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!