How long does it take to get fluent in Chinese?

iaing au Australia

http://tinyurl.com/72fhfrb

Great post, with some good links.

Of course, the clown gets in with the first comment, and a shameless plug, but worth the read nonetheless.

June 2012
  • Moderator
    alex ca Canada

    Interesting post, and definitely reflects my experience in Korean. It's good to see Mark Rowswell weighing in as well. After 5 years now with Korean, I can certainly get by, but every day I'm reminded of how much more room for growth there really is!

    June 2012
  • [eugrus] aw Aruba

    In this case I like Benny's comment.

    June 2012
  • Mithridates kr Korea, South

    I also agree with the comment that number of hours is a way better way to gauge the amount of time it takes to learn a language than number of months or years. Languages seem to be one of the few disciplines where people are under the impression that a small amount of time a day should be enough to learn one. Imagine transposing this to another area: Person X begins work at a company with a shift starting at 8:00 am, and works close to an hour until about 8:50 am after which he forgets all about it and does other things for the rest of the day. After a year he wonders why he hasn't learned much even after all those 8:00 to 8:50 shifts he put in, and then deems the job to be too hard for mortals to learn in a year or two or three.

    Such a situation would be completely ridiculous, but if the person is putting the same amount of time into a language most would deem it to be a massive investment and many would agree that yes, the task is simply too herculean to accomplish in a decade or less.

    Not that a few months is doable, mind you. I agree with Steve's video back in January that a year of absolutely fanatical immersion (at least 8 hours a day, no using anything but Chinese) would be enough to bring a skilled learner of other languages who already knows a number of tricks to near fluency in Chinese.

    June 2012
  • iaing au Australia

    After six months Benny is A2, at best, in Chinese. In three years time he will be B1, at best.

    We all have the same amount of time each day.

    Most of us have jobs, families, lives.

    At best, we can go 3-4 hours a day and keep our foot on a language's throat.

    At the end of the day, you need a number of years for the language to really sink. Even after putting in many hours each and every day.

    June 2012
  • [Jay_B] aw Aruba

    One can certainly achieve 'Benny-fluency' in Mandarin within the space of three months.

    But real genuine fluency...now that's another matter! :-ь

    June 2012
  • Reflex be Belgium

    I doubt learning many hours a day to be a good idea.

    Now my joke for the day.

    Fluency in any language is reachable in a matter of minutes. The only thing you have to master is to say "I do not understand" - it is all you need.

    In any conversation you will answer "I do not understand". This will very soon leads to you looking quite stupid but you will sound perfectly fluent.

    I am not pretending people who say they don't understand something are stupid - on the contrary - but you will look very stupid if you say you do not understand something very basic.

    June 2012
  • [1892uDH] aw Aruba

    ...

    June 2012
  • Administrator
    steve ca Canada

    I found that spending 6-7 hours a day on a language works well, very well. I learned Chinese to B2 in nine months spending 6-7 hours a day on it. I found that the the more time I spend, the faster I learn. In other words 1000 hours spent in 9 months is more effective than 1000 hours spread out over 5 years.

    It depends on whether you have the time, and can arrange enough different types of activity to keep it interesting.

    Of course we did not have the European Framework at that time. I passed the British Diplomatic Exam for Mandarin and I remember we had to translate newspaper editorials from Chinese to English and from English to Chinese, and write a diplomatic note, and speak of course, amongst other things. So I guess the level was around B2 at least.

    June 2012
  • Reflex be Belgium

    I agree different types of activities help to learn for more hours.

    I also agree the one who learns for 6 hours every day will learn more than the one who learns for 3 hours every day.

    However more hours you learn every day greater is the risk of burnout ;

    more hours you learn every day greater is your hope for fast fluency and false hope often leads to lost of motivation ; more hours you learn every day more the last hours will be less effective.

    I think there is no advantage to learn a language too quickly because if you do not keep in touch with the language you will lose a lot.

    June 2012
  • [1892uDH] aw Aruba

    ...

    June 2012
  • Administrator
    steve ca Canada

    As for burnout, I guess it depends in the individual. In my case, my goal was to learn about China, and not just to study Chinese. I was reading interesting content, listening to things of interest, as well as doing the obligatory writing and learning of characters. There was enough interest, motivation and variety to keep me going. After studying I stayed on and worked in Hong Kong for a year and a half, involved with Canada's trade with China, which included bi-annual visits to the Canton trade fair.

    I lived in Japan for nine years after my stay in Hong Kong. I found that my absence from Chinese did not cause me to lose it. It actually improved, possibly as a result of my learning Japanese. That is just my experience.

