A newbie's opinion about the ''Mandarin can't be learned unless you invest 20 years of study'' comments

January 21, 2012, 07:28 PM posted in General Discussion


I would like to post a little message to all those newbies out there who, like me, are just starting to learn mandarin. And to anyone who might be interested in hearing my point of view (we never know) on the so-many-comments, going something like this : ''if you do not live in China for at least two-three years, if you do not study mandarin for 6-8 hours per day, and if you are not living in China'' then you might never achieve a ''fluent'' stage of learning, and/or it might take you 20 years to reach the ''elementary'' level.

Now, this is just my opinion, and my own reflexions on the matter, and in no regards do I see it as ''THE'' truth. But this is what I came up with. For me, reading that it might take me up to 20 years to reach a level that I consider ''acceptable'', was quite discouraging. As much as I love China, as well as the chinese culture, the language and the oh-so-beautiful writting system, just as much as I might be ''young'' (26 years old), twenty years -are- A LOT of time. More so since I won't have the time to go to China for a full year for quite some years, as I am in medical school, and don't quite have the flexibility to take ''a year off'' (nor could I practice medicine in China latter on!). For some days I considered simply dropping the matter, and accept I might never learn mandarin. But something didn't feel right.

Truthfully, learning a new language, more so such a different language as mandarin, is a long-term goal. We're living in an era where everything needs to go fast, and obtain almost immediately. I want that new tv? no problem! put it on the credit card. But, there are not Visas for learning. Thus the frustration when learning you might not speak correct mandarin right away, but MAYBE if you're good, after two years or so.

And, more importantly, learning a language TAKES TIME. Speaking french as a first language, and living in Montreal where french and english co-exist, I know something about it. Though my father introduced me to english at quite a young age, firmly believing that the more languages you speak the better, I have not started really putting efforts into learning a second language up until I was 12 years old. Since that time, my english has improved tremendously, I read almost only in english, I rarely watch tv in french as I prefer english tv shows, I go to the movies in english, etc. I consider myself bilingual, but in no way do I consider myself as good as a ''native''. And I've been ''studying'' engilsh for 16 years now! I've been living in a city where english and french coexist every day and where I can easily practice/hear/read the language.

Realizing that, how could you, really, expect to learn to speak perfect mandarin in less than 20 years? Especially in a culture where the art of speaking and writting is even more praised, complex, and important than in the french culture? Comparing it with the time it took me to achieve a ''fluent'' english level (with half my family speaking english as their first language, in a city where english is spoken sometimes more than french) the it-will-take-you-20-years simply makes sense. Learning mandarin is not impossible, nor does it take tremendously more time than any other language out there. Of course it might be slightly harder at first, with the tones and the grammar being different, etc. But that is normal. And it is okay. Because, really, this is the way things are. It takes time. That is the beauty of it.

Though I sometimes dream we could do like in the Matrix and simply load the data ;).

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January 22, 2012, 03:26 AM

You wrote a lot, and i'm not quite sure what your final position is. I think I agree with you; mandarin doesn't need 20 years to be learned. It helps that there don't seem to be consistent standards/agreements about what it means to be "fluent".

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' it-will-take-you-20-years simply makes sense'

I think they actually came down on the side of it needing 20 years (although who actually says this?) They say that it took them something like that for English so why shouldn't it take a similar length of time for Chinese. Their first language is French so that could be part of the reason you are unsure of their point.

But you're right - what does it take 20 years to do?

Incidentally - I left a post here some time ago and it has completely DISAPPEARED. Sounds like the old days...

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It seems noz-inthesky posted this twice - once here and once in the general discussion thread. Your post is in the other one.

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Ok, then I guess I disagree? Although i'm noticing that when I first started learning Chinese, If someone said I would spend 3 years in China, I would have thought my Chinese would have been great, I'd be able to watch almost all Chinese language TV programs, and understand 90% of the content, and when people talk to me in the street, i'm understand 90% of what they say. Reality is that, after almost 3 years in China, I understand most introductory conversations, and I understand what the taxi driver says most of the time. But I understand 1% or less of 喜洋洋与灰太狼,中国新闻,and other Chinese programs. I hope this doesn't take 10 years....

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How much time have you spent everyday studying chinese? how much time do you spend speaking in chinese everyday?

If you dont improve your chinese on a daily basis then you do not progress. The chinese gov defines fluency in chinese as 6000 ish words. Learn 10 new words per day for 2 years and you exceed their requirements.

How many words have you been learning for the last 3 years? i bet its not 10 per day

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I learn 10 new words a day everyday, and forget 9 of them the next day. I've been doing this for ten years. Also, language is not just words, but also how to use them, and which words to combine in which context. So, if someone can manage to become fluent in Chinese in two years, I really envy them, but this person is not me.

