‘How long before I know a bit of Chinese?’ – Part 3: ‘how long?’

In this three-part series, we try to answer the question in the title by breaking it down into three components.

  1. ‘a bit’: objectively defining language proficiency and goals.
  2. ‘know Chinese’: what does it actually entail to learn Chinese.
  3. ‘how long’: considering the first two points, how much time and budget would it take?

In the first article, we have discussed different methods to determine language proficiency and setting your desired goal. These will help us to give an indication of the effort needed to learn Chinese in this final article. In this second part, we explained the various challenges of learning Chinese (Mandarin) and we started ‘managing your expectations’.

In this third and final part, we will bring the two together to evaluate how much effort it could take to reach your set proficiency. We also give some suggestions for ways you could best study the language, considering your available time and budget.

Benchmarking: secondary education

First, let’s set a benchmark by looking at the time it takes to learn Western European languages. We’ll take the education system in The Netherlands as an example but will also explore other benchmarking systems.

In The Netherlands, there are three types of secondary education. After primary school, teenagers will go to one of these types, based on their personal interests and academic abilities. Foreign languages are taught in all schools and both the duration of the secondary education and language proficiencies reached after graduation differs, as shown below. (source 1, source 2, source 3). Please refer to the first article in this series for an explanation of the used CEFRL levels in this table.

VMBO (preparatory secondary vocational education)4 yearsA2-B1  A2-B1  A2  
HAVO (senior general secondary education)5 yearsB1-B2 360 hoursA2+ 400 hoursA2+ 400 hours
VWO (university preparatory education)6 years  B2 400 hoursB1 480B1 480
Table 1


  • We explained these language proficiencies in the first article, please refer to it for explanation of the CEFRL.
  • A2+ means a particularly good proficiency in A2 but not high enough yet for B1.
  • The mentioned hours refer to the study load until graduation and include class lessons and self-study/homework.
  • Levels of proficiency can and will differ for speaking, listening, reading and writing. The European Union has broken these down in detailed descriptions per communication form. In the table above, we have used an estimated average across all categories.
  • Wikipedia shows a table of the number of hours needed to reach each level of the CEFRL system (A1 to C2 level) as determined by Germany’s Goethe Institute and France’s Alliance Française.

The important takeaway from this is that for any language it takes serious effort to reach any proficiency level.

Benchmarking: Professional Working Proficiency

The Foreign Language Institute of the United States Government has grouped languages into categories based on their experience with teaching languages to US diplomats. According to the FLI, among the easiest languages to learn for English speakers are Italian, Dutch, Norwegian, Spanish and French. These languages take an average student 24-30 weeks and 600-750 class hours to reach ‘Professional Working Proficiency’, which – as we’ve seen in the first article – can be compared to the C1 level in the CEFRL system.

Chinese (both Mandarin and Cantonese) along with Japanese, Korean and Arabic are in the 4th and most difficult category. These languages take the average student 88 weeks or 2.200 class hours to learn. As such it is often said that Mandarin takes 3 times as long as a Western European language to learn. Also, note that the FLI is calculating no less than 25 class hours a week!

If we take this back to the earlier estimations of reaching proficiency levels in German or French, multiplying these by three should give you an idea of the effort needed for Chinese. So, reaching the B1 level would require somewhere between 780 and 1.470 hours of study. And yes, that’s quite a wide range.

Benchmarking: ChinaTalk students

Let’s compare this to some of our experiences with our own students. Jessica teaches a selection of highly intelligent high school students that have chosen Chinese as a graduation course. They take Chinese classes for 6 years, one or two hours a week (depending on the year). Students that take in total 240 hours of Chinese over that period reach A1+ level. Those that have 300 hours reach A2- level. These hours do not include homework and self-study for tests.

Now, let’s look at another example. One of Jessica’s private lesson students, in his late twenties, has been taking weekly Chinese lessons for 2,5 years, including two intensive full-week trainings. We estimate his current level is A2-B1 and he has successfully taken the HSK 3 exam. He has taken close to 200 one-hour private lessons to get there.