    June 2012
  • Friedemann de Germany

    After years of first hand experience I side with what Mark Roswell, Julien Gaudfroy and other heavyweights say about learning Chinese. It takes many years of sustained hard work to get good at it. After nine months of full time learning one might pass a test, but one is cetainly not in B2/C1 territory for all main aspects of the language (hand writing, reading, speaking and comprehension). Reading and writing takes so much more effort compared with mainstream European languages and that eats into your time budget for listening and speaking.

    July 2012
  • Administrator
    steve ca Canada

    I am trying to understand what you are saying Friedemann which is difficult since we think quite differently I tend to look mostly at what I can do in a language, not at what I cannot do. There are always gaps in our knowledge of a foreign language.

    Since when is handwriting a requisite of a B2 level? I must admit that my Chinese handwriting skills have declined since I wrote the exam 43 years ago. I essentially never write. For that matter I rarely write in Japanese, yet in both languages I consider myself between B2 and C1, although better in Japanese than Chinese in many ways. I do not worry about what I cannot do, and focus on what I can do.

    You dismiss "passing a test" but do you have any knowledge of the British Foreign Service Exam in Mandarin that I passed 43 years ago?

    Yes Chinese is more difficult than Spanish. That does not mean that it is some unbearably difficult task.

    Re CEF levels:

    B Independent User

    B1 Threshold or intermediate

    B2 Vantage or upper intermediate

    C Proficient User

    C1 Effective Operational Proficiency or advanced

    C2 Mastery or proficiency

    B2

    Can understand the main ideas of complex text on both concrete and abstract topics, including technical discussions in his/her field of specialisation.

    Can interact with a degree of fluency and spontaneity that makes regular interaction with native speakers quite possible without strain for either party.

    Can produce clear, detailed text on a wide range of subjects and explain a viewpoint on a topical issue giving the advantages and disadvantages of various options.

    C1

    Can understand a wide range of demanding, longer texts, and recognise implicit meaning.

    Can express him/herself fluently and spontaneously without much obvious searching for expressions.

    Can use language flexibly and effectively for social, academic and professional purposes.

    Can produce clear, well-structured, detailed text on complex subjects, showing controlled use of organisational patterns, connectors and cohesive devices

    July 2012
  • iaing au Australia

    C1 in Chinese is a big achievement for most westerners. Most that get there, do it over many, many years. And I think that is the main crux of most people's comments regarding being able to declare fluency in Chinese in a short period of time.

    July 2012
  • Administrator
    steve ca Canada

    Iaing, what do these many years consist of? Are these years of studying the language or just years of enjoying using the language, to read, listen, speak and write?

    July 2012
  • iaing au Australia

    Both, Steve. I do not know of any laowai who is C1 that didn't first spend 5+ years doing both. Most westerners I have met who I would class as C1 first put in over a decade of both studying and regularly using the language. I actually challenge anyone to point me to a clear example of one who did it in less than 5 years.

    July 2012
  • [1892uDH] aw Aruba

    ...

    July 2012
  • Administrator
    steve ca Canada

    There is always more to learn in any language. How many non-native speakers do we meet who really "master" English. I mean in daily life. Not many. Language learning is personal.

    I am opposed to the idea of levels, tests, and all other artificial categories and hoops placed in the way of enjoyable language learning. I communicate in Chinese, I read, I understand, and yet I am well aware of my shortcomings. I studied for less than a year. I have listened to a lot of Chinese audio material and read books since. I have visited China perhaps a dozen times. I occasionally speak Chinese in Vancouver, but only very occasionally. I have never lived in China.

    My level? Is it B2, C1, who knows? Who cares?

    One day I would like to get deeper into Chinese, including classical Chinese. I will do it with the help of LingQ. Maybe I would like to spend a few months in China. But, for now, I am happy with what I have.

    July 2012
  • [Jay_B] aw Aruba

    @Steve: "...I am opposed to the idea of levels, tests, and all other artificial categories and hoops placed in the way of enjoyable language learning"

    -----

    Steve, why do you reckon the Canadian Government wanted you to pass the exam in Chinese before giving you an active posting to China? Might it perhaps be that they wanted to be sure that you could actually speak Chinese to a high level, and that you were thus able to do the job required of you?

    (It seems to me that a world without any testing would be a kind of 'Benny-paradise', in which any fruitcake could simply declare himself to be a virtual native speaker of Brazilian Portuguese!! :-0)

    July 2012
  • Administrator
    steve ca Canada

    Who cares what others declare themselves? Language is about communication and enjoying the language. I enjoyed my Chinese studies. I was the only one, amongst the government language students, who read widely, including novels, and listening to XiangSheng, and I am the only one who really uses the language today. The others all passed the test.

