How Long Does it Take to Learn Fluent Mandarin?

My daugher Rebecca contemplates a statue of Dr. Sun Yat Sen

My daugher Rebecca contemplates a statue of Dr. Sun Yat Sen

A lot of people ask me how long it takes to learn to speak and read fluent Mandarin.

To answer this question, let’s first define fluency in Chinese:

  • Speaking: You can easily hold your own in any conversation. There may be some vocabulary words you don’t understand, but that seldom occurs and is not really a barrier to communication. You are typically able to think in Chinese, seldom falling back on on your native language and then translating your thoughts into Chinese. Your pronunciation and tones are nearly always accurate, even if you speak with an accent. You are able to express your thoughts in Chinese without frequent pausing to search from the right word.
  • Reading: You can read novels, the newspaper, and work documents without over-reliance on a dictionary. You may not understand Tang poetry and the writings of Mencius in the original, but you can read junior high school Chinese textbooks and understand most of what you read.

Narrating my own experience with learning Mandarin might be useful to people who want to know what it takes to become fluent in Mandarin.

How Long it Took Me to Become Fluent

In summary, it took me one and a half years to develop true fluency in spoken Mandarin, and about three years to develop fluency in reading.

I learned Mandarin in three phases.

Phase One: The Beginning (2.5 Years)

  • My first exposure to Mandarin was the Mandarin 101 course I took at university in the USA twenty years ago. I took it over three and a half months (one semester), and learned about 300-400 vocabulary words, 300 characters, and some simple grammar structures.
  • I then took a two month Mandarin immersion program, also in the USA. I reviewed many of the words I’d already learned, and picked up another 500-600 words, for a total of about 1,000 words (though I could not use most of them). I did not work at all on characters during this program.
  • I then worked for twenty-one months in Taiwan. My job required me to speak Mandarin as fluently as possible, though for the first six months I was paired with a more experienced partner who could speak and read fluently. After six months, I became a senior partner to other newbies. I did not attend class during this time, as I was occupied by my work, but I used three key techniques to improve my Mandarin to the point where I was fluently in spoken Chinese and could read at a 6th grade level.
  1. I studied from the John DeFrancis texts each morning until I had finished his most advanced text. After that, I worked through the Chinese readers that Chinese elementary school students read, until I had “graduated” from elementary school (i.e. had finished the 6th grade texts). I also read other books and newspapers, time permitting.
  2. I spoke Chinese all day, every day, and filled notebook upon notebook with vocabulary in context.
  3. I frequently took on interpreting jobs, especially after I had been studying Mandarin for more than a year. This helped me to develop the quick response skills necessary for for true fluency, and helped me bride the barriers between my native language and Mandarin.

I did very little work with writing, choosing instead to type my correspondence in Chinese using a key-in system based on bopomofo.

Phase Two: University and Graduate School (Four Years)

  • After finishing my two year “contract” of overseas work in Taiwan, I returned to university. I changed my major to Chinese literature and spent the next two years taking courses in Chinese grammar, modern Chinese literature, classic Chinese literature, and Chinese language. I also took courses in Chinese history and Asian studies. Reading so much in Chinese helped me achieve true reading fluency, and taught me to read both traditional and simplified characters.
  • After graduation from university I began study in an MBA program in the United States. I worked for a Chinese professor as a research assistant for the better part of a year, took one business Chinese class that was way too easy for me, and spent a semester abroad in Beijing and Shanghai. Spending time abroad in China was very helpful in allowing me to quickly recover my old level of fluency (it had deteriorated a bit, living in the US for four years straight).

When I finished graduate school, I could read most anything in Chinese without consulting a dictionary, could hold a conversation at a level similar to that of a native speaker, and could interpret and translate for business, education, and other markets.

Phase Three: Business and Teaching/Training (15 Years and Counting…)

Since finishing graduate school, I have continued to learn Mandarin and to use my Mandarin skills in a variety of business and educational contexts. I have worked extensively in China and Taiwan in business, conducting my business exclusively in written and spoken Mandarin. I have delivered thousands of speeches, lectures, training courses, and seminars in Mandarin with slides and handouts written in Mandarin. I have taken on a variety of translation and interpreting jobs in business and education. I have written articles and translated my own books into Chinese (with the help of a native-speaking editor, of course).

In my personal life, I use Mandarin to communicate with my wife, some of my children, and with extended family and many friends.

At this point, my Mandarin is as good as that of many native speakers. I’m not perfect–I still mispronounce words (e.g. distributor, jing1xiao1shang1) from time to time, and occasionally have to search for the right word or use circumlocution to describe an object I can’t recall the Mandarin word for. Overall, though, I’m a fully functioning member of a Chinese-speaking society.

I’ll never stop learning–the vocabulary notebook is still in my briefcase, and I still read to learn new words and phrases and to refresh what I’ve already learned. Learning and using Mandarin has been an endless source of challenge, excitement, and stimulation for me. Sure, I was frustrated for the first year or so, but once I achieved my breakthroughs, it was all fun from there.

Eight Keys to Learning Mandarin Quickly and Efficiently

There really is no “quick” way to learn Mandarin, but there are things you can do to reduce pain and increase efficiency.

