How many hours should I study to achieve a near-native standard in Mandarin Chinese?
March 16, 2013 10:40 AM   Subscribe

How many hours should I study to achieve a near-native standard in Mandarin Chinese? How many hours to study over 2-3 years?

Hello,

I was wondering if anyone on here who had good Mandarin Chinese skills could advise me how many hours I will need to study over the next 2 years, to get to a good enough standard to then achieve near-native proficiency in China with a 1-year scholarship? At the moment I'm studying New Practical Chinese Reader book 3, covering about 1 chapter every 2 weeks.

I study between 15 and 30 hours a week. Is this enough to get the near-native standard I'm aiming for? If not, how many hours should I aim to study?

Thanks for any advice on the above.
posted by Musashi Daryl to Education (20 answers total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
 
Studying will never be sufficient, on its own, to speak any language fluently. Literally the only thing that will do that is frequent conversation in the language. The best