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Time living in china and years spent studying both seem like pretty unreliable predictors of language level....if you live in china and spend all your time using the language, avoid English almost entirely, and present yourself with progresivly difficult language challenges, you will obviously progress fast. But if you are, say, teaching English for a good part of the day, or working in an English speaking office environment, then you will likely be outpaced by someone in america watching Chinese tv or reading all day, taking classes, and spending their free time with a large group of Chinese students studying at their university.

And years studying are only a small part of the picture, 1 hour a day for 20 years is the equivalent time of someone studying 10 hours a day for 2 years...and in truth 10 hours a day for 1 year would likely beat the 1 hour a day 20 years guy, with the benefits of immersion and less time needed to review maintain. Tortoise and the hare seems to work the other way with language study.

But actually an hour a day is pretty good...someone who studies a couple of hours a week, seems likely to cap out around an intermediate level, with almost all their time just achieving maintaence and little to no progress. And Chinese is significantly harder and more time consuming than western languages.

I'm also not 100 percent certain what the original poster's stance is, but I think for someone who studies a couple of hours a week, there probably isn't much difference between ten years of study or twenty years.

That having been said, I don't think you have to quit your job and full time study to learn Chinese well, but you have to creatively find ways to expand your study time. Listen to audio reviews during your commute, while working out, while using the bathroom, while showering, while in a waiting room waiting for a meeting to start. Switch your recreational tv watching to Chinese tv, at first it will be hard but you'll slowly get the hang of it. Make friends with Chinese people in your city, and find old classmates that are chinese and start talking to them on the phone. Most important,mswitch your internal thinking to Chinese, use Chinese to plan your day, think about what you will say to someone the next day, imagine random things, etc.

Most people should be able to squeeze an extra 2 or 3 hours out of each day in this way, and likely more. although some of this time won't be as effective as pure focused study, it will provide some benefit, and serve a valuable review function saving your formal study time for learning new things.

If you adopt that kind of method, and achieve a good 25 or so hours a week of study, then you should reach a pretty good level fairly quickly, and are unlikely to ever get stuck.

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Such a great post.

I think the only reason I check comments, these days, is to read Tim's posts :)

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Thats why you use Spaced Repetition so you wont forget the ten words you learned yesterday

I really doubt you've been learning 10 words per day for 10 years on a consistent basis. That would mean you've studied somewhere in the range of 36,500 words, which is more than most native speakers know.

Look up Spaced Repetition Software, which actually works. If you use spaced repetition you will not forget what you have learned over the course of 2 years. Especially if its supplemented with a textbook or other materials that further use what you've learned.

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I don't know anyone who is remotely close to fluent in Chinese who (predominately) credits srs.

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Thanks iaing, that's really nice of you to say :)

I agree about srs - it doesn't seem time efficient at all. Instead your review should be achieved by normal listening or reading, where every second you are exposed to and thus reviewing many, many words. Maybe some appropriately spacing principle should apply to when to review a given dialogue, but reviewing words 1 by 1 is definitally a losing proposition.

Though actually, if one watches a tv show, or reads a novel, the writer(s) will tend to have favorite phrases and words very distinguishable from other writers, so watching or reading from start to finish will probably ensure you get good repeated exposure sufficient to learn all of these.

But really as long as you find level appropriate material, and are learning words appropriate to your level, then you will get a constant review naturally from constant listening. the cpod dialogues from studied lessons or textbook dialogues on a cycle are fairly good at the beginning, later you can rip the audio off a bunch of favorite tv shows. but eventually listening to the same things will get less useful and less interesting, so it's always a search. Most recently I stumbled upon a great product, 650+ dialogues, each 5 to 10 minutes long, covering historical topics in both Chinese and world history, and transcripts of each included (through probably most useful just to listen). Language is natural, vocabulary is varied, just really a great product, at about 5 cents in us dollars per dialogue.


But really, almost anything is best than trying to review words on at a time. That's perhaps fine for the very initial stage of learning them, but once you've reviewed a just learned word 2 or 3 times in th initial couple of days after learning it, you should never waste time reviewing in islolation again. If your listening and reading materials never cause you to run into it naturally, then it isn't time to learn that word yet.

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Tingyun, thanks, as always, for your sound advice.

I haven't quite made it to your 25 hour a week standard, more like a solid 15 hours, or so. Otherwise, my method is pretty close to what you recommend. I still seem to be improving, but it is hard to measure at what rate.

