How long does it really take to learn Mandarin? – Week 44

Before delving into this week’s topic, I am pleased to announce that this blog now has Spanish pages. Este blog cuenta ahora con páginas en español!

So, how long does it really take to learn Mandarin? I will briefly introduce one possible approach that begins to answer that question. Stay tuned for future posts that will explain the concepts in more detail and depth.

My estimate is that it takes at least 4,600 to achieve a professional working proficiency, 9,200 hours to achieve full professional proficiency, and 18,400 hours to reach native or bilingual proficiency.

Please refer to the Interagency Language Roundtable (ILR) scale of language abilities. The US Department of State’s Foreign Service Institute (FSI) has provided estimates, based on extensive empirical observation, of how long it takes to learn a variety of languages. The languages are grouped into four categories, according to difficulty for a native English speaker to learn.

Mandarin, of course, is in Category 4—the most difficult. FSI estimates that an adult native English speaker who is highly educated, motivated and already a polyglot takes 2,200 classroom hours to reach IRL 3 in speaking and reading. When this estimate is cited, however, people often fail to note that many additional hours are spent studying independently or being immersed in the language.

FSI students are also dedicating 3 to 4 hours daily to directed self-study, and no mention is made of possible additional contact with the language during “free” time. The latter is especially relevant for Category 4 languages like Mandarin, where an entire year of study is done in-country. I assume many of the students, during their free time, watch TV in Mandarin, in addition to going out and making native-speaking friends.

When one includes just the directed self-study time at the higher end of the range, the total number of hours to reach ILR 3 in Mandarin jumps to about 4,600 hours, which is thus the minimum time I estimate for attaining professional working proficiency in the language.

I have not found information on how long one would take on average to get from ILR 3 to ILR 4 and then ILR 5. My guess, based my own empirical observation, is that you would have to approximately double the total time in each case, because of the law of diminishing returns. To take one example, while knowing 5,000 words might get you to ILR 3 because they represent 95% of the spoken and written language (these numbers are fictitious and meant only to illustrate), you might need 10,000 words to get to 98% comprehension or ILR 4 because word frequencies diminish so much, and 20,000 to attain 99.8% comprehension or ILR 5 (educated native equivalency level). Idiomatic expressions, colloquialisms, cultural references, and native-like pronunciation and accent are necessary to get to these higher levels (especially ILR 5), which also can take a ridiculous amount of time to achieve (if ever).

That is why I estimate 9,200 hours to attain full professional proficiency and 18,400 to speak like a native.

These figures for reaching ILR 4 and ILR 5 are obviously wild estimates that, even if they happened to be accurate averages, would still allow for a tremendous amount of variation.

Please share your thoughts, opinions, and personal experiences!

10 thoughts on “How long does it really take to learn Mandarin? – Week 44

  1. Greta Browne says:

    These numbers are mind-boggling. A year has a total of 8760 hours. 9200 hours to attain full professional proficiency at 5 hours a day would mean 1840 days or five years studying 5 hours every single day. A huge commitment! I suppose a total immersion – perhaps 15-hour days using the language in a native environment – would shorten that time considerably. Interesting.

    • Indeed, these numbers are helpful, among other things, in showing what a tremendous time commitment is necessary to master a difficult language. It’s not for the faint-hearted! In my opinion, it also shows that you should definitely be getting other benefits from your study, otherwise you’ll be spending far too large a part of your life just on learning a language. For example, with my new French project, I hope, among other things, to become better informed about current events, especially in Europe, Africa, and the Middle East.

      • A goal outside of just “learn Chinese” is motivating. We’re adopting from Taiwan, hence the reason I started learning Chinese. I have since discovered I love Chinese food, so now I want to learn how to read so that I can try new authentic recipes. Fun stuff!

  2. If those numbers are accurate, it’s going to take me forever to reach fluency! 🙂 I started studying in February and have logged 217 hours. I’ve heard time estimates of approximately five years to reach basic fluency but I’m not sure how many hours people have estimated during those five years. I guess I’ll have to start studying more. lol

    • Cassandra, it’s really interesting that we are studying at a similar pace. You logged 217 hours in about 10 months, and so far I’ve logged 202 hours in a little over 11 months. It would be interesting to compare methods and results–although I think assessing results will only be truly useful later on.

      Yes, at our current pace, we will take “forever” to reach fluency. But what calculating time to fluency using hours shows is that if one intensifies one’s study, results come far more quickly. For instance, if instead of 30 minutes per day I put in 5 hours, my entire experiment would take less than 8 months instead of 6.5 years.

      • That is interesting! I think you’re right about assessing results. It would be really hard to do right now but would be fascinating at a later date. I have been picking up the pace a bit this month; I’m now at 233 logged hours. I was concentrating solely on grammar studies and flashcards but have added a lot of Taiwanese tv this past week. 😉 I found that it’s reinforcing my grammar studies and I’m picking up listening AND comprehension skills faster. I’m making a point to watch at least one 40 minute episode per day and I’m surprised by how much more I am understanding now. Last night I had to rewind a bit to listen again to some numbers (thousands / millions) because I had just learned that the day before. I realized I actually understood what they were talking about. Surprise, surprise! 🙂 Even if fluency does take a long time, I’m glad we’re on this road.

    • Haha, in previous comments I thought you were two different people, but now it all makes sense!

      That is awesome that you are adopting from Taiwan! You clearly have a great motivating factor for your studies. I’m glad to hear you have accelerated your studies. The more time you can put in–the more concentrated you can make your studying–the better your results will be. The only reason for my “diluted” approach is my complete lack of time to do more. Nevertheless, I do hope to put in more than the minimum 30 minutes per day. Currently, I’m at an average of 37 minutes, but I hope I can get that up a bit more.

      That’s great that you’ve incorporated regular TV viewing into your studies. I’m impressed that you are already understanding some of what you hear! I’m still struggling to get any meaning out of what I hear, if I listen to adult programming just once, without subtitles. I definitely pick out isolated words, but can rarely string enough together to understand sentences on first viewing. Maybe my method’s inefficient after all . . . but I will give it time. By the way, are you including all types of studying in your hour count? In other words, do the 233 hours represent the totality of what you’d invested in studying Mandarin (as of December 21)? Another thing I’m curious about is whether you speak any other languages.

      • I keep meaning to come back and answer your questions…
        1 – Yes, all studying is included but I’ve only recorded media as 1/2 time. So a 40 minute television episode gets logged as 20 minutes of study time.
        2 – I have studied other languages but am only fluent in English. lol I studied Latin for a year in high school. Spanish for two years in high school. Japanese for two years post college. And now Chinese for one year. I would have studied Japanese longer but we decided to adopt and our future daughter speaks Chinese. I hope to eventually return to Japanese and also want to tackle Korean. And someday I may revisit Spanish as well. I love studying languages but have not stuck with any one language long enough to become fluent. I learned a TON about how to study when I was studying Japanese and have applied it to my Chinese studies. Because of that, I’m closer to fluency in one year with Chinese than I was in two years with Japanese. Hopefully all of the experience will make Korean easier some day.

        By the way, I do watch a ton of Korean dramas. I think Korea makes the very best television dramas and love watching at least two shows per season. That will make it easier when I do formally study. I can tell I’ve already learned a few phrases and am becoming very familiar with the sounds of the language. I think this would be similar to your Chinese studies. Now I wish I had logged all of the hours I’ve watched!

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