‘How long before I know a bit of Chinese?’ – Part 1: defining ‘a bit’

Original silhouette image by Mohamed Hassan

When people show an interest in learning Chinese we are often asked ‘So, how long before I know a bit of Chinese?’ For several reasons, this question is impossible to answer. Not only is ‘a bit’ a very subjective term, the answer to the question also depends on many factors. The question is normally triggered by financial considerations and worries that it could cost a fortune to learn Chinese through private lessons.

In a series of articles, we will break down the question into three different components:

  1. ‘a bit’: objectively defining language proficiency and goals.
  2. ‘know Chinese’: describing what it actually entails to learn Chinese
  3. ‘how long’: considering the first two points, investigating what resources would be required to learn Chinese

We will help you set goals, manage expectations, and set up a way of learning Chinese that suits you best, taking into account objectives, budget and time.

In this first article, we’ll try to define what ‘a bit of Chinese’ could mean. As mentioned, ‘a bit’ is a very subjective measurement and will mean different things to different people. After your first lesson, you will be able to greet people and tell them your name. If this is ‘a bit of Chinese’ that people refer to, then you only need that one lesson. But that’s probably not what they mean, right?

So, what do they mean then? Is being able to introduce yourself, where you are from, and what your work is ‘a bit of Chinese’? Or is being able to do simple business negotiations ‘a bit of Chinese’? Really, the first thing to do is agree on a system that objectively describes language proficiency levels.


In Europe, we mostly use the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFRL) to describe language proficiency. This system uses six levels in three groups. While exact categorisation is tricky – would you for instance count vocabulary and grammatical errors? – Wikipedia provides the table below describing the six different levels.

Level groupLevelDescription
Basic user
Can understand and use familiar everyday expressions and very basic phrases aimed at the satisfaction of needs of a concrete type.
Can introduce themselves and others and can ask and answer questions about personal details such as where they live, people they know and things they have.
Can interact in a simple way provided the other person talks slowly and clearly and is prepared to help.
Can understand sentences and frequently used expressions related to areas of most immediate relevance (e.g. very basic personal and family information, shopping, local geography, employment).
Can communicate in simple and routine tasks requiring a simple and direct exchange of information on familiar and routine matters.
Can describe in simple terms aspects of their background, immediate environment and matters in areas of immediate need.
Independent user
Can understand the main points of clear standard input on familiar matters regularly encountered in work, school, leisure, etc.
Can deal with most situations likely to arise while travelling in an area where the language is spoken.
Can produce simple connected text on topics that are familiar or of personal interest.
Can describe experiences and events, dreams, hopes and ambitions and briefly give reasons and explanations for opinions and plans.
Can understand the main ideas of complex text on both concrete and abstract topics, including technical discussions in their field of specialisation.
Can interact with a degree of fluency and spontaneity that makes regular interaction with native speakers quite possible without strain for either party.
Can produce clear, detailed text on a wide range of subjects and explain a viewpoint on a topical issue giving the advantages and disadvantages of various options.
Proficient user
Can understand a wide range of demanding, longer clauses and recognise implicit meaning.
Can express ideas fluently and spontaneously without much obvious searching for expressions.
Can use language flexibly and effectively for social, academic and professional purposes.
Can produce clear, well-structured, detailed text on complex subjects, showing controlled use of organisational patterns, connectors and cohesive devices.
Can understand with ease virtually everything heard or read.
Can summarise information from different spoken and written sources, reconstructing arguments and accounts in a coherent presentation.
Can express themselves spontaneously, very fluently and precisely, differentiating finer shades of meaning even in the most complex situations.
Table 1

Using the CEFRL system, people can determine their proficiency in a certain language. Language courses can specify what required entry levels are for their different offerings and to what level they will take a student over the course of their study.

If you have any proficiency in a foreign language, you can probably determine where your skill level is at. There are often (online) tests available that can help you figure this out.

Take me, for instance. My mother tongue is Dutch, but I consider my English to be C2 level. It’s not flawless, but I do most of my reading and writing in English and I feel quite confident using it professionaly.

During my days in high school and college, I have also learned some other languages. I had a few years of French in middle school, graduated with 6 years of German under my belt, and took 3 years of Spanish in college. Since I never really used any of these languages much afterward, my proficiency has seriously suffered. I can still, up to a certain level, comprehend these three languages in spoken and written form, especially German, but I would be at a loss when having to speak or write any of them. I think my listening and reading ability would be A1 for French (at most), A2 for Spanish, and B1/2 for German. My speaking and writing skills would be substantially lower.

And then I also learned Chinese in my forties, mostly during the two years I lived in China. I can quite fluently (but not flawlessly) speak Mandarin with my Chinese wife because she knows my vocabulary and won’t use words I’m unfamiliar with. But I am normally at a loss when a second Chinese person joins the conversation and uses unfamiliar vocabulary.

I probably know over 2.000 words, but only 700 Chinese characters at most. I can’t understand the Chinese news or read a newspaper. I can however travel independently and solve most not-too-complicated practical problems I come across in daily life when I’m in China. Using the CEFRL system, I would estimate my speaking and listening skills to be upper A2 – lower B1 and reading skills A2.


