So How Long Does It Take?

You might be wondering, “how long does it take to master Mandarin?” Factor in your reason for learning, dedication and goal, and this will guide you. However, don’t underestimate the road ahead.

When you are about to embark on a new project, a time estimate is an essential part of the planning process. How long would it take to see the whole thing through? You want to know. When have I reached the goal? Ideally, that magic moment is somewhere close enough, in the foreseeable future. This would enable you to envision yourself having finally achieved it. Which, incidentally, happens also to be the best way to keep you motivated, thus increasing the odds for a successful outcome.

So, here is a bit of advice for those of you, just starting off on the wonderful journey of learning Mandarin. Please, please, please, be realistic when setting up your goals! By now, I’ve seen too many prospective students of the language giving up all too soon, just because they find their goal of fluency receding further and further into the future. Let’s face it, becoming fluent in Mandarin is a long-term, maybe even a life-long project. And once we’ve admitted it, let’s aim for something achievable instead, such as maybe becoming functional in Chinese.

After I put in my five years, however, I realized the sad truth—I had mastered humility, alright, but my Chinese still had a long way to go.

You don’t have to take my word for it, by the way. Lately I’ve been reading about other dedicated Mandarin students’ long and onerous struggles and what they have to say on the subject is quite sobering, you might even say somewhat disheartening.

“When I started learning Chinese, I was horrified to hear that it would take me 10 years to become fluent; 27 years later I’m still working at it…” The quote is a few years old now and belongs to Mark Rowswell, aka Dashan, who has been appearing in Chinese media since 1988. You might have seen the Canadian comedian on TV here, comfortably rapping with his Chinese peers in their best colloquial style and, in that case, you probably think that his words are just a testimony to this amazing person’s humble demeanor rather than the truth. Yet he’s eager to expand: “Some Chinese readers may consider me a role model of sorts, but every day I’m reminded of what I don’t know and how much more there is to learn.”

He’s not the only Western expert on learning Chinese to express that rather gloomy view on achieving fluency in Mandarin. Here’s how David Moser puts it: “The old saying I heard when I first started learning Chinese was, ‘Learning Chinese is a five-year lesson in humility.’ At the time I assumed that the point of this aphorism was that after five years, you will have mastered humility along with Chinese. After I put in my five years, however, I realized the sad truth—I had mastered humility, alright, but my Chinese still had a long way to go.” I certainly have no reason to distrust the professor who’s heading the linguistics department at one of Beijing’s most prestigious universities. Having myself put an undisclosed number of years, albeit not exclusively to the single task of studying Mandarin, I’m nowhere near to being fluent.

So, if real fluency in Mandarin is not the right goal for most of us—industrious human beings that we are, with a few more interests/tasks in life than studying the language—what is it then? What is the level of proficiency that we should be aiming at, more realistically speaking? There isn’t one single answer to this question, I’m afraid. You’ll have to, once again, take a good look at your own reasons for studying the language before you decide. Of course, if your goal is just to put a line on your resume, two years of studies are probably enough to call yourself “fluent” because, to quote the great Dashan again, “Two years is enough to bullshit yourself through a situation in front of non-speakers.”

On the other hand, if your goal is simply to steadily gain a better understanding of the culture and people in this fascinating part of the world, like me you’ll just have to resign to being a life-long student…