Mandarin Chinese is the language of China, Taiwan, Macau, Hong Kong and Singapore. It's spoken by around 1.3 billion people, making it the most spoken language on the planet.
It's closely related to another Chinese language, Cantonese, and its known for its writing system, its tones and the fact that it's quite difficult to learn.
But how long does it take to learn Mandarin Chinese?
For the average English speaker who is motivated and consistent with his or her studies, I think Mandarin can be learned in 3-4 years. But to really answer the question, we need to have a look at the language background of the learner, his or her motivation, the time and effort put in before we even look at the language. Then we'll need to see what makes Mandarin tick and what the difficulties are. And finally, we'll take a look at how long professional linguists say that it takes to learn Mandarin.
Something that might interest you: I've made a calculator for figuring out how long it takes to learn any language depending on a lot of factors. Go and check for yourself!
First - what level of Mandarin are you aiming for?
When you start studying Mandarin, and begin setting your goals in the language, you'll need to define where you'll be heading. Most people start with an idea of wanting to "speak Chinese". But what does that actually mean?
There are many different definitions of fluency in a language. Some want to be conversational and get by when ordering food on their travels or checking into a hotel, whereas others aim to use Mandarin professionally, write emails and hold meetings in Chinese.
The US Department of State have defined 5 language proficiency levels that you might use to get an idea as to what to aim for. Level one is that of a complete beginner, whereas step 5 is the equivalent of a bilingual native.
A screenshot from the US Department of State website
For most people, level 4 would correspond to complete fluency in Mandarin. Level 4 is when you're able to communicate and understand Mandarin orally and in writing in all professional situations imaginable.
In terms of an initial end-goal, I'd start out by aiming for level 3. "Minimum Professional Proficiency". At this level you'll be very functional in Mandarin, but with room for improvement. When you reach this goal, you'll decide if you'll continue to study Mandarin in order to reach the next level, or if you'd rather improve your language skills organically from everyday use.
Aiming for "Minimum Professional Proficiency" instead of "Full Professional Proficiency" in the beginning also allows you to reach your goals faster. You'll end up at a reasonably high level of Mandarin that allows you to live and work in China, but you'll save a couple of years in fine-tuning your skills.
Your educational and linguistic background plays a role in how long it'll take to learn Mandarin
When you set out learning Mandarin, your previous experience will play an important role in determining how long it'll take to get to fluency.
For one thing, there's your educational background. No matter the subject, if you're used to studying, you'll find it easier to adapt to doing your daily lessons and sticking to them. Experience with taking notes, dealing with and memorizing new information and setting long-term goals are all important skills that will help you when learning Mandarin.
This is not to say that people who haven't had a lot of formal education couldn't learn Mandarin. The contrary is often true, but if you're already used to being a student, you just might be one step ahead.
Experience with foreign language learning is obviously also important. If you're a language enthusiast with knowledge of several languages and how they work under your belt, Mandarin will seem less foreign to you. It's a clear advantage if you already have some knowledge of a related language like Thai or Vietnamese.
But even high-school French will help you! People who've ever only spoken one language sometimes have difficulty grasping the concept of a foreign language. It seems like a separate entity that you've got no place for in your brain, and each new grammatical concept or vocabulary just seems utterly strange or even impossible compared to the language you know.
If you already have just a little knowledge of a foreign language, it'll mean that you can take a short-cut to learning Mandarin. German vocabulary doesn't help you a lot directly. But having faced the German language means that your brain is already open for a new way of thinking, and that means that you'll be miles ahead.
But what if you didn't go that far in the educational system and you've only spoken English your entire life? Don't worry! While Mandarin is one of the bigger challenges in the world of language self-study, it's not impossible. In fact, it's easy for anyone who puts in the time. You just need to know where you're going and to not become discouraged along the way.
Will Learning The Chinese Characters Take A Million Years?
If you were to learn all the 100.000+ Chinese characters, it just might take forever. Luckily, you'll only need around 2-5000 in order to fluently and effectively read and write the language. But that might still seem like a lot?
