Reality Check: Can You Actually Master Mandarin in Six Months?

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Recently I watched a YouTube video (see below) titled “How I Mastered Chinese in 6 Months.” The video has done pretty well – as videos with enticing titles often do – amassing over 100,000 views in a few months.

It begins with a clarification. The vlogger admits that by “mastering” the language she is referring to passing the HSK4 proficiency exam – a significant achievement but somewhat short of basic fluency as I discuss in this blog.

Predictably the video has provoked an online backlash, with some seasoned learners on Twitter pointing out the title is at best grossly misleading, at worst a downright lie. Moreover this is not an isolated example, rather part of a wider genre of content that suggests learning Chinese to a high level in half a year – or even less – is possible.

In another popular post called “How I Learned to Speak Mandarin in 6 Months,” a blogger makes an even bolder claim. Within half a year she went from having no knowledge of Mandarin to being able to speak fluently at the level of an average middle school student.

There are some who claim it’s better to exaggerate the ease and speed at which Chinese can be acquired because this gives learners an incentive to keep studying. I disagree. Many learners who are sold the dream they can master Mandarin quickly give up when the reality doesn’t match their expectations. I think a better approach is to start out with a realistic idea of the time commitment learning Chinese requires.

So how long does it actually take? My thoughts on this are are based on my experience of studying the language for five years, researching what other learners have done and interviewing many highly experienced Mandarin speakers for my podcast. I also refer to the Foreign Service Institute’s language difficulty ranking estimates.

Below, I’ll outline what I think is the best case scenario. However, it’s worth bearing in mind this hypothetical example is extreme and many learners who study at a pace five times as slow will still find the experience highly intensive and challenging.

Suppose a student (let’s call him Bob) is an experienced language learner who has never been exposed to Mandarin before. He uses the best available methods from the start, is solely focussed on studying Mandarin for eight hours a day, is fully immersed in the language environment and has a knack for picking up aspects of pronunciation other students find difficult, such as tones.

Under these rare conditions I think it’s possible for Bob to begin approaching a lower intermediate level of comprehension within 6 months. At this point he will have studied for around 1500 hours – somewhat short of the 2200 study hours which the Foreign Services Institute estimates is necessary for native English speakers to reach general professional reading and speaking proficiency in Chinese.

At the half a year mark polyglot Steve Kaufmann began to labour his way through novels, making out the plot despite encountering a high proportion of unknown words. Bob might start attempting his first novel too and he may also be capable of passing the HSK5 proficiency exam. He should be able to handle most of his day to day needs in Chinese and function in extended conversations, providing comprehensible responses to fairly simple questions while making many mistakes.

As soon as the topic ventures into unknown territory, however, Bob’s comprehension skills will fall off a cliff. A lot of TV and radio content will remain immensely challenging and it will be difficult to understand more than the gist of most current affairs radio programmes. Bob should have more luck following the predictable plot of a romantic TV drama.

But if he’s honest with himself he will admit he’s nowhere close to “mastering” Chinese.

Continuing at the same extreme pace, a more gratifying level of fluency can be reached after 12 months. Bob will speak clearly and have no issue making himself understood for most ideas he wants to communicate. He will still make many mistakes and his use of words will sometimes be awkward and unnatural.

Bob will be able to read some modern novels without much difficulty, watch popular movies without losing the plot and might pass the HSK6 proficiency exam. However, he will continue to struggle when it comes to a huge range of topics all educated native speakers have little difficulty comprehending, from nature documentaries to the news.

In short, in the best case scenario – so rare as to be practically irrelevant to the circumstances of most learners – it’s possible to reach a solid intermediate level in Mandarin – somewhere between B1 and a B2 – within a year.

While Bob would be justified in claiming to be fluent it would remain a stretch to say he’d mastered Chinese.

If Bob’s pronunciation is on point, a further year or two might even be enough to make his speaking skills in daily life and on familiar topics seem almost indistinguishable from a native speaker. At this point many people might consider Bob’s level more than sufficient for their needs.

However, Bob will still struggle to express himself on many topics outside of everyday life which would pose no problem at all for him in English, for example popular science and current affairs. Moreover a stricter definition of “mastery” would require comprehension skills approaching those of an educated native speaker. How long, then, would it take to achieve this level?

Here it becomes more difficult to put a time frame on it, though it’s certainly not possible to achieve within a brief period. I estimate that reaching a point where a student can switch on the TV and understand all content – including the news – with an ease rivalling that of an educated native speaker may require over a decade of fully immersed study.