  1. Once you’ve decided you’re going to learn, never give up. Attitude and dedication are probably 80% of the battle in learning Mandarin.
  2. You can only learn to speak Mandarin fluently if you’re surrounded by native Mandarin speakers (preferably once who don’t speak much English). You can’t learn Mandarin in your home country. Take classes for six months or a year and then do a semester abroad or live overseas in some capacity for at least six months or a year.
  3. Don’t be afraid to open your mouth and sound stupid. You will (sound stupid), but don’t worry about it. You want to learn, right? You have to keep your mouth moving.Make lots of friends who will speak Mandarin with you. Ask them to correct you when you’re wrong.
  4. Be assiduous about learning vocabulary in context. If a taxi driver says “hou4hui4you3qi2,” open your notebook and ask him to repeat what he said. Then, find out what it means (it means “I hope we’ll meet again”).
  5. You don’t necessarily have to take classes, though having six months of classes is a good idea. Actually, if you’re learning to speak Mandarin, I think you’ll hit the point of diminishing returns with classes after a year or so.
  6. To become a fluent reader, start with the John DeFrancis series, then transition into basic elementary school texts, if you can find them. There are other ways to learn reading, but this way, you learn to read much like a native speaker does. There’s a cultural element to that kind of reading that is invaluable as well.
  7. At some point, start taking translation and interpreting jobs. That’s when you’ll really turn the corner in your Mandarin studies. Don’t do it as an amateur volunteer until you’re passably fluent, and don’t it as a professional until you’re very fluent.
  8. Read and speak Chinese all day, six days a week. On the seventh day, take a cue from the Bible and give yourself a rest. Read your English novels, magazines, and newspapers. Watch movies in English, and hang out with your English speaking friends. Then, go back to your all-Chinese environment again. You do that, and you’ll learn faster than most people.

So How Long Does it Really Take?

If you live in greater China and study with the same dedication an elite athlete applies to a fitness regimen, and you have some native talent for speaking and reading Chinese, you’ll be fluent in spoken Chinese in one to two years; it will take at least two to three years to be able to read.

For further reading on methods of learning Chinese, see one of my previous posts, How to Learn Fluent Mandarin Chinese.

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74 Comments

Filed under Language, The Learning Chinese Craze

74 responses to “How Long Does it Take to Learn Fluent Mandarin?

  1. Longfellow

    Erm, you got the phrase wrong. It’s not hou4hui4you3chi2, it’s hou4hui4you3qi1.

  2. truettblack

    Go back and check your source.

    Written in traditional Chinese, the phrase is 後會有期.

    期 is pronounced chi (Yale)/qi (pinyin), second tone.

    For the sake of consistency, I did change my original spelling of chi2 to qi2. I learned Yale romanization during my first few years of study, and changed to pinyin later. Sometimes I inadvertently mix the two.

  3. Freddie

    Very interesting entry. Thank you very much indeed. I just wanted to ask whether anybody knows where to obtain Chinese literature in translation? It’s a problem I’ve been facing for some time. Although the works of Lu Xun, for example, have been translated and are readily available, I have not been able to find much else on book sites.
    Incidentally, any recommendations on good, modern Chinese literature would be appreciated (in English of course)

    Many, many thanks
    Freddie

    • truettblack

      Look up Howard Goldblatt online.

      You should be able to find many of his translations on amazon.com and on other book selling sites.

      I recommend much of what he has translated.

      The classics of Chinese literature are:
      Journey to the West
      Dream of the Red Chamber
      Romance of the Three Kingdoms
      Water Margin
      Strange Tales from Make-Do Studio

      My favorite modern writers are Lao She from China and Chang Da-Chun from Taiwan.

      • jon

        In terms of Modern literature, look towards Han Han. I’m not aware san chong men has been translated nor if it would work as its a great book. But his blogs are always updated, that is unless they are censored first. A character of sorts.

  4. Nelson

    Hey,

    In response to Freddie: Cheng & Tsui is a pretty good source for literature in chinese. http://www.cheng-tsui.com/catalog/328/chinese
    I’m a native speaker (ABC) just learning to read and write and I’ve ordered several books from them already. I’ve also begun to figure out how to order from amazon.cn although the shipping costs are tremendous.

  5. John Filippeos

    Hi,

    I have a question!!! I love Mandarin.

    I am going into first year university, and I have signed up for a mandarin full year course where we are to learn a minimum of 500-600 characters. It is a rigorous program. From grade 9 to 12 I was immered in an all chinese school with both cantonese but mosly mandarin students, so I have a basic understanding of the flow of words, and the 4 main voice accentuations. My girlfriend since grade 10 is mandarin and I desire to learn it before marriage so I can communicate fully in her home dialect. I just really want to speak not, not really right or read. How long do you expect it to take to learn the lnaguge if I am focused for the next 6 years in university taking courses for the language. I am more than very dedicated to learn the language and am prepared for the struggle. How long will it take to get a basic grasp of communicating? My email is john_filippeos@hotmail.com if you can reply. Thank you so much!

    • truettblack

      John,

      6 years of university study? That’s a lot of classroom time for someone not interested in reading and writing. I think you’ll probably be able to build a large vocabulary and learn how to read in that time, but I don’t think you’ll experience a true breakthrough in your fluency until you spend time in China or Taiwan. Your girlfriend will help you learn to speak, but in my experience, your relationship isn’t based on language study, so that will be of limited help. The key is to live abroad for 6 months or a year, once you’ve been in class for a year or two. Later, if you must, but get abroad and surround yourself with Mandarin speakers.

      Best of luck.

      True

  6. This blog entry has lots of good information for those willing to study Mandarin full-time, but what about those of us who have busy lives and can only devote part-time to study? Is it hopeless?