But think of it this way: To learn a foreign language you need to memorize several thousands of words as well as how they're used and pronounced. In Mandarin, you need to add some characters to that.
In reality, memorizing the symbols along with their corresponding morphemes is not that bad. It can even be a help. Why? Because when you learn a morpheme along with its corresponding character, you create an association between the two. It's like using mnemonics without even realizing it.
In fact, if you were to learn Dutch or Spanish, I'd recommend that you do the same! Those languages don't have symbols to match with each morpheme, however, so you'd need to create other associations in order to better remember the words. These associations can be anything from making up a little story about a word, matching it to a photo, seeing it in lots of different contexts and so on. A symbol is great for that too!
Don't get me wrong - you still need to work with your technique for remembering words in Mandarin, but the characters are actually very helpful at that. They make things easier, not harder. Here's an article I've written about remembering words, that you might find interesting.
So there's no doubt that you should learn the Chinese characters. Whether you learn the simplified characters or the traditional (or both) is up to you, and it depends which country you're most interested in, since the different Mandarin speaking countries either use the one or the other. And don't count on relying on Pinyin, the romanized Mandarin writing system. It can be helpful to learners, but it's not really used in real-life.
So how does the Chinese characters impact the time it takes to learn Chinese? Obviously, they do add to the learning process, but you'd be spending significant time on memorizing words anyway, so learning them along with the Chinese characters isn't really a problem.
You might be able to learn some Chinese without the characters, but you'd be severely limited in what you could do in the language, and you'd quickly find that progressing in Chinese is slower when you can't read real native Chinese texts.
So while you might speed up the beginning stages in learning Chinese, you wouldn't be at an advantage if you didn't learn the writing system!
How Does Chinese Pronunciation And Tones Impact The Time It Takes To Become Fluent?
Well, first of all: Pronunciation in Mandarin is not that bad. When you learn to pronounce mandarin, you often learn about the individual sounds via the Pinyin alphabet, which is actually the Latin alphabet you're reading right now, only adapted for Mandarin.
The Pinyin alphabet has 29 letters instead of the 26 in English, and many of them are pretty similar. While you obviously need to dedicate some time to getting the pronunciation right, it's not how to correctly say each letter that's the biggest problem with learning Chinese. Have a look at this video for a quick walk-through of the Pinyin alphabet:
The video quality is not the best, but the content is solid!
The real challenge with the pronunciation of Mandarin is the tones. At least, that's the language's reputation.
Tones is a common feature in many Asian languages like Vietnamese, Thai, Khmer, Cantonese and Mandarin. Tones are different "pitches" that can be applied to words or syllables. In Mandarin, the pitch that you apply to one syllable can turn it into multiple very different words.
It's a little like when you're expressing surprise or forming a question only from the intonation of a word in English. Take for example the difference between the statement "he lives on a boat" and the exclamation "he lives on a boat?". Had "boat" been a Mandarin word, the two different pitches applied to the letter combination "boat" would actually turn it into two distinctly different words, probably with different meanings altogether.
Here's an short video that gives you some examples of how tones are pronounced in Mandarin:
While the concept of tones is quite different from how we form words in the English language, it's not that difficult. Chinese tones are neither hard to pronounce, nor to recognize. The real problem here, is getting used to a completely different way of forming words. While wrong intonation might seem odd in English, it doesn't make a word any less understandable. In Mandarin, tones are essential to understanding and being understood.
How much longer will it take to learn a tonal language compared to a non-tonal language? It's hard to say. I'm tempted to say that the tones by themselves don't make learning Mandarin any more time consuming, but then again...
Tones add to the general "exoticness" of the Chinese language, and it's one of those things that make the language harder to grasp as a whole. It's not a single concept that just takes long to learn, but a different way of approaching words, which might add a little extra needed work to the whole language.
How Long Does It Take To Learn Mandarin Vocabulary?