Maxdec120, it really has been ten years, and I try to cover enough material to expose me to 60 or 70 words and phrases that I am not familiar with every week. None-the-less, my mind is a rather leaky basket. I started knowing absolutely no Chinese. Now, I can usually follow the lesson banter in CPod's Media and advanced lessons, but not catch every word. Reading comprehension is a little better than that. Speaking ability is the slowest to progress.

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Several points:

1. SRS is relatively unknown when you consider the scope of all the 2nd language learners in the world

2. After a certain point SRS becomes unnessecary because your reminded of information within the environment (reading, watching movies, music) etc.

3. SRS has given many people fluency in a language such as the all japanese all the time blog, the inventor of supermemo (a memory program) also has a huge english vocabulary (his native language is ukranian) because of SRS

@tingyun I agree SRS should NOT be used forever, however you need to get yourself up to a certain level. I am a living testimony for SRS, I can read a large amount of basic chinese and understand it - where as before remembering a few symbols was damn near impossible.

I would LOVE to be able to read chinese books and use that to learn chinese - but theres a problem. Its still all nonsense to me. Im using the NPRC to get me up to that level but you DO need something to get you up there - just forcing your brain to remember every word as you try to translate each sentence leads to demotivation, at least it did for me.

Some words you learn and are not repeated for a long time, this causes you to forget them. Using SRS plus a textbook and chinese pod make the learning process easier, faster and more efficient for me


Its not your mind, its any persons mind who either lacks strong encoding or repetition.

There are basically two aspects to memory, encoding and repetition.

The second one im sure you already know about. Encoding is about how you remember an item in the first place. Even though certain things have happened a long time ago you can still recall them.

For example do you remember your first kiss? Or perhaps where you were when you found out about 911?

These kinds of memories are easy to access because of how they are encoded. What you can do to increase your ability to recall words is first:

1. Learn how to "learn" in a way that makes it easy to remember

2. Go on a scheduled repetition program that will prevent you from forgetting.

If you look up ebbinghauses forgetting curve or pimsleurs PhD thesis you will find that you forget at a very predictable rate. Scientists can almost tell you exactly when you will forget what you have learned.

Because they know this, they can also tell you almost exactly when you must review the words you have learned so that they remain in your memory.

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Agree that for a certain period of time flash card type one by one review is nessecary to get a basic level - but I rather think this is a very short period. A learner simply has to be good about finding appropriate reading material (listening material is relativly easy to select for food users, just use dialogues). But it's not too hard - when I was first learning, I used this series of four textbooks (link to vol 1 below)


Starts very simple dialogues, slowly builds you up. If I remember correctly, the first volume has full pinyin under each charecter, the second jut hs tone marks on the charecter to help remind, and the last two just the charecters. They build up slowly but surely in level....at any rate I imagine it's similar to many readers, but this is the only one I used.

Again, I'd suggest retreading the stories every once in awhile - I'm not against spacing out review, that's obviously right, but one by one review of words is sooooo time inefficient I'd get myself off it as quickly as possible.

Oh, and if really a word is so rarely occurring in your current reading material to make learning difficult, that's a good sign you aren't ready to learn that word. Eventually, if the word is important for what you want to read, your reading material will advance in level or breadth to give you sufficient exposure. There are plenty of words common to your current type of reading material left to learn (or else you should advance change) so focus on them, you'll spend an enormous amount of time for little gain trying to learn others too early.

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Its not inefficient because your only shown the words when you need to see them. You see the word precisely when you need to see it in order to retain it - allowing you to save time to acquire new vocabulary and learn at a faster rate.

Anyways everyones got their own flavour for learning languages. Mine was based on the parato principle - there are a select few chinese words which are used in most conversations and print material.

There may be hundreds of thousands of chinese words, but only 6000 or so are nessecary for fluency as defined by the chinese govt.

So if you can master those words, you more or less are fluent in chinese. The point was, find an effective way to learn those words (speaking, hearing, reading, and writing), and you are 90% of the way there.

This goes back to the idea that it doesnt take 20 years to master chinese. Learn 10 words per day for 2 years and have a system for retaining the information and you will hit fluency.

SRS is a scientifically proven way to retain information, and is one of many options for doing so.

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The inefficiency comes from the limitied nature of what you are training, and the slow speed of review.

Byy reviewing words one by one in such a program, you are not training your ability to read or listen in a natural context, and you are not getting exposure to grammar and usage. That's the limited benefit. Mastering any list of words is not fluency or mastering the language - size of vocab is just one small part of a large range of skills, which ideally should be trained together.

The slow speed is an even bigger problem. Words pops up, you think about it, check answer...sounds quick, but even if you proceed at a fairly fast pace you are looking at several seconds per word, and likely many people go through more slowly.

