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How long does it take to learn to speak fluent Chinese?

Chinese characters, learn to write Chinese characters‘How long does it take to learn to speak fluent Chinese?’ As somebody who has been studying Chinese for more than six years, this is a question that I am often asked. People often expect the answer to be ‘a lot longer than for European languages’, as Chinese is often perceived as a more ‘difficult language’. For a European or American learning the language, Chinese does indeed present more of a challenge that learning a different European language. Chinese is very different to these languages, in terms of grammar, lexicon, pronunciation and of course its writing system.

If you’ve read this far then you probably just want an answer to the question! In the initial video I uploaded to Youtube about how to learn to speak  fluent Chinese, I argued that depending on your exposure and how much effort you put into learning the language, you should be able to reach basic fluency after about 2.5 years. The answer obviously depends on what you consider ‘fluent’ to mean. In my mind, it means being able to converse in the language confidently and without slowing the conversation down significantly, to be able to understand the vast majority of what you hear, and that your speech can ‘flow’, without unnatural pauses or hesitation. To me ‘fluent’ does not have to mean ‘perfect’ and it doesn’t mean that as a learner you have to speak exactly as a native speaker.

Speaking foreign languages, touristsI have argued that if you put in a continuous effort then you should be able to get around and function in Chinese as a tourist after 3-6 months, after 1 year you would probably be ‘functional’ in using the language and be able to take part in conversations, after 2 years you would be more comfortable, moving away from basic vocabulary and be able to take part in more complex conversations. I have been learning Chinese for over 6 years now, and I can understand almost everything I hear on Mandarin television and radio, and have a complex enough vocabulary to talk about economics, politics or advanced topics. I have also learned the skills of Chinese-English interpretation, and a large amount of technical vocabulary.

Still, in the last few years it feels like my progress has been much ‘slower’, by which I mean that after about 2 years I could already use the language in a fluent conversation, and understand most things, apart from more complex and technical topics. The last four years have really just been adding to that foundation.

In other posts I have talked about the argument that I read in Khatzumoto’s blog about learning Japanese, that you ‘don’t learn a language, you get used to it’, which is something I agree with to a large extent. With Chinese, the learning curve is likely to be steeper at the beginning, and it requires persistence, particularly if you are teaching yourself, to get through a couple of beginners courses and to build a foundation in writing characters. However, your progress will be rapid at the beginning, and if you have the patience to build a good foundation, then speaking Chinese perfectly functionally after a year is a perfectly realistic goal. To speak any language well, rather than ‘just getting by’ is a difficult task that realistically will take a lot longer, whether that language is French or Spanish, or a more ‘difficult language’ such as Arabic or Chinese.

 So, perhaps the best answer to the question is to say, “Well, maybe it won’t take as long to become ‘fluent in Chinese’ as you think, so why not start learning it now, and see how well you can do?”