    Maybe. But I’ve come up with a system that might work. Here’s my plan:

    1. Learn how to use a Spaced Repitition Software program, which will be used in all subsequent steps. I use http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anki

    2. Spend an hour a day learning correct pronunciation of Mandarin from the first 31 lessons in this book: http://www.chinesemall.com/chmaea2edvo1.html (I was able to do 2 lessons a week, so the process took me 4 months).

    3. Spend an hour a day learning the 300 most commonly used simplified Hanzi characters. This took me a litte more than 3 months, learning at a pace of 3 new characters a day. I learned from this textbook: https://peripluspublishinggroup.com/tuttle/shopping/product_details.php?id=9780804838160

    4. After 7 months of prep work, I was finally ready to start learning to speak some Mandarin! Studying between one and two hours every day (even when sick or on vacation), I am now completing each lesson in 4 weeks, using this book: http://www.chinesemall.com/chmaea2edvo1.html (same book as step 2). In the same 1-2 hour daily study period I continue to use the textbook from step 3 to learn more new Hanzi characters. In addition to my daily study period, once a week I pay for an extra hour with a good native-speaker teacher to make sure I’m not picking up bad habits. There are 70 lessons altogether, so at this pace I should finish the 70th lesson about 5 years, 5 months after I started. The material in the 70th lesson seems to be advanced enough to meet the definition of fluency found at the beginning of this blog entry.

    So the final answer on how long it takes to learn Mandarin in your “spare” time of 1 to 2 hours each and every day is: 6 years.

    I will update this blog entry in 2014 to let you know if I succeeded! (I’m already one year into the process).

    If you want a copy of my spaced repitition flashcards, send me an e-mail by visiting my web site at http://www.meetup.com/MAAATV/

    • truettblack

      Loren, I appreciate you listing these learning technologies here.

      The problem you mention is a very realistic one. Unfortunately, it is unlikely that you will turn the corner to full spoken fluency until you have lived among Mandarin speakers in a primarily Chinese environment for at least six months. If you can’t do it all at once, try to get at least two or three months after a year of study, then a month per year for the next few years. You’ll see dramatic improvements in your progress if you do.

      I look forward to the day when there are “all Mandarin” boot camps in the United States that students can go and stay at for weeks at a time.

      Best of luck to you in your (and your group’s) endeavors!

  7. Jay

    Cheers True, just the sort of encouragement I needed!! Im planning on starting some lessons this year before taking a year’s study in shanghai (fudan). Dont speak a word as it stands. Another minor problem being that Mandarin lessons are pretty hard to come by in Wales but Il let you know how it goes!
    Oh, any literature suggestions for a serious beginner would be much appreciated. I’m only really interested in speaking the language at the moment.
    Thanks again!
    Jay

    • Jay,

      Please see my literature suggestions in the comment I made on this blog entry on September 25, 2009.

    • Marc

      Hey Jay, Swansea uni do a mandarin class weekly (on thursdays, with two repeat classes on friday). I’m not positive whether it’s for students only, but it’s certainly worth checking out. And if you happen to be a student at the uni, you can actually go to China for the summer for cultural experience and immersion. The three locations are Heilongjiang University, Dalian University of Foreign Languages and Shandong University at Weihai.

  8. alejandra r.

    Hi i was really thinking of doing art school here in the U.S., and then going to art school in Beijing China. Central Academy of Fine Arts. And was wondering, how long i would most likely need to study chinese. I am a quick learner, and study often, and have learned a basic 3 month course of it, however i was wondering how proficient my Chinese would need to be.

    • truettblack

      Alejandra,

      The US Department of State quotes 2,200 classroom hours as the minimum necessary for fluency in Mandarin. That’s 550 four hour days, and 275 eight hour days. If you need to be fluent in order to have a successful experience at CAFA, you will need about a year of hard study to build a foundation in spoken Mandarin, and another six months to a year to learn to read at a basic level (it depends on when you start learning characters). From there, you could probably “wing it” for a few months until your ears are accustomed to the local accent and your professional vocabulary is up to speed. If you are an exceptionally fast learner and you have the gift of mimicry, you can shorten the process a bit.

      If there is any way for you to get to China before you begin your studies, that will help a great deal.

      Best of luck to you in your studies!

  9. Mike

    Hi,

    From what I can understand, you take the position that you simply cannot learn to speak, read, and write fluent Mandarin without first having “immersed” yourself by living in China. Is this correct?

    I find that hard to believe; however, I have no experience in this matter, so I would like to explain my goals and see what you think. I am a 26 yr old attorney who wishes to be able to read, write, and speak fluently in a business environment. My problem is that I can’t possibly go live in China. I am already in my career and have those god-awful student loans to pay back.

    I took a year of study in college but have forgotten most of everything I learned 5 years ago. My mother-in-law and sister-in-law are from China, and they are happy to help me with my studies. My plan was to hire an accomplished tutor 3 hours a week and study on my own another 8-10 hours a week. Moreover, whenever I am proficient enough, I can study while I work out with audio tapes. This would provide an additional 7 hours per week. So, at some point in the near future, I will be dedicating 15-20 hours per week on chinese. Furthermore, my wife is also going to take this same commitment, so we will be able to study together. Presumably, as we get better, we can speak more and more with each other throughout the day.