Compare to listening - you'll probably get 10-20 words in that time, even at nerbie sloooooww speach speeds youll be getting 5 or so, and it quickly picks up. Now to reading, at first you might have a fairly slow reading speed, but you'll still likely get a word in every second, so it will still be faster by several times. But the important point is, you will be training your reading speed, and before long you'll be up to the same 10-20 words. And then you'll slowly become even faster at reading than most people speak. That's the point about the broader benefit of training oneself to read rather than just check recognition of charecters, but even at the beginning you have a significant speed advantage.

The inefficiency of srs is even more evident given your stated goals. Someone needing to memorize a long list of obscure medicinial plant names, well they probably have an argument for srs (a little hard to come up with great reading material). But if your goal is to learn the commonly used words you will often encounter...well, just listen and read and you will, not surprisingly, encounter them often.;)

You are right that everyone has their own methods of learning - but that doesn't mean many of these methods aren't wasting valuable time. There is attraction of a method that claims science and certainty and order to it, but really the truth is, language learning at its most effective is chaotic and natural.

That's not to say there isn't a lot of good thought that needs to be put into planning learning material, but rather that volume of exposure is of paramount importance, and the planning should be around constantly adjusting the level, genre, and format of the exposure. The principles and science behind srs is not what I'm disagreeing with - if I was writing a language textbook I'd use srs principles to repeat vocabulary throughout the lessons of my text, and as a learner I constantly alternate my genres, and go back and review, based on a similar, though of course much less precise, understanding howard review is warranted. But to restrict exposure to language to such a slow rate, and confine the review to words in isolation, is unjustified except when initially learning a charecter during the first day or two. In summary, It's the one by one isolated review nature of these sorts of programs, that make them such a bad idea, not the srs reasoning itself.

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Naturally you dont do SRS by itself, SRS is a method of retaining info not a language learning course. This is why I do speak, read, write and talk in chinese.

As someone whos tried to use textbooks on their own and then textbook + SRS I have found it infinitely easier.

SRS is a tool in the tool box, its not THE tool. If you ask me its most important to speak and use the language until its natural. I find my vocab goes through various stages

1. Recognizing the word when its heard

2. Actively knowing the word as a part of my chinese vocabulary

3. Actively using the word and speaking with it as a normal part of conversation

I am all for everything your saying, using books, graded readers, etc. After trying to do that originally and finding myself:

1. Unmotivated

2. Frustrated

3. Forgetting the words the next week

I added SRS into the mix to help retain the info, so when I go back to review lessons im not starting back at square one and become demotivated.

Now when I use all of the good things you have just talked about I find myself going through the texts with far greater ease and being highly motivated because its no longer a struggle to advance in my textbooks.

Like I said using SRS is not some magic pill, its just a tool in my toolbox that ive added in addition to using audios, talking, reading, and writing. Its just there to assist with the learning process, not replace it.

I just find it easier to read or listen to a lesson and then put it into SRS to remind me of it and keep it in my long term memory. I find my fluency and my motivation increase by having greater mastery of the information.

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You've clearly put a great deal of thought into what works best in your studies, and been adjusting accordingly, all great things, and a sign that you will likely be very successfull in your pursuit of language mastery.

One thing to clarify - It was clear that you weren't arguing for srs review as an exclusive language learning program, but regardless of the proportion of ones language program it occupies, every activity needs to be justified on principles of time efficiency and benefit. And every activity stands to be replaced by other activities (ie reviewing a previously studied cod lessn by listening to its dialogue or reading over its transcript vs putting it into a srs flashcard databases, or, if currently doing both, instead simply doing 1 of the two for twice as much time). How that evaluation and comparison comes out, we clearly have different opinions.

I think we have probably debated this to the extent useful (at least, I've already expressed all the arguments and thoughts I have on the matter). So I'll bow out of the debate and wish everyone good luck with all their Chinese studies,

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Yes I understand your opinion, you have some very interesting points and I am deeply considering everything you have said.

I am all about time efficiency

Thanks for your thoughts

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June 10, 2012, 11:27 AM

My daughter is 10 years old and goes to Orlando Chinese School once a week for 2 hours of Chinese class. She started in that school at 5 years old for 4 years and the following is the process:

Young Beginner (1st Year): expressions, phrases, songs and games.

Zhu Yin (Traditional) & Pin Yin (Simplified) phonetics. Some children skip this grade but this is very important.

1st Grade: learning to read and write the Chinese characters.

2nd Grade: speaking, sentences, vocabulary.

She is in the Simplified Chinese stream and got an "A" but did not make it to the top 2 of the class. There were many children who speak Mandarin at home and did extremely well in the tests (99% or 100% test scoresning any language is time consuming but worth the efforts, and Chinese Pod is an excellent resource. Hope this helps.