t exist any more — living in China for going on 8 years without it has proven that “need” is a relative term. That said, with a kid, and another on the way, there is a certain urge to be able to speak to them and understand them in both their native tongues, not just the one I bring to the table. Maybe that will prove to be the motivation I need to get over the hump.

    Good post!

    1. Haha the ATM story made me laugh, especially the end.

      Also, it was so easy to picture myself in the same situation…

      Kids can surely help you to get the “right” motivation, although you should probably work a bit on your routines, such as talk only Chinese for dinner or something like that.

      But I haven’t personal experience on this field so this is just theory : )

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