    I figured that with these goals it would take me about 1.5 years to be conversational and 3 years to be considered “fluent”. I expect that reading and writing would take longer, maybe like 5 years. Ultimately, I would like to be able to read a professional publication or journal like the Wall Street Journal everyday in Chinese to keep up my language skills.

    3 – 5 years of 15 – 20 hours per week enough to become fluent? By the way, I have great confidence in my memorization capabilities if that makes a difference.

    • truettblack

      Mike,

      I take the position that it is very difficult to learn to speak Mandarin fluently unless you live in Taiwan or China, but not entirely impossible. There are some people who get fairly fluent by surrounding themselves with Mandarin speakers where they live. If you follow the plan you’ve outlined and have a chance to speak Mandarin daily or almost daily in a substantive way, you’ll make a great deal of progress. You will probably hit a wall at some point where you feel that you know a lot of vocabulary, but you’re still searching around for words and trying to remember tones, feeling a bit unnatural. If you get a chance at that point, get yourself to China or Taiwan for a few weeks, and talk to people all day, until you’re exhausted. You’ll make tremendous progress then. It will help you get over the hump.

      It doesn’t help much to speak to someone else who is learning Mandarin. You need to speak to people who are not really capable of communicating with you in English, who are native speakers of Mandarin. You’ll need the challenge, and you’ll need to mimic their pronunciation. You can’t get that with someone who isn’t a native speaker or extremely fluent.

      Memorization helps a great deal, but has little to do with two of the other keys to speaking Mandarin well–the ability to reproduce the tones accurately and the ability to choose and use words quickly and correctly. That sort of thing takes putting yourself into sink-or-swim situations where you have to communicate fluidly, without halting. That’s the hardest part of learning to speak Mandarin well, and is a deal-killer for most people. You’re able to do that, you’ll get fluent eventually.

      Good luck to you.

      • Mike

        Thank you.

        I am planning on taking my vacation in 2011 to China. So we will see how far I am at that point. There is a local Chinese church that I was going to attend once I can speak a little bit. Perhaps I will be able to become more involved with the Chinese community this way.

        Thanks again,
        Mike

  10. Alec Smith

    I just wanted to say, what a great article. I am just entering my first semester of Chinese at University. I have already learned a few Latin based languages. I just wanted to thank you for your realism in this article about the level of fluency and what you have to do to obtain it.

    I can only reiterate what the author of this article has said about spending time in the country. I, myself, spent 7 years in school learning German, but never hit true fluency until I had spent time in Germany, speaking with real Germans each and every day. I can promise you that if this is the case with a Latin based language like German, then it is certainly the case with Mandarin Chinese. You have to immerse yourself linguistically.

    True, it is not impossible to learn Mandarin Chinese (or any other language for that matter) in your home country without going to the actual country itself, but you will never be fluent, you will never be able to talk like a native otherwise. You may be able to read and understand a lot, and to be able to hold a reasonable conversation – but this is not fluency.

    Good luck to all who dare!!

  11. Tim

    If you don’t mind Mr. Black, what is the the company you worked for in Taiwan? Are they still hiring foreigners? I am currently in Taiwan, I have made my life a mission to learn Chinese, but teaching horrible kids in a 補習班to provide income for my Chinese studies is not the best way. The job affects my studies because of my boss and the amount of stress the job gives me. I would rather work in a environment where I can use my Chinese. If you know any companies in Taiwan that need foreigners that speak Chinese, please contact me! 

    • truettblack

      The organization I worked for was a church, and I didn’t get paid. I doubt you want to convert to Mormonism and you have to cover your monthly needs.

      There are a lot of people who know more about building a career in Taiwan than I do. Try http://www.forumosa.com. There are a ton of threads there on how to get into a different career in Taiwan.

      My own two cents is that you have to have a skill that few others have, and be able to market yourself well to make the shift. Your network of friends is also vital. I’d choose an industry, make local friends in that industry, and get some certifications or some training.

      Best of luck to you.

  12. A.A.Lee

    Hello True,
    This is incredible! I am currently in Hong Kong teaching four year old children English, although, I got inspired to learn Putonghua! I am going back home in a week, and I am going to start taking lessons as of August (hopefully). I am hoping to take classes for two years and come back to Hong Kong to teach for a year or two.
    You are TOTALLY right about getting out there and learning a language in its country.

    Thanks a lot for sharing your story and thoughts!
    Best of luck,
    Aneta

  13. James

    Hi Truettblack,
    First of all, great website and congrats on mastering Chinese. It’s been pretty hard for me even though I am Chinese (but living in the USA).

    I’m currently learning to read chinese. Planning to finish the following two books (have not bought the Advanced Chinese book yet):

    A New Text for Modern China (C & T Asian Language Series)
    Advanced Chinese: Intention, Strategy, and Communication (Yale Language Series)

    At what grade level (Chinese grade level) for reading Chinese do you think I would be if I could finish those books. Do you have any other suggestions for books after that?

    -James

    • truettblack

      James,

      Sorry, I’ve not heard of those books, so I’m not sure what grade level you’re at. One easy way to tell is to get a set of junior high school Chinese texts from Taiwan or China (getting the books is not easy if you live outside of greater China) and see how far you get before you can’t read very easily.

      If you read my article, you know what I read to get fluent. Nowadays, it’s all practical stuff: training material, e-mails, periodicals, some books. I don’t know where you’re at, so I’m not sure what to recommend. A professor will know better than me.

