I’m often asked:Q: “How long should it take to become fluent in Chinese?”
I think the best answer:
A: “As long as it takes.”
This is one of those messy aspects of learning a new language that we can’t put in definite terms. Each learner is different. How quickly and easily you learn a new language depends on your:
- Natural skills and talents. Although someone born with a photographic (and phonographic) memory, genius for grammar, and the elusive “good ear” probably will have an advantage learning a new language, I don’t think natural ability and genetics are the most important factors.
- Linguistic and cultural background. I met a Japanese student during my second year in China. He’d been studying Chinese for only 3 months and he was just as good at speaking and listening as I was after 12 months. Besides that, he knew almost every hanzi character we encountered. One obvious advantage he had was: the Japanese language uses Chinese characters. English doesn’t. I’m also told there are cognates between Japanese and Chinese. The most help we can expect from English is “typhoon” (táifēng 台风), “kowtow” (kòutóu 叩头) and “ping pong” (pīngpāngqiú 乒乓球)! But I’ll bet I could learn French or Spanish faster than he could.
- Exposure to the language. So why did that Japanese guy’s listening and speaking improve so fast? He had a Chinese girlfriend for at least 2 of those 3 months, and he took Chinese classes full time. I didn’t, and I didn’t. He must have spent far more hours each day speaking Chinese and understanding Chinese (which is different than just listening to Chinese) than I did.
We can’t really control our genes or background, but we can do something about our exposure to the language.
As anyone who’s lived in China will tell you, just being in China does not automatically give you a lot of useful chances to speak and understand Chinese (see “Is China a good place to learn Chinese?“). You’ve got to find your own opportunities and contexts in which to speak Chinese, and once you do, you’ve got to speak a lot.
“By the time a child is six years old, he or she has been exposed to at least 21,900 hours of language (using a conservative estimate of 10 hours per day). To get that same exposure, an adult who spends two hours every weekday studying and attending foreign language classes would need over 42 YEARS.”
Of course the child hasn’t spent all those hours talking. But those figures do take a bit of the “magic” out of a child’s language learning ability. We know that children talk a lot, we know they learn languages well. Perhaps we can assume:
Those who talk a lot, get better.
How quickly you progress in learning Chinese relates directly to how much you speak Chinese. This may seem like a pretty basic concept, but it doesn’t only apply to learning languages.
A New York Times article on athletic talent said pros at chess and tennis have talent, but they’ve also put in the hours. Even the genius Mozart did his time:
“Mozart studied some 3,500 hours of music with his instructor father by his sixth birthday, a number that places his musical memory into the realm of impressive but obtainable party tricks.”
While I don’t feel terribly comfortable saying “Mozart” and “party tricks” in the same sentence, there is no getting away from the fact that people who are good at doing something have spent a lot of time doing that thing.
The best way to learn Chinese is to eat, drink, and breathe Chinese. This has been particularly difficult for me, even though I’m in China, because I teach English, and people want to practice their English with me. Of course there are the commerce situations (buying bananas, etc.), but I needed more. I had to branch out and find people who either didn’t want to speak English or just couldn’t. For me that meant:
- teachers I met in the teachers’ cafeteria on campus
- ping pong buddies
- commuters on the bus (sometimes)
- some super helpful informants
If you can’t find anyone to talk to in Chinese, feel free to talk to yourself. I spoke to imaginary friends (I can’t believe I’m admitting this) and replied in a different voice (where’s the delete button?!) all in Chinese.
One of the reasons I translate songs is it’s just another chance to immerse myself and get my hands into the language in a way I enjoy.
The bottom line is: do whatever you’ve got to do to speak a lot of Chinese.
No talk, no learn.
See also the other posts in this series: