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.
- 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.
- I spoke Chinese all day, every day, and filled notebook upon notebook with vocabulary in context.
- 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.
- Once you’ve decided you’re going to learn, never give up. Attitude and dedication are probably 80% of the battle in learning Mandarin.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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”).
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.