    It does not take long to figure out if a person can communicate in a language. The tests are largely a waste of time, although an important part of the present distorted system. I have no use for them.

    July 2012
  • jeff_lindqvist se Sweden

    I agree with Steve here.

    It's usually easy to check whether you have the skills or not, in just about any area of interest.

    July 2012
  • [Jay_B] aw Aruba

    @Jeff

    I would also be inclined to trust Steve's subjective impressions to a very considerable degree. However, I think there are some "blaggers" and "fast-talkers" out there, whom Steve might find quite hard to pin down exactly...

    Formal testing is also about proving a point in a concrete way. You might say that it wouldn't take anyone very long to figure out that a professional Olympic athlete can run 200m faster than Steve - but if Steve refused point-blank to accept the fact, then the best way to demonstrate and prove the point might well be to hold the race! ¦:-[]

    July 2012
  • [1892uDH] aw Aruba

    ...

    July 2012
  • Administrator
    steve ca Canada

    I agree with you, Imy, in that these tests assume that certain skills belong with certain levels. I have always found numbers, telling the time, the names of members of the family and colours difficult to learn compared to words like why, because, or even some abstract words. We learn what we learn on our own timetable, and this does not correspond to what testers find it convenient to test for.

    July 2012
  • [Jay_B] aw Aruba

    @Imyirtseshem: "...The comparison of a language test to a running race, is nothing but pure idiocy."

    -----

    To describe a light hearted aside as "pure idiocy" might be considered a little bit hysterical?

    (In any case, the analogy is not by any means entirely bad, IMO. If we are testing active ability at advanced levels, then the speed at which 'Candidate X' is able to understand and translate samples of journalistic texts, for example, is actually a pretty reliable measure of that person's competence in a foreign language relative to another candidate.)

    -----

    @Steve: "...We learn what we learn on our own timetable, and this does not correspond to what testers find it convenient to test for."

    -----

    Steve, I really don't understand what your beef is with the idea of testing people for specific knowledge or specific skills. You have said somewhere (perhaps it was in your little book, "The Way of the Linguist"?) that you were tested as a student of Chinese on your ability to write diplomatic notes in the language.

    Seeing that you passed the exam, your bosses could have at least some vague idea as to whether you would be able to do this, right?

    If you had never taken this exam, how would they have known?

    Tests and exams may be far from perfect, but in a world without any testing it would often be necessary to take people entirely on trust.

    July 2012
  • [1892uDH] aw Aruba

    ...

    July 2012
  • [Jay_B] aw Aruba

    Imyirtseshem, you are not REALLY that naive...are you? :-0

    July 2012
  • [lovelanguagesII] aw Aruba

    If you don't have any other information available certain test results may be the only thing you can cling to.

    If I were to work with a new colleague tomorrow, I would want to know what his or her professional background is. I'm not one of those who expect them to have a university degree but if they don't they would have to show me some other proof. I'm not going to risk my own reputation by teaming up with somebody who maybe just spent two weeks in France before signing up for the job. Since our profession is a "non-regulated" one, meaning that anybody can call himself an interpreter and/or translator and can work as such without having to provide any diploma and/or information on his professional experience, I need something I can base my judgment on. And, believe me, I have had cases where clients hired "interpreters" (especially for English) who had spent a couple of months in England as an au-pair and all of a sudden they had turned into "simultaneous interpreters". This mostly happens when clients want to save money. They sometimes even ask their own secretaries to do the job - luckily for us, those poor guys fail, which is quite understandable. Not because they need to have some university degree but they need some kind of training and/or experience.

    If somebody spent 5 years at a university and was formally trained as an interpreter, I can at least assume he has understood the basics of the trade.

    As for the rest, it all depends on many different factors. His or her experience, the way they cope with stress etc.

    Basically, however, it all comes down to what you are able to do when you are in the booth and working.

    I would not just trust anybody's words who I have never met before. Here I totally agree with JayB.

    I need to see and hear for myself what somebody can do. And until I have the opportunity to do so, exams may be a reasonably valid tool to get a first impression albeit an imperfect one.

    As for the languages I study as a hobby, I will never take any exams because I don't care if anybody thinks I'm at level A, B, whatever.

    To me exams equal pressure - it might be different for others. I love language learning so much more now since I don't have to take any exams anymore. Besides, my levels vary because I don't have the time to consistently work on all my languages. So, taking an exam and then failing would just take all the fun out of my learning process.

