Learning Chinese – in for the long haul?

Something that seems to come up on regular basis, either on the net in blogs, or in general discussions about Chinese, is that it’s possible to become fluent in an extremely short length of time. Or that there is a magic method that if employed will take you right to the top.

That’s simply not the case.

While there are way to better spend your time that result it more effective outcomes, it all comes down to one thing – there is no substitution for hard work.


Learn Chinese in 5 minutes, or 5 years?

When I hear stories about someone who started from scratch and achieved fluency in 6 months, there’s one of two possibilities: Firstly, it’s a lie, or more likely, there is a discrepancy in the definition of “fluency”. This isn’t meant to come across as negative, though. On the contrary, it’s just simply worth stating that if you’re going to start learning Chinese, or any language for that matter, then you need to put in the time and the effort. Only then can you truly achieve a decent level of fluency.

While “learn Chinese in 5 minutes” might sound tempting, it’s obviously just not possible. There are, however, better ways to more effectively spend your your time while studying, though in most cases our inner-lazyness is played to. The book title “how to effectively spend 5 years of your life learning Chinese” wouldn’t sell as well as “become fluent in Chinese while listening to this tape on the way home from the book shop”, would it?

So what can you do?

Be realistic. If you’re just having some fun and learning a bit of Chinese here and there so you can order beef noodles in a Chinese restaurant and impress your friends, then that’s fine. But if you’re more serious about learning then it’s important to understand that it will take a serious chunk of your time away and requires consistent and persistent learning that will take you through a journey of highs and lows – But when you come out the other end 5 to 10 years older and you can read a Chinese language newspaper and converse about a wide range of subjects without dropping back in your mother tongue, and maybe even found employment using your abilities, won’t it all be worth it?

How long do you think it takes to become fluent in Chinese? What is the definition of “fluent”? How do you more effectively spend your time when learning? What’s your opinion?

  • MHG

    This can’t be said enough. I think you hear a lot more “fluency in 6 months” stories with exotic languages like Chinese because most people in the West know much less about it than they would with European languages, so it’s easier to impress.

  • Max

    And that “fluentin3months”-idiot isn’t helping :-/

  • Das Wirtshaus im Spessart

    @Max

    Forget that “fluentin3months.com” guy: he spoke already some German (!), came for 3 months to Germany, spoke mostly English here, and failed the exam.
    Then he went to Hungary und was not fluent at all after 3 months.
    Now he goes to Colombia to show us that you can learn a language only by sitting in front of a computer, far far away…

    He only wants to sell us his book! Don’t buy it.

  • This is something Chinese learners should remember. It is hard work and takes time, but is doable.

    I don’t know how long time it will take to be fluent and how skillful you have to be in order to be fluent. But after 4 years (that’s 6 years Chinese studies in total) I hope to read a Chinese newspaper, read a Chinese novel, be able to write essays, short stories or blog posts, speak effortlessly about a wide range of topics and follow Chinese tv shows or movies and understand basically all they are saying. This all doesn’t include topics that I don’t understand in my native language, like space technology 🙂

    I hope after 4 more years I could say that I speak Chinese.

  • Max

    @ Wirtshaus

    I know, you’re preaching to the choir 🙂 That guy’s a total fraud, it just annoys me that he’s getting so much attention with his BS and I can imagine that this will lead to more than a few people quitting out of frustration when, after having studied Chinese for a whole three months, they will still not be able to do much in Chinese, let alone be ‘fluent’.

  • I hadn’t heard about this ‘fluent in 3 months’ guy until the comments here, where is he big? In Europe, the US?

    The idea with such a course is almost probably that although you can never be fluent in 3 months, the course is structured in such a way that you can have some level of conversational fluidity in basic subjects. Which probably makes you so happy that you’ve never take up a money back guarantee.

  • Max

    @Dave,
    It’s not even a course, AFAIK, it’s just some touchy-feely “You can do it if you believe in yourself” blabla. Not that there’s anything bad with that per se, only if it continues with “but if you can’t speak fluently after 3 months you’re a lazy slacker full of stupid excuses”.

    He’s pretty big on many of the language learning sites I frequent; ajatt, steve kaufmann, HTLAL, john biesnecker, you name it..

  • longtian

    I’d say that time isn’t really that big of a part of the equation. The real variables are immersion/environment and usage. That being said, if we assume total immersion in a Chinese society (NOT foreigner bars in Beijing) and someone who isn’t afraid to use Chinese all day long with native speakers, I’d say that fluency can be achieved in 3-4 years. This would be a level where someone can explain words in Chinese; can understand all normal conversations; and can also do fairly well in technical/political/etc. conversations. Of course most people are much slower than that, because they don’t do total immersion, and speak English most of the day even if they live in China.

    If you want to learn it as fast as possible, move to northeastern China and give up hanging out with people who don’t speak Chinese. Even if Chinese speak to you in English, reply in Chinese. In your quiet time, read books in Chinese and study the language and new vocabulary. Copy books to paper to practice writing and to build your ability to remember characters. Do all this and you will be speaking fluently in 3 years.

  • Nick

    Fluent in three months? MAYBE, and that’s a big MAYBE for Latin American Spanish, but that’s because the grammar is very simple and there are SO many words that are very similar to English words with the same meanings, but German or Chinese? No way.

    I speak all three with varying degrees of competency and can tell you that Spanish was certainly the easiest of the three to learn for the reasons I listed above, but even then you’d need to have a knack for languages to be “fluent” in three months. Granted, with Spanish and German you have essentially the same alphabet, simpler pronunciation rules than in English, and with Spanish you have a simpler grammar and many familiar words. German has a much more complex grammar and I sincerely doubt anyone could go from zero to fluent in German in three months, no matter how good you are at learning languages. I pick up on the much more quickly than most and I’m telling you there’s no way it will happen, not even if you spent 8 hours a day 5 days a week working on it.

    (Honestly, 8 hours a day is too much – you’ll overload yourself unless you count going out and USING the language as part of your 8 hours a day work. 8 hours a day in a class will burn you out.)

    • Nick

      An addendum – I would not consider myself fluent in any of those languages, though I will say that I learned enough Spanish in a couple of months of part-time study to be able to handle my hotel, restaurant, and shopping needs during a trip to Mexico. Hardly fluent, but I also leveraged a significant background in Latin to speed the process.

      • Josh

        Oh…I just saw your other comment. Yeah….a few months of part-time study and a short trip isn’t much.

        I have the equivalent of…about 2.5 years of full time, 100% immersion abroad and I still think my Spanish sucks. (plus degrees and certification)The thing is that when you are an intermediate or beginner, natives talk slower and “dumb down” their speech for you. But to be REALLY good, you have to understand a full-speed conversation between several natives talking at once. THAT is hard.

    • I totally agree about limiting the time per day spent learning to avoid burning out. I have been doing a few hours homework and then 3 hours of classes (of about 4 or 5 students) per day, and after that most of the time I am so tired I can sleep for a few hours.

      Plus once you factor in the law of diminishing returns it turns out to be a waste of time to spend any more time.

    • Josh

      Spanish grammar is actually fairly difficult; most say that it is harder than French grammar. Also, advanced Spanish vocabulary has VERY little in common with English. Though Spanish is considered by most to be slightly easier than French, which in turn is thought of by most to be the hardest romance language.

      Mastering the subjunctive, especially the adverbial clauses, is a mark of a very advanced Spanish speaker. Most people that say something is easy, aren’t that advanced at it, by the way. Conversely, experts tend to underestimate their abilities because they realized that there is so much they don’t know.

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