While CEFRL is common for Western European languages, most of the time you will see a different level system mentioned for Chinese (Mandarin): the Hanyu Shuiping Kaoshi (Hànyǔ Shuǐpíng Kǎoshì, 汉语水平考试) or ‘HSK’.  It describes 9 different test levels (6 levels prior to 2021). Actually, the HSK levels are related more to a test than actual proficiency, but it does give an indication of levels of language skills.

Wikipedia shows the table below (Table 2) for the requirements of each level. For instance, at the HSK3 level you need to be able to recognise 900 written Chinese characters, write with the 300 most common characters and have a vocabulary of about 2.245 words. While I have never officially taken an HSK test, I would estimate my own proficiency to be around this level.

WordsGrammar points
Table 2

So how do the CEFRL system and HSK systems compare? The CEFRL levels and HSK levels are not interchangeable, but according to the Wikipedia page about CEFRL, it compares to HSK as follows. Note that HSK levels 7-9 were not yet introduced when this comparison was made.


HSK (Levels according to French and German associations)
HSK Level 1/2HSK Level 3/4HSK Level 4/5HSK Level 5/6HSK Level 6
Table 3

In another Wikipedia table (Table 4) you can see that opinions differ as to which CEFR level corresponds to each HSK level. In my opinion the Hanban (the agency of the Ministry of Education of the People’s Republic of China that administers the HSK), the Chinese organisation the Confucius Institutes are part of, is simplistically optimistic. The others seem more realistic.

HSKEstimated CEFR level according to…
LevelWords (sum)Characters (sum)HanbanFranceGermanyItalyTOCFL
650002663C2B2-C1B2B1+ to B2B2
525001685C1B1-B2B1A2+ to B1B1
412001064B2A2A2A1+ to A2A2
3600617B1A1-A2A1A1.1 to A1.2A1
2300347A2A1.1A1.1 (without writing)A1.1Below A1
1150174A1Below A1noneA1.1Below A1
Table 4

Note that these are the pre-2021 HSK levels, so HSK levels 7 – 9 would probably be C2 level.

Other systems

In work and business context you will often come across six distinct levels of language proficiency, for instance in LinkedIn. The table below shows the definitions and how these roughly correspond to CEFRL.

LevelSpeaking definitionReading definitionCEFRL
No Practical ProficiencyNo practical speaking proficiency.No practical reading proficiency. 
Elementary ProficiencyAble to satisfy routine travel needs and minimum courtesy requirements.Able to read some personal and place names, street signs, office and shop designations, numbers and isolated words and phrases.A1-A2
Limited Working ProficiencyAble to satisfy routine social demands and limited work requirements.Able to read simple prose, in a form equivalent to typescript or printing, on subjects within a familiar context.B1-B2
Professional Working ProficiencyAble to speak the language with sufficient structural accuracy and vocabulary to participate effectively in most formal and informal conversations on practical, social, and professional topics.Able to read standard newspaper items addressed to the general reader, routine correspondence, reports, and technical materials in the individual’s special field.C1
Full Working ProficiencyAble to use the language fluently and accurately on all levels pertinent to professional needs.Able to read all styles and forms of the language pertinent to professional needs.C2
Native of Bilingual ProficiencyEquivalent to that of an educated native speaker.Equivalent to that of an educated native.>C2
Table 5

Setting your goal

Using these charts, you should be able to determine what ‘a bit of Chinese’ means to you or what level you are aiming for. Setting aside the required resources in time and money for a moment, where would you like to go? Consider what your goal is and determine the CEFRL / HSK level accordingly. A few examples.

  • Do you want to be able to introduce yourself and just have very simple small talk as an icebreaker with Chinese business partners before continuing to communicate in English, with or without interpreters? Then A1 / HSK 2 level might be enough for you.
  • Do you want to be proficient in simple communication about day-to-day practicalities and be able to travel independently? That would be A2 – B1 or HSK 3 – 4 level.
  • Do you want to speak Chinese well, be able to read a newspaper, and write elaborately in Chinese?  You normally need to know at least 3.500 characters, which is the level that is reached with China’s compulsory education of primary school plus 3 years of middle school. That sounds like HSK 6 or B2 – C1 level.
  • Do you want to master the language and become fluent? That would mean HSK 9 or C2+ level of proficiency.

I’ll close this first article with a personal word of advice.

I think anybody that is serious about learning Chinese to a level that’s more than an icebreaker and is actually useful in daily life should aim for at least A2 – B1. For that reason, I personally have doubts about how Chinese language learning is currently organised in some middle schools in The Netherlands. Only some schools have training that’s intensive enough to reach the A2-B1 level. Of course, students learn a lot of useful things about Chinese culture in lessons at the other schools. But the limited number of lessons and study hours students are exposed to means their level of Chinese upon graduation is much lower than for English, German, or French, as we will see in the next articles in this series. Unless they continue their Chinese studies in one form or another after middle school, it has really been a bit pointless considering they will forget a lot of what they learned. Just like I forgot most of the Spanish I took.

Now that you have determined your desired proficiency goal, we’ll look at the challenges ahead in the next article. What does it mean to ‘know Chinese’?