There are a few differences between these two examples. In the case of the private lesson student, the lessons were much more tailored to the individual student. More importantly, this student moved to Shanghai after studying Chinese with us for one year. After arriving in China his progress increased dramatically. The reason? He constantly had to put what he learned to practice in daily life and work. Now, back in The Netherlands he frequently contacts Chinese business partners for negotiations and has found himself being highly successful in doing so, being familiar with both the business culture and language.

Other factors

Now, to make things a bit more complicated, all of what you read is based on either averages or very individual examples. The time to reach a certain language proficiency will differ greatly between students. Some people have a higher aptitude – a larger natural ability – to learn languages than others. Females tend to be better at languages than males.

Age also plays a key role. An MIT study showed that children younger than 10 years can learn grammar and pronunciation of new languages easiest, while language learning abilities quickly decline after they reach the age of 18.

This isn’t to say that you can’t learn any new languages after reaching adulthood; hordes of people do it all over the world. It does however mean that it will become more challenging the older you get. In other words, as an adult, you might need significantly more hours than a teenager to reach a certain level. Keep that in mind when looking at table 1 showing with number of lessons and language proficiency for teenagers.

Hybrid learning

We understand that taking prolonged Chinese lessons from a professional language institute or certified teacher like ChinaTalk’s Jessica Sun requires substantial financial resources. Therefore we always advise our customers to think about the most effective and cost-efficient way of learning Chinese, taking into consideration available time and budget. Maybe you should go for a hybrid way of learning in which you combine lots of self-study with complimentary private lessons.

There are very good online courses available that offer annual subscriptions that allow unlimited access to learning resources. When I myself moved to China in 2011 I received an annual budget of roughly $200 for language lessons from the international volunteering organisation I worked for. I understood that even with the prices of teachers in China, that budget wouldn’t last long and wouldn’t get me far.

Therefore, I opted to use my budget for an annual subscription to Chinesepod instead. Especially in the first year, I would do one lesson every day. Even though I don’t have an enormous aptitude for languages and I was already in my early forties, I was able to progress well into their ‘elementary level’ during my first year.

Chinesepod have their own level system.

The number of self-study lessons that Chinesepod suggests before proceeding to the next level are:

Chinesepod LevelRecommended lessonsCumulative lessonsCEFRL level
Pre-Intermediate  A2
Advanced  C1
Table 2

Note: Initially, Chinesepod did not have a pre-intermediate level. I personally found the step from elementary to intermediate an excessively big one and I was frustrated with the intermediate lessons. Seemingly I wasn’t the only one …

I haven’t really been able to find a good description of how these levels correspond to HSK or CEFRL but I have added it by comparing descriptions. I also think the number of lessons seems relatively low. I personally needed about 50% more lessons than mentioned in this table before I was confident enough to move to the next level. The last time I used their website I was in the pre-intermediate level and had done close to 200 lessons.

Note though that these lessons refer to ‘listening to podcast episodes’. Chinesepod focuses on spoken Mandarin, so this is just part of the full picture. If you really wanted to learn the complete language including the writing it would require much more effort. Besides the podcast, each lesson included a grammar explanation and interactive exercises on the website to test your vocabulary, character reading/writing skills, etc. On top of this, I practiced vocabulary and character recognition with a flashcard app (Anki). I also used a writing simulation app called Skritter to learn how to write and memorize the characters (there’s a free alternative called Inkstone available now). All in all, it definitely took more than just listening to a podcast. When doing all of this excercises, an average lesson could easily take a full hour.

There were three reasons why Chinesepod worked for me. First, I have always been diligent and disciplined in self-study. I even prefer it over classroom studies. Second, as with the previously mentioned private lesson student who moved to Shanghai, I was constantly immersed in the language and had to use it in daily life. Third, I could select relevant topics from hundreds of lessons on Chinesepod and thereby improve my language skills in practical ways.

A note of warning about Chinesepod: like most gyms, it uses a monthly/annual subscription model. And they are not cheap. They do offer great value for money if you use their resources intensively, but if your schedule gets disrupted, the money’s gone. I personally stopped using Chinesepod because they couldn’t offer a pay-per-lesson model.

