How long will it take to become fluent in Chinese? Is it possible to learn Chinese in 3 months…or will it take years? In this guide, I share my experience over the past 10 years studying and learning Mandarin to help encourage you as well as give you a realistic idea of what to expect. And [spoiler alert!!] no…nobody is fluent in 3 months. Sorry. :/
Whether you are thinking about learning Chinese or have already dug into the language, you probably already know one simple truth: Chinese is a challenging language.
It’s not impossible, but it’s hard.
Your mentality plays a big part in how easily you learn Chinese (i.e. “I can definitely do this!” versus “This is too hard“). However, I’ve also learned that proper expectations play an equally important role.
If you don’t set specific goals and you don’t define “fluent” when you get pumped up by someone telling you it’s possible to learn Chinese in 3 months, you’re setting yourself up for discouragement. Here’s what you need to know.
Can I Learn Chinese in 3 Months or a Year?
When searching online, I came across websites and articles claiming that you can “Become fluent in Chinese in as little as 3 months!” Once you look at the fine print, though, you’ll see that their definition of “fluency” is quite, ahem, simple (even one so-called language expert only got to a level above beginner after 3 months). I’ll get into the definition of “fluency” more below.
How you define the word “FLUENT” is important!
While I think it is great that there are excellent Chinese language apps and services dedicated to encouraging more and more people to learn Chinese and achieve fast results, do not be fooled into thinking that you can achieve fluency in that short of a time span.
I myself studied abroad in Beijing for 3 months after already studying Chinese formally in university for a year and even at the conclusion of my program, I was conversational at best.
Before putting a timeline on mastering Chinese, you first need to understand what you are up against. The US State Department’s Foreign Service Institute puts it best in stating that
Mandarin is notoriously difficult to learn. The language is tonal, and fluency requires mastering thousands of characters. Mandarin competence takes 2,200 class hours, with half of that time spent in a country where it’s spoken. – US State Department
2,200 hours. Think about this: if you studied 24 hours a day for 3 months straight, you still wouldn’t reach 2,200 hours. And that’s for measured competence, not fluency.
As a fluent speaker of Chinese, while I do not necessarily agree that Mandarin competence takes 2,200 class hours, it does take strong dedication and commitment to studying at least several years and spending significant time abroad to acquire a strong grasp of the language.
How Do You Define Language Fluency?
Becoming fluent in Chinese also depends on how you define fluency. For me, fluency is where you can understand and participate in most conversations, read with relative ease, and be able to digest and contribute to written conversations.
Immersive study with at 1-3 hours a day…you are likely to acquire intermediate-level fluency within a year
It took me roughly four years to get to this level, where within that time I had taken 6 semesters of Chinese in university, formally studied the language in Beijing for one summer, and worked in Urumqi while passively studying Mandarin for a year.
If, however, you consider fluency as being able to participate in daily conversations while being able to read simple prose and be able to live in China without any major language barriers, then you can anticipate reaching fluency in a much shorter time-span.
If you were to study hard in a classroom or immersive setting with at least 1-3 hours a day, you are likely to acquire intermediate-level fluency within a year. Different people learn at different speeds, so you can’t take this as a hard-and-fast rule, but it’s a good metric to help set your expectations.
Total Immersion vs. Classroom Learning
The type of learning environment you study Chinese in also has a direct influence on how fast you can pick-up the language. If you are learning Chinese in a formal classroom setting in your home country, while you are likely receiving quality instruction on the mechanics of the language, you are probably not speaking enough Chinese to improve.
To speed things along, consider taking private on-one-on Chinese lessons to maximize opportunities to speak the language.
Learning speeds and learning environment play a big factor in how fast you can learn Chinese.
For those learning in China, there are opportunities abound for practicing Mandarin making it easier to improve your Chinese much faster. This does not go without saying that studying Chinese in a formal classroom setting does not have its merits, however.
When living in China, I met many foreigners who picked up Chinese through conversations with locals on the street. Although they could communicate, to native speakers, their Chinese was broken, hard to understand, and full of pronunciation and grammar errors.
If speaking quality Chinese is a goal of yours and you currently live in China, make it a priority to also study Mandarin in a classroom setting. Teachers will notify you on your mistakes and teach you on the mechanics of Chinese whereas locals on the street will not.
Speaking vs Talking vs Reading Chinese
The last thing to consider when mapping out how long it will take you to learn Chinese is will you focus first on speaking or try to learn reading, writing, and all other aspects of Mandarin at once?
If learning to speak is most important (it usually is), start there before learning to read and write.
Back in 2014, I had been learning Chinese for five years and had a strong foundation in spoken and written components of the language. Yet that year I met a co-worker who was able to speak Chinese just as well as I could and had only been learning Mandarin for one year. The only difference is he spent all his time on speaking whereas for the five years I had studied Mandarin were divided up into speaking, learning to read Chinese, writing, pronunciation, and listening.
There are also many language experts that claim we should learn a foreign language similar to our native language whereby we first begin by learning to speak. Whether you agree with this methodology or not, let your goals decide for you on how to tackle the language.
If learning to speak is most important, start there and once you are conversational consider learning to read and write.
Final Thoughts | Become Fluent in Chinese
Although Chinese is among the toughest languages to learn, it is not impossible and even conversational proficiency can bring many benefits. The key is to start studying and being willing to invest the time necessary to achieve your goals for learning the language.
Is is possible to learn Chinese in 3 months? No. There is no definition of the word “fluent” that supports this crappy marketing campaign. However, you can learn a lot in 3 months.
Don’t be discouraged! Set reasonable expectations but push yourself to do better. You might be surprised at how quick you pick things up!
I have a number of great resources that can help you begin on your journey to learning Chinese quickly and fluently. Remember, set your goals and be dedicated to reaching them!