Bob would need many years to acquire enough cultural and historical awareness (as well as knowledge of classical Chinese) to catch up with native speakers who have, after all, been through a rigorous and demanding education system.

A further problem for Bob is that formal Chinese vocabulary used by news anchors differs significantly from everyday Mandarin – far more so than in English. The highly experienced polyglot Vladimir Skultety reports that it took him a full eight to nine years of intensive learning before he was able to understand Chinese news comfortably.

Even at his current level Skultety remains humble enough to admit he hasn’t yet mastered Chinese. In a video posted on his YouTube channel he explains that despite holding a C2 (higher advanced) language certificate he remains far away from his goal of approaching native like spoken proficiency.

There are of course examples of foreign Chinese speakers who have reached something like native proficiency in all areas of the language. The most famous case may be the Canadian comedian 大山. In fact many of my Chinese friends tell me he expresses himself better than the average educated native speaker. Perhaps he can provide us with an answer.

大山 began learning Chinese in 1984 and has continued improving right to the present day. Therefore if we use him as a benchmark we can conclude that it takes 38 years to master the Chinese language.

But the real answer, of course, is that nobody – not even native speakers – ever fully masters Chinese. Part of the beauty of taking on the language is that there is always more to learn. More vocabulary, more dialects, a deeper knowledge of classical Chinese.

In the long run, embracing this fact – rather than searching for tempting quick fixes – is the psychologically healthier and more sustainable option.

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10 Thoughts

  1. I read this whole thing as if it was a very detailed “be like Bob” meme, haha.

    As a beginner I don’t find it at all helpful when people overstate the ease of learning Mandarin. At points when you feel demoralised the last thing you want to hear is “oh but it’s actually not that hard”

    1. Haha thanks Esther. Are you any good at creating memes? If you create a Be Like Bob one I promise I’ll make it the lead picture to go with the blog XD.

    2. Clayton Davis says:

      To be fair, I think the people who say that are often unaware of how much they don’t know. They’ve had a few easy victories and haven’t yet faced a real challenge yet. You don’t know how much you really know until you have actually faced a tough problem.

      1. I actually think one of the issues is they **haven’t** had easy victories. Getting to a genuine higher elementary/ lower intermediate level in Mandarin really does take quite a lot of work. More than most imagine. So those who get there often feel like they’ve already done the hard work and make videos about how they climbed to the summit of the mount everest of languages that is Mandarin Chinese. .

  2. Clayton Davis says:

    After studying for about the same number of hours each day for 5 months, Benny Lewis was tested by a language school as having B1 in speaking. I think your analysis is pretty spot on. It’s really hard to say when you’ve “mastered” a language. I’ve studied Mandarin for more than a quarter of a century including using it in my job for the past 16 years, but I still don’t quite feel like I’ve quite “mastered” it. I think the Chinese people I know who have worked in a mostly English language environment for as long or longer than I have feel more or less the same about their English.

    1. Thanks for your comment Clayton. I’m curious, would you say you feel you feel you’ve “mastered” Mandarin as a passive skill, i.e. your reading and listening skills rival a native speaker? Or is it both active and passive you don’t feel you’ve “mastered”?

  3. Great article, Mischa!

    There are so many variables that influence language learning that quantifying it and attempting to put a cap on it is impossible. Even among natives, people’s understanding of language and experience with it varies. I don’t consider my English vocabulary to be that vast, but I have spoken to people, other English natives, who have told me that I sometimes use words they aren’t familiar with, a likely result of my reading hobby which they do not share.

    I think it’s best to just have language goals and do your best to work towards them without worrying too much about the time it takes.

    1. Thanks Lei Lei. I completely agree. As someone who would like to learn other languages in future (Basque, Italian, Greek…) too I think it will make it hard for me to know when to stop and move on to something new. There is never a point at which one is finaly satisfied with one’s level. There’s always so much more to learn. Of course this is not a dilemma I will face for a long time yet as my current level of comprehension is not close to a level where I’d even consider the question of moving on.

  4. Another interesting post, thanks Mischa. I often wish my husband was studying Mandarin, or even better, was a native Mandarin speaker! If I could speak a lot of Mandarin at home, I know I would improve more quickly. I think immersion is an amazing way to learn another language. Anyway, the way I’ll know when I’m fluent is when a Mandarin speaker enjoys speaking Mandarin with me without it being a burden to them to work out what I’m saying or having to repeat themselves all the time.

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