Ways of learning Chinese

In this article we have given you some insight into the time it might take to reach different proficiency levels and have described different ways of learning Chinese: in weekly classrooms over the course of multiple years, private lessons, self-study, or hybrid forms of these approaches. We have also seen that certain factors influence the effectiveness of your study.

  • Generally, the younger you start, the faster you will learn. While you can’t turn back the clock, you can decide not to postpone plans to learn the language any longer.
  • Emerging yourself in the language in practical situations does wonders for your progress. The best way would be to actually spend time in Mainland China or Taiwan after having done some initial language studies (note though, that Taiwan uses traditional Chinese characters while mainland China uses simplified characters; most studies focus on simplified script).
  • If moving to Mainland China or Taiwan isn’t an option, see if you can still immerse yourself in a Chinese environment somehow. Maybe you can join a language exchange group with Chinese people trying to learn your language. I have done so myself when arriving in China, but beware, close friendships can easily evolve, and our group soon found itself ditching the language lessons and going to karaoke bars and hotpot restaurants instead. 😉
  • Beware: having Chinese as a mother tongue doesn’t mean that you’re language exchange buddy is a good teacher of the language. I personally have a hard time explaining why the Dutch language works the way it does to my Chinese wife. As such, a random Chinese student studying in your country that offers to teach you Chinese for a low fee might actually not be the best option. The most effective teachers are the ones that were actually trained to be a teacher, that know about the best teaching methods, and can explain things like grammar in a better way than my ‘I don’t know, we just say things that way’ when explaining Dutch. ChinaTalk’s Jessica doesn’t only have 10 years of experience in teaching students of different ages and academic levels, she also did a university study, including two master’s degrees, to obtain a formal teachers certification.
  • Using the services of a trained and certified Chinese teacher (who doesn’t necessarily have to be Chinese by birth) will greatly improve your progress. A teacher can help you practice what you learned in real-life situations, challenge you to persevere and push your own boundaries during the many times you will be frustrated. A teacher can also point out where you make recurring mistakes in grammar and pronunciation.
  • As we’ve pointed out, learning Chinese takes a long time; an estimated three times as long as a Western European language. Whatever language proficiency you are aiming for, if you keep a low pace, it will take months or years before you reach your goal. When your hours studying are too far between, a lot of gained knowledge will evaporate. Therefore, we suggest you try to spend half an hour to an hour studying every day. Refer to the discussed estimated required study hours for reaching your desired proficiency levels, divide it by your planned study time per day, and you have an indication of how fast you will reach your goal.
  • We understand that reaching your goal by only taking private lessons will require a significant budget and might be a show-stopper for you. Or if it would mean that you have to limit the number of lessons per month it would seriously slow you down, especially if you do not have an employer (partially) paying for you. Therefore, we suggest that you take a hybrid approach with a lot of self-study and have additional private lessons with a teacher to supplement this and practice what you have learned. Several of our students take this approach and have weekly or bi-weekly lessons. Note though that to make this work you need a lot of self-discipline and diligence towards your self-study. This is not an approach for slackers or procrastinators.

Think of learning Chinese as a project and apply a variant of the project management triangle.

The quality of your learning is limited by your proficiency goal (A1 – C2), available resources (self-study time and budget for tools and private lessons), and time (the deadline by which you want to reach your goal). Changes to any of these three factors mean that the other factors need to change as well to maintain the quality of learning (the surface of the triangle).

If you want to have a shorter deadline but still want to meet your proficiency goals, you will need to increase your resources by putting in more self-study time and/or investing in private lessons. Some of our students have done this by investing in an intensive full-week course that helps them speed up. Another option is adjusting your proficiency goal, for instance by settling for A2 instead of B1.

If you want to aim for a higher proficiency you need to adjust your deadline and/or resources accordingly.

If you have fewer resources (e.g. study time per week) you either need to lower your proficiency goal if the deadline is fixed or set a later deadline when you won’t settle for a lower proficiency. Etcetera.

We hope the insights and advice in these three articles have helped you set goals, given you a better understanding of what learning Chinese requires, and help you to start learning with the right expectations regarding the investment in time and budget you might need.

If you have any remaining questions or are interested in trying out Jessica’s private lessons, feel free to contact us.