Learning Mandarin Chinese vocabulary is time consuming, there's no doubt about it. For one thing, Mandarin is completely different from English and all other European languages. If you were to learn French or even Russian, you'd have the advantage of at least feeling some kind of familiarity to a lot of the words you need to learn, or to how they're formed.
Mandarin has very few loan-words from Western languages, and its resemblance to languages we already know is almost non-existent.
What this all means is, that it becomes difficult to create associations in your brain when learning the language, so new words become hard to fixate in there between your neurons.
Imagine that you come across the word for "mug" in French, "tasse". You haven't seen it before (I assume), but yet it seems familiar. There are several English words that resemble it like, taste, task, Tess and so on.
Now, the word in Mandarin is "杯" or "Bēi". This word seems much less European (because it isn't). And while you might be able to come up with associations and images in your mind, they'll be less obvious, and the word will seem more unfamiliar. There's always a way though! "Bēi" sounds a little like "bee" and it's pronounced with the un-altered tone that stays at an even pitch. This makes it a little monotone, and might remind you of a bee buzzing.
This is just one way of better remembering a word - there are obviously an infinite amount of possible associations that could help you remember words better. My point is, that with Mandarin, the lack of familiarity means that you'll need to spend a little longer on each word in order to make it stick.
I've written an article on the subject of remembering words, that you might find helpful.
Another thing that'll make Mandarin vocabulary easier to grasp is the Chinese characters, as mentioned earlier. Learning a new morpheme or syllable along with its symbol makes you remember both better. Match that with an association, and you'll create a triangular bond of information in your brain, where each piece of information enforces the other.
How Long Does It Take To Learn Mandarin According To Linguists?
The Foreign Service Institute or FSI is the American government institution in charge of teaching languages to US diplomats going overseas. They have a great deal of experience in teaching a great variety of languages, and Mandarin is no exception.
In order to plan their language courses, FSI has divided he languages that they teach into four groups. Group one is for languages that take the shortest for an English speaker to learn, group four take the longest.
FSI's measurements aren't, of course, directly applicable to a self-student's learning process. FSI bases their estimates on the number of hours in an intensive classroom situation that the student needs to reach "Full professional working proficiency". In other words, a very advanced level of fluency.
As a self student, you might aim for another level of fluency, and you won't be studying Mandarin in an intensive classroom situation.
Still, FSI's estimates can give of a pretty good ballpark figure of how long you need to study a given language.
In group one, we find languages such as French, Spanish, Dutch and Danish. These are languages that are rather close to English and that don't offer any exceptional difficulties to an English speaker. They should take the average English speaker 5-600 classroom hours to learn when following FSI's program.
In group two, we find languages such as German, Indonesian and Swahili. These represent more exotic and more grammatically challenging languages than those in group one. They take around 900 classroom hours.
And finally, group 4 where, you guessed it, we find Mandarin. (Along with other difficult languages such as Korean, Arabic and Japanese). These are estimated to take a whooping 2200 hours to learn to a high level of fluency! And those are 2200 hours of intensive classroom study. That's twice as long as Russian (Which is already a complicated language, mind you) and four times as long as French!
That's about 6 years of studying one hour per day. And then you might even need a little more to compensate for being a self-student who's not really that experienced in learning foreign languages (unless you are, and then I apologize!...)
You might not be aiming for the high level of professional working proficiency that is FSI's goal. So what if you're merely working at becoming functionally fluent, conversational and being able to get by in China?
I'd say that you could get very far in 3-4 years. But learning Mandarin is definitely not something that you do in a couple of months!
You Won't Get Far If You're Not Consistent
The most important thing when learning Mandarin, however, is not which book you choose, how many daily hours of study you do, or which technique you use for remembering vocabulary.
It's being consistent.
If you don't put in the work every day, you won't get far. Learning Mandarin by yourself is like building a brick house with your bare hands. It takes a lot of time and it takes a lot of work. But if you keep adding new bricks every day, you'll eventually get there.
But you need to put in the work.