    I prefer talking to people in real life. And yes, I'm very much aware of my mediocre level in quite a few languages I study but that does not stop me from enjoying them. Actually, holding a simple conversation in Mandarin and/or Japanese (with all the mistakes I make) gives me much more pleasure than interpreting at a high-level international conference in one of my working languages. I like both but I find the first experience much more gratifying. Getting back a smile and some nice words from the Chinese people I talk to in my hometown is a much better motivation to me than any test result ever could be.

    If I ever were to use Mandarin professionally, I probably would have to take some exams. But since this is not the case, I'll just keep enjoying my "test free" learning environment ;-)

    July 2012
  • [1892uDH] aw Aruba

    .

    July 2012
  • [Jay_B] aw Aruba

    @Imyirtseshem: "...Steve and I aren't talking about our languages in a professional setting. That's not the way we are using the levels and neither of us would try to go and get a job with self-reported levels. It's a subjective thing and we're happy with that. We're also not saying 'I've done the test and passed it, now I have X level'. How do we know? Well, I and Steve have both been through this many times."

    -----

    It is pretty extraordinary to throw out stuff like this about " Steve and I".

    Steve has graduated from an elite French university; he was a professional diplomat in China and Japan; and he has used his languages in a business context in several countries. All of this is on the record.

    Not to be rude, but I think it remains to be established whether you can casually place yourself in the same category as Steve, Imyirtseshem.

    July 2012
  • Administrator
    steve ca Canada

    I agree with Imy that tests are largely a waste of time unless you want to be an interpreter. We are definitely in the same category in terms of how we approach language learning. We consider it to be a personal pursuit, done on our own terms, with an attitude of indifference to formal testing.

    Chinese is the only language where I have passed a proficiency test (over 40 years ago). In the last 40 years, I have used Chinese the least, and especially for professional purposes, of any of the languages I speak. The Diplomatic Note part of my Chinese test was a) quite useless since no diplomat either writes or receives this notes , and b) no big deal since it is a very small part of what we study, and is merely tacked near the end of our course of study for the purpose of the exam.

    I have used Japanese the most, and have never written an exam, formally studied it, nor have any clue of my level. I have used Swedish, German, Italian, Spanish, where I have no formal education or test results. I have used French a lot. I studied it at school and went to university in France but I have no language proficiency test results.

    July 2012
  • [Jay_B] aw Aruba

    @Steve: "...no diplomat either writes or receives these notes."

    -----

    Okay, so now I KNOW that I'm dreaming here...

    (Signing out of thread)

    July 2012
  • Administrator
    steve ca Canada

    JayB, what do you know about writing Diplomatic Notes in Chinese?

    July 2012
  • [Jay_B] aw Aruba

    I don't know anything about the Canadian service in the 1960s - it's a fair point Steve.

    But as I said, I'm quitting this argument now. ;-)

    July 2012
  • bahrin my Malaysia

    I am taking the chinese language.Do i have to study the chinese characters or just the pinyin?

    July 2012
  • TroisRoyaumes ca Canada

    You start with pinyin; after you get very good at it, you learn

    characters.

    July 2012
  • jeff_lindqvist se Sweden

    If it's required that you have skills in a certain language, I suppose either some kind of certificate or a live demo will do. A friend of mine once applied for an Advanced German course - basic German was required. She didn't have any certificates, but had lived in Germany for one year, and simply called the office and talked to the staff in German. Problem solved.

    Perhaps the question isn't whether we should be tested or not, but rather the way it should be tested. A certificate doesn't mean much 40 years later, but a five-minute interview in Chinese will suffice.

    Personally, as a musician, I'm not obsessed with any certificate a potential band member might have. I've seen very few cases where it actually proved anything, and in the cases where the musician really could "walk the walk", the degree didn't matter at all.

    July 2012
  • LFJ cn China

    How long does it take to get fluent in Chinese?

    I first began learning Chinese on my own about 11 years ago, on and off, at periods more intensely than others. I've been listening to Steve's advice on language learning and applying it to my Chinese for about 5 years. Although I joined LingQ at the start of 2008, I just began actually using it in the past month or so and I'm up to over 5,500 known words now (although I'm sure I know many more). I'm currently reading an old book in Chinese from the early 1930's on all aspects of the Chinese people and their culture throughout history, and I'm tackling it pretty effortlessly. I'm also working in China as a translator from Chinese to English.

    My problem? Speaking and listening, and speaking more than listening.

    The trouble I have with listening is that I often don't know which words are used due to the many possible homophones in Chinese. I usually catch the syllables alright. I would understand perfectly if everyone had subtitles when they speak so I could recognize which characters they are saying. I'm constantly trying to improve my vocabulary though. Hopefully it will get easier.