      Best of luck,

      True

  14. Chris, London

    When I was a kid in the late 80s or early 90s I saw a TV program about a Chinese guy from a small village who learnt the entire Oxford English dictionary by heart and then took a train to one of the major cities and got a job as a translator, earning 20x what the salary was in his village. I was thinking I could do the same in Mandarin, after all I have with Spanish, which is now at a strong level thanks to music & TV. Thanks for the article. Totally put me off, saving £100-0’s in books and courses when I have no intention of going East. (Just angling for all those potential Chinese clients expanding into Europe.)

  15. Elizabeth

    Your personal story above has given me hope :) I want to learn mandarin so bad. Sometimes I dont know why I want it so much. Ive been interested in China since I was in my early teens. I want to go there and learn but I dont have the opportunity to take any classes right now. I think more Americans should learn it or try at least. I’ve been watching chinese movies and listening to Chinese pop artists, so sometimes I learn new words and I get such a thrill from it :D I’ll hopefully be studying abroad in China during my junior year of college. I hope to learn there and make lasting friends that will help me. But anyways thank you for sharing :) I appreciate it:)

    • truettblack

      What a lovely comment (though your gmail name is rather scary!). Thank you for taking the time to express your appreciation.

      The number one factor in successfully mastering Mandarin is true, deep, committed desire. For most people, learning to speak fluent Mandarin is a wish, one that they aren’t willing to sacrifice or work hard for.

      That’s why my position among the very small group of bilingual Westerners is quite safe.

      Something tells me you’ll actually do what most people only wish they would do.

      • Elizabeth

        HAHA! bride of Christ is a biblical term, if you look through different books of the Bible you’ll find it. All Christians as a whole are considered the Bride of Christ. Sorry, probably more of an explanation than you wanted lol, but anyways thank you so much :) your encouragement has helped me immensely :D I hope I have your determination someday when I finally get the chance to learn:) Do the John Defrancis series help you pronounce things the right way? Or is it more to help you read the characters and understand what they mean?

  16. Sam

    Thank you for the informative blog. I am a recent college graduate from the US and am considering spending as much time as necessary in Shanghai to obtain near fluency in Mandarin. As someone who learned Spanish to fluency, I can attest to the importance of being completly immersed in the target language. The question I have is, how much would you estimate it would cost for a Mandarin school with a minimum of 20 hrs a week of instruction. I know there are some websites advertising their prices, but I would imagine the costs could be less if a school is found while actually in China.

    • truettblack

      Thanks for the comment. I’m afraid I’m not familiar with Chinese programs and their tuition. I learned on my own and in university classes. Best of luck.

  17. Kevin Jung

    I’m a second year undergrad student and want to learn Mandarin in hopes of being deployed to Asia for Special Forces. Do you think I would be able to learn Mandarin in 2 years of University classes? I don’t know how I would perfect it after I graduate. Maybe try rosetta stone.

    • truettblack

      Kevin, the key is getting yourself into an all Chinese environment for at least six months. That’s the only way to solidify what you’ve learned in the classroom.

      Could be two summers, three months each, or one semester abroad plus a longer vacation. Six months is the minimum, once you’ve had a year or two of classes.

      Otherwise, I’ve never met anyone who was truly fluent only by studying at uni.

      Good luck!

  18. Douglas

    Hi,
    I’m From brazil, and I have some fluency in english,spanish and portuguese of course now i’m studing mandarim chinese in my city, I started this year on july, now I’m just learning how to speak pinyin, and I’m Planing to Study at china for 3 months(December, January, Februrary) you think that i’ll learn something? or it’s too short period of time? I Can’t stay more time there =/
    Witch city do you recomend for me?
    My Frist time in China was last year and had the curiosity to lern the language =D.

    Thankyou!!

    • truettblack

      Hi,

      The answer to your questions depends on your personality.

      1. If you are very outgoing, ambitious about learning Mandarin, and don’t mind making mistakes and having people laugh at you, you can learn a great deal of Chinese in a three month period.
      2. The city you live in depends on budget, personal preference, transportation, availability of schools if you need them, friends’ locations, etc. About 25 major criteria. There is no one “best” city. Personally, I like Shanghai quite a lot.

      Have fun!

      • Douglas

        I visited a lot of cities and i saw the people very poor and dangerous places, the big cities like shanghai i think are more safe.

        I study every day listening and repeating pinyin, but at this moment I just can talk the sounds, I don’t know any meaning.
        I want a lot learn this, and I’m sure that I will be very ambitious at that trip, but after that you think I can speak with them, and comunicate like my english?

        Do you have any school to recommend?

        And the teachers will speak in english and mandarim, right? it might be hard to find one that speak portuguese there hahaha

        thanks again!

  19. Senelisile

    Hello, i am currently staying in China and i am really trying to master the language BUT somehow i seem not to be improving! I really am interested in learning how to speak, does it mean i also have to learn the characters?

    • truettblack

      Keep at it. It will get easier. There will be breakthroughs.

      And no, you don’t have to learn characters to learn how to speak. I was verbally fluent after a year but could only read at a second grade level. The experts I believe say to focus on learning to speak before you learn to read, though you should start to read basic characters after 6-9 months of speaking practice.

      Best of luck.

  20. Thank you for the blog. Very interesting and realistic as it prepares for the challenges ahead and the rewards of learning Mandarin.

