A newbie's point of view on the oh-so-popular : ''learning mandarin will take you at least 20 years'' comments

January 21, 2012, 07:40 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 be obtained almost immediately. you want a 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 21, 2012, 11:23 PM

Hi noz-inthesky

Thanks for posting, I enjoyed your little piece. It has a twist at the end that I found surprising. From the headline I thought that you might have discovered a Matrix-like solution and had learnt Chinese overnight. 

I would not have thought that the statement 'learning Mandarin will take you at least 20 years' is 'oh so popular' though; I have got the opposite impression. It seems that everyone has the 'learn fast' solution. I particularly like the popular text book called 'Learn Chinese Before You Land'. 

Anyway, good luck with your learning. And I'm sure you could practice in China. It seems that it is quite common for western doctors to get short-term work in China, and of course there are many Western doctors working long term in the country. 

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Well there are various definitions of "fluent" and there are a few accelerators (immersion, Chinese significant other, being language gifted, and 100% university study for example) but I have long ago accepted that it will take ME 20 years or more. But so what? Every day adds value to what I have and I enjoy doing it. The sad truth is that no one ever matches native fluency in a second language, unless they learn very young. I would be happy if I could:

1.carry on confidently in a social conversation

2. understand Xi Yang Yang on TV

3. read the newspaper

but I doubt I will ever completely reach my goal nor will I ever stop trying. If I do reach it I will simply raise the bar and continue. That's the plan and time will tell. Knowledge is never a waste of time. We all know a few talented "young Turks" that have become functionally literate in 5 years or less but these folks were 100% committed, immersed, and studying in formal classes as well. Learning and teaching Chinese was their chosen vocation. In no way can I match that living in the US studying part time. So, how long does it take? How much time do you have? Hell, I'm still learning English.

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January 22, 2012, 06:48 PM

As someone who has been studying Chinese for over 20 years here is my own experience:

1.  Learning enough Chinese to have rudimentary conversations with native speakers took me just a year of intense study (in Taiwan).  My Chinese wasn't really very good at that time, but Chinese people were surprised I could do it all.  This level made it possible for me to make many Chinese friends, have interesting conversations, learn about China, etc.

2. After a second year in Taiwan and university study I had learned enough to pass the U.S. military Chinese language test.  For anyone interested in working for the government using Chinese, I recommend giving yourself 2-3 years of intense study to get ready.

3.  After that first year progress was much slower.  I think my Chinese continues to improve (especially thanks to Chinese pod), but I am still very far from where I want to be, even after 20 years.  The main thing is to keep practicing!  Try to find chances to use the new words/phrases that you have learned.

4.  From the start I worked really hard on reading, spending hours a day with newspapers, dictionary, and flash cards.  After about 5-7 years reading reached the point that I could guess the meaning of the words I didn't know.  One of the biggest challenges is Chinese names.  I wasted a lot of time trying to look up names in the dictionary.  Today, 23 years after I started I am still always looking up words.  I expect I will be till the day I die. But I very much enjoy reading in Chinese.

I think that to succeed a person has to enjoy the "process" of learning Chinese.  If you enjoy listening to dialogues and memorizing sentences, spending hours alone with a Chinese text, a dictionary and your flash cards, then you will probably make it.

One thing that is different now is the wide variety of study materials available.  When I started there wasn't much.  Now there are Chinese lanuage pod casts, Chinese books that can be purchased over the internet, Chinese language new broadcasts (VOA is good), Skype conversation partners, etc.  And of course Chinese Pod is great!  I try to spend at least 30-45 minutes a day on the site.

It can be done and you will be glad to put in the effort.  But it will take time.