    And speaking, well... I'm just terrible at transferring my passive vocabulary into active. My speaking level is not so great, depending on the situation. I often don't know how to express myself. But to be fair, I just don't do it enough, even living over here. I just went to the apartment offices to pick up a package and when there was a mixup I could hardly explain myself, and missed a good half of what the guy was trying to ask me. (He was speaking super fast, because I came in speaking comfortably and confidently at first.)

    I just find Chinese takes so long to get to a formidable level. It is totally rewarding, but is an endless struggle. I'm often humbled by it even on a basic level. If the grammar were not so simple, I'm sure the language would be unapproachable.

    July 2012
  • Friedemann de Germany

    Hi Steve,

    this morning I watched Benny's new Mandarin video that he posted on his site and after that I thought about the discussion we had in this thread. Now, Benny is probably not a language genius like Richard Simcott but he surely is a committed and very successful learner and has certainly no problems with the holy trinity (attitude, time, noticing) and certainly has no self confidence issues. Given all that I was really amazed at how weak his Chinese still is after 6 months. Here we have him after six months of fulltime immersion, full time focus on nothing but speaking and comprehension and he still struggles discussing his pet topics with a Chinese teacher. I am not a language teaching professional but I would not rate him any higher than A2 based on that material.

    This is not to badmouth Benny but rather to put into perspective what rate of progress should be expected when learning Chinese. Benny did not have to divide his time between reading, handwriting and oral communication. He could concentrate fulltime on the latter. Being able to read novels, handwrite and having a spoken B2/C1 command of Chinese after nine months, albeit fulltime, I think is a very very tall order. I am not saying it is not humanly possible but for the vast majority of learners it is.

    Sorry if I come across too "negative", again. Steve, you know I am a glass half empty guy, so I hope you cut me some slack! LOL!

    July 2012
  • [JujuLeCaribou] aw Aruba

    I really don't understand why so many people say that Chinese is a very particular language, much more difficult to learn than, say, Thai or Vietnamese or Russian.

    Thai and Chinese have a lot of similarities : they are both tonal and monosyllabic. Their grammars are very similar.

    Chinese is surely more difficult to read than Thai, but Thai has a lot of Pali/Indian/Khmer vocabulary, which makes the vocabulary acquisition rather difficult (for ex. : you have 2 different words to say "dog", 5 different words to say "to eat", etc ....).

    From all that I have read about these 2 languages, I can say that Chinese and Thai are equally difficult for Westerners.

    I have been learning Thai since about 1 year now, 2-3 hours per day, and I would say that I have a strong B1 level.

    But I am sure that, if I'd have done like Steve (studying 8-10 hours a day for 9 months), I would be able to hold much better conversations and would understand much more of the TV/radio programs.

    I agree with Fridemann when he says that Chinese is difficult (from a Westerner perspective).

    I disagree with him when he says/insinuate that Chinese is "special".

    July 2012
  • Friedemann de Germany

    I really cannot comment on Thai because I have never had a try at it. I don't think I have said that Chinese is special and fundamentally different from ALL other langauges, even though its script does stand out as really unique. I can only compare Chinese to the other languages in my modest repertoire. And then I look at what other accomplished learners have to say about it.

    Benny's Chinese mission is an interesting reference and test case for progress in Chinese because he has all it takes to learn a language and be successful: experience, time, attitude, commitment and self confidence. So his progress is kind of what can be expected for a Westener learning Chinese and is much slower than between related language pairs.

    July 2012
  • Administrator
    steve ca Canada

    I listened to a bit of the video. It is hard to say what level he is, but his Chinese does seem somewhat limited and unnatural for someone who has been immersed in Chinese for 6 months.

    If he does not read, it is difficult to improve vocabulary. If he cannot read, the range of material he can listen to and understand is also limited. When I learned Chinese I did a lot of reading and listening, and used a lot of authentic content. It is also possible that he is not very good at noticing what he hears. Maybe he does too much talking and not enough listening. I just don't know.

    On the other he seems to have gone farther in Chinese than in Czech or Hungarian. Again I have not seen videos of him speaking these languages so I just don't know.

    July 2012
  • Administrator
    steve ca Canada

    To speak well, we need to speak a lot. 127, you should have low expectations of yourself and just speak, as badly as you may think you are doing. You obviously have had enough input.

    To a motivated learner difficulties are just challenges, and challenges that are within our capabilities if we put in enough time.

    July 2012
  • [1892uDH] aw Aruba

    .

    July 2012
  • Administrator
    steve ca Canada

    127, I do agree that a short interview can replace a test for an employer, for example, assuming the employer speaks the language. Let me know if your husband is going to be in the countries that I visit. I usually announce my travels here on the forum. And good luck in your Chinese!

    July 2012