    I just wanted to ask, please could you list the John Defrancis series you talked about. The amazon link you gave has lots of different books. At this beginner stage that I am, I don’t know which one to choose from to emulate your strategy so that my reading and writing improves as I have an exam in December.

    Many thanks

  21. Ben

    Thanks for taking the time to help others in this daunting but exciting pursuit! This blog is probably the most useful real world resource I’ve come across.

    I’d like to ask a few very broad related questions from a beginneres perspective please. If someone is keen to learn Mandarin from scratch with no knowledge whatsoever and time and funds are not a consideration, how long would you estimate you would need to become converstaionally proficient then reading / writing proficient in a Chinese University environment? Added to which, do you think heading off to say Beijing Language and Cultural University for a 1 semseter / 1 year intensive course would be the best start for someone who is able to do that? That would entail 6 hours a day 5 days a week tuition I believe. For average Jo bloggs with a normal apptitude for picking up the language where might you expect to be in 6 months or a years time?

    Thanks for sharing your journey. I think the answer should you be positioned to give one would be a really useful check on the sales pitch you
    (expectedly) get from the schools themselves.

    Many thanks and keep up the good work!

    • truettblack

      Thanks for the compliments.

      To answer your questions:

      1. I think you could expect to be fluent enough to hold a conversation after six months, but you won’t know a lot of words that are used every day, and you won’t be able to talk deeply. Tehre is a massive difference between six months and a year. Do it for a year if you want to get to a reasonable level of verbal fluency.

      2. I have no experience with language training schools in China, so I can’t answer the second question competently.

      Best of luck,

      True

  22. Stefan Olsson

    Interesting blog;) Well I better state my case. I have been living in Beijing studying chinese from scratch for a little bit more than 2 years.
    I would say I am at a quite decent level in ordinary speech. I have been told by different people that I don’t have that “foreigner accent”, but my accent is yet not entirely chinese either. (Apparently I often incorporate feelings in the sentences, I have been told that chinese should be spoken flat, straight like “following line” and emotionless)

    Anyway, chinese people I meet therefore tend to believe I’m chinese but can’t really guess from where within China I come from,haha (I have asian appearance though I’m swedish)
    In your experience, is a real native chinese accent something that is close to impossible to achieve or is it just a matter of long time exposure to the language? Do you still consider yourself to have a bit of a foreigner accent?

    The second question I have goes for reading. I can’t really brag about my reading skills, I might be somewhere equal to a 5th or at best a weak 6th grade student. When did you begin read newspapers. The amount of pure labour I somethimes have to put in with some of the texts that have 书面语 all written over it, has kinda given me some doubts about starting with newspapers.

    At the time you were a student. What kind of method did you use when you were studying a text with unfamilliar characters and grammar, did you check up every new word and phrase? Did you as well use any special method for vocabulary acquisition?

    Thanks for a Great Blog!

  23. jon

    Thanks True, I commented on here about a year ago when I was to set off on the chinese adventure and its been great. Comments worth making to help others include: I did do a bit of study on simply speaking before I left for China, this was almost useless; I started from scratch when over there and its incredibly difficult but like true mentions just don’t consider giving up like many others do; after 2/3 months you should make a break through in characters and speaking (slowly, they still won’t have a clue what your saying but thats part of the banter); then around 5/6 months I was getting down at the lack of progress, stopped studying characters and just watched TV and got drunk with chinese people and thereafter lies breakthough 2 at around month 7 listening became alot easier. The final 5 months admittedly didn’t feel like much progress but I am fully aware that when you feel like no progress is being made just keep going, choose another direction if need be, but just keep going.

    Again thanks for all the help from the blog if I can help in anyway I’m more than happy.Nb. now I’m back home with limited access to chinese its tough, but http://english.cntv.cn/learnchinese/ helps, and also watching some Chinese shows. Greatest example: “lao gong kan ni de!!”

    Jay

  24. I studied Chinese full-time at University for four years in the 1980s but after graduating I found little use for it and almost forgot it, as did most of the other students on my course. Since 2005 I’ve been living in China and finally I know enough to read the books I’m interested in, which are mostly political and biographical books banned on the mainland and published in traditional characters. I can also now write Chinese well enough to publish articles in Hong Kong magazines, although I usually show them to my Chinese friends first and incorporate some of their suggestions. The problem with learning Chinese is that if you want to get really fluent, you need to study it very hard and spend a lot of time living in China, as the author rightly points out. There really is no other way.
    Unfortunately, there is a dark side to learning Chinese; it means exposing yourself to human rights abuses. No matter how fluently speak Chinese, and I speak it and write better than a lot of Chinese people, you will never be accepted in their country. You will never be a Chinese citizen, and you will always be at risk being sent home, even if you marry, buy property and have children who are half Chinese. So think very carefully about investing your time and energy learning the language and culture of a people who don’t want you, and will never accept you as one of them.

    • truettblack

      I understand the sentiments you express here and agree with many of them, but I don’t think it’s quite as scary as you make it out to be. Plenty of foreign friends who live in Shanghai or Beijing would say that while it is difficult for many Chinese to accept a foreigner as a regular member of their society, there are plenty who do. I personally travel to China regularly and feel extremely welcomed. Anyway, dissenting opinion is always welcome when it’s as articulate as yours. Add oil!

  25. Nemo

    Great post.
    I just wanted to make a brief comment on this statement from Alec Smith:
    “True, it is not impossible to learn Mandarin Chinese (or any other language for that matter) in your home country without going to the actual country itself, but you will never be fluent, (…)”.
    Sorry but I strongly disagree with that. I’ve never been to an English-speaking country like the US or England but my English is pretty fluent.
    I guess with Chinese this might work a little different but not for the rest of the languages in the world!
    To be sincere, I was seriously thinking about learning Chinese but somehow this and other posts have made me think of other options…

    • Vincenzo

      I’m Italian, I’m a foreign speaker of English, and I too have acquired proficiency solely through study and exercise. It has taken me much longer than a couple of years, and I still find dozens of unknown or unfamiliar words in novels which in my mothertongue I could easily read without ever resorting to a dictionary by the age of 14. Aside from that, it seems to me that English is quite a unique case, being in itself more accessible than any other language on the planet. There are limitless study resources. If it is at all possible for a foreign student to achieve native-like fluency in English even without living and working in an English-speaking country – and I’m not sure that it is – it’s due to the fact that there are countless ways to be exposed to this particular language, even in the confort of your own home. From a certain point on this may apply to Chinese as well, I wouldn’t know. In my experience it often does not apply to many other languages, however widely spoken…

  26. Adam

    Hey True, thank you so much for this! I have a few questions, however.

    I have been looking a lot on the internet lately and there seem to be many different and seemingly effective ways to learn Chinese, but all of the ones I have looked at seem to require one to have already had an introduction to Chinese. However, what if I am a total, complete beginner? I know how to keep going once I have a little under my belt, I just don’t know where or how to start in the first place – and if possible, doing this on my own, with out lessons.

    Another question is about the John DeFrancis texts – when I go the the link, it directs me to amazon.com but has a whole list of books by John DeFrancis – which ones where you specifically talking about?

    Thanks!

    Adam

    • truettblack

      Adam, I wouldn’t get into learning Mandarin without taking a class. You need at least a few semesters with an instructor.

  27. jr1703

    i stumbled across this blog and i’ve found it very encouraging! I’ve been “learning” mandarin throughout almost my entire primary/high-school life, yet I feel i know practically nothing. As a result, I’ve been planning to spend a year abroad studying mandarin next year in china to “kick-start” my chinese learning adventure!

    谢谢你!

  28. Mukama

    Am teaching myself. i loooooooooooooovvvveee chinese Mandarin sooo much i am too broke to afford lessons in china or at university here. Anyone willing to help me wwith textbooks or anything please,i will gladly appreciate. I teach myself off some smalltime internet access. Please help if u can.
    xiexie nin.

  29. mcla

    I found your post extremely interesting since i’m very motivated to learn mandarin. However, i would like to ask for your opinion about my decision to live in shanghai. Shanghai is my target city because of its business environment, but it descourages me the fact that they speak shanghainese, and to be honest, i’m not interested in learning the latter, at all. Do you think i would be still a good destination, since mandarin is the official language in the whole country? or should i pick up another city? thank you very much in advance

    • truettblack

      Relax. People speak Mandarin AND Shanghainese, among other languages, in Shanghai. You’ll find a great environment for practicing Mandarin there.

  30. hkbvigirl

    I’m 43 and have a BA in Chinese from SOAS from about 20 + yrs ago. I live and work in Asia, but have rarely utilised my spoken Mandarin at work, although, living in both Singapore and Hong Kong has continually exposed me to the written language.
    I’m thinking of taking a sabbatical and spending a year in China simply improving my spoken Chinese, so that I can eventually move back to China and take on a senior role at my orgnisation in the knowledge that my Mandarin really is as close to a native Mandarin speakers as possible…I have been trying to find a one year immersion course that would cater to my level – or a homestay/volunteer environment in a remote but non dialect area …. I am drawing blanks from the internet. Do you have any suggestions?

  31. Garrett

    dude, this is awesome. Thanks for taking the time to write the article and answering everyone’s questions! Wish me luck, I’ll definitely do everything I’ve read here

  32. elizabeth

    I’ve never commented on an article before but am compelled to ask a question… What are your thoughts on American children ‘learning’ Chinese in elementary school – but only for one hour per week and only during the school year with non-speaking parents. Hopeless? Would a private tutor once a week even make a dent in the matter, or is it a lost cause due to the lack of intensity? My child is starting the second grade, and it seems like he’s missing a great chance to learn at a younger age since acquiring a second language is (relatively) easier for young children than adults. Any advice? Thank you very much.

  33. zky

    This sounds very interesting to me. I once considered learning Mandarin, but the pronunciations and rising and falling tones scared me. Having studied Japanese for three years and reaching fluency, I am thinking about picking up something new to do with my free time (I do however still spend time keeping my Japanese up). Granted the slight differences between Japanese and Chinese characters after simplification from both, I still think I can manage to cram another 2000+ characters into my head without trouble.

    About how much vocabulary would you say get you at least to a conversational level?
    Any tips on pronunciation?
    I’m not personally a fan of Rosetta Stone in Japanese (I thought it was horrid), but have you seen Mandarin Rosetta Stone? If so what did you think of it?

  34. Ariana

    So, I would like to learn Mandarin but I don’t know where to start! I don’t know where to take courses or when for that matter considering i’m a high school student but I have to take other college courses to get myself ahead of the rest, I don’t know anyone who can speak fluent mandarin, and I don’t think I could possibly take on an internship or whatever or even go to Taiwan for 6 months to try to learn. Help?

  35. Frank Reynolds

    Dear truettblack, first of all, I wanted to say that this is a great article and I respect and admire your achievement with Chinese to a level of full proficiency.

    I made several attempt to learn Chinese over the years, but I always gave up due to a busy working life and most importantly due to lack of perseverance.

    I feel Chinese is a lot more difficult than other languages due to the limited number of available syllables that can only be differentiated by tones and in context with other syllables. In other words, I learned that “ma” can be pronounced in 5 different ways and there can be even more meanings depending on the context. It is easy to remember a word, but how did you succeed in remembering the different tones? I learned from other people that they use colors for each tone, and try to associate a word in the first tone with “blue”, in a second with “green” etc. But this really does not work for me, I still fail to keep the tones for different words in my mind.To be honest, I find it almost easier to remember the characters, because you can try to associate a nice picture with each character, and this works. So I am wondering what your thoughts are on this based on your personal experience.

    Thanks in advance for your response.

    Best wishes,
    Frank

    • truettblack

      Don’t intellectualize this do much. If you really want to learn, stop thinking about how hard it is and just do it.

      I memorized tones by mimicking native speakers and sometimes by making notes with tone marks. That is why you really must be around Chinese speakers in order to learn to speak Chinese.

      Some people have an easier time with written Chinese than spoken Chinese. Depends on the person.

      Good luck.

  36. Vlad

    For those of us who is learning Mandarin outside China.

    Like many other activities: no-exposure leads to no-fluency. True for Mandarin or Mathematics or anything else that requires skill. The only consistent exposure I could get is to printed/internet material, which leads to what I believe is the only way to get anywhere with Mandarin outside China: prioritize reading, then listening, and then speaking will come by itself. This hypothesis is difficult to prove, and I have only one example – me. Have been at it for nearly 3 years in what I expect to be at least a 5 year project before any level of what I would call fluency would happen, e.g. reading a newspaper like ftchinese.com.

    Daily schedule is: 30 minutes flashcards (tablet or a cellphone app), 30 minutes audio, 30-45 minutes Videos (thankfully all of those have subtitles), 30 minutes article reading (with a popup dictionary)

    Notes from Experience:
    1. 300 characters are 64% of the language. But this is not close enough to start to understand even the most basic speech.
    2. At 1200 characters (91%) a qualitative change happened, where I began to keep track of a story line. The recognition speed has also halved, all of a sudden
    3. Familiarity with about 3000 characters is recomended since it’s all about how different the characters are to each other
    4. Characters are only sometimes words. Too many words (quoted by some at 75% of the language) are a combination of two or more characters
    5. There’s a lot of variation in the way different regions of China speak. And it’s OK, if you can read the subtitles.
    6. The speed of spoken Mandarin is faster than I thought upfront, and with a lot of words sounding similar it creates an illusion of comprehension
    7. This would be a marathon if there was an end to it, so carry on just because you want to, irrespective of how long it takes.

    • truettblack

      Good sharing, thank you.

      Personally, I think achieving spoken fluency makes learning to read much easier, but I realize you have some limitations to work with.

      Best of luck.

  37. Fantastic article mate, I am living in china for almost 3 years now but am still a beginner. I cant write and read but can speak a bit, never had formal classes just learnt at workplace. Now I am going to Zhejiang for a 2 month course before my MBA in HongKong. Just wanted to ask you what do you think about it.
    The teacher there has told me that in 2 months (4 hours classes everyday monday-friday) I will be able to learn 200-300 chinese characters. I know its not a lot if you consider 40K chinese characters but do you think its possible in two months?

    • truettblack

      Two points:

      1. If “learn” means to be able to recognize the character and it’s meaning, then you can easily learn 200-300 characters in a few weeks with flash cards. Best if you have already learned to use the characters you learn in speech. If your teacher wants you to learn to write them, then this wrongheaded approach will take you a few months indeed, and all that you learn about writing will be lost in about a week once you stop writing every day. Writing is useless in an age where you can type on a computer.

      2. Nobody in China can read 40,000 characters. 3-4k is enough for functional fluency.

      Good luck.

  38. Benny

    Fantastic and helpful article as always.

    I am about to graduate from university in July, and after a good look at things, i’ve decided to defer my entry for my Masters degree (lack of funding, huge burden of debt after and so on…) So instead i’ve decided to take a gap year in Shanghai to learn Chinese.

    However, i am an absolute beginner right now, and i am currently looking for language schools in Shanghai that offer intensive private tuition. Would you recommend going through this route to achieve ‘fluency/intermediate’ level of Chinese for the whole year (52 weeks)?

    If so, what schools would you recommend or could you perhaps point me in the direction of where i can find a qualified tutor who i could hire for 4/5 hours a day?

    Kind regards,

    Benny.

    • truettblack

      Benny, I can’t comment on language learning options in Shanghai. If it were me, I would try to get into a small group class, perhaps mornings only, and spend the rest of my time living life in Shanghai and speaking Chinese to people. I don’t see where a private tutor would be a good option. Why not just make friends with young Shanghainese people? They will tutor you well enough.

  39. dear benny I absoluty do find learning mandarin chinese quiet easy now days and its getting better each time so now I just have to maybe find chinese friends here in South Africa Jhb at the chinese market eheheh which I the chinese market there people are so friendly and correct me if I need ther help in chinese

  40. steven

    What do you mean by the last sentence in number 7?

  41. Can you please tell me what job you found that required you to use Mandarin as fluently as possible on a daily basis , and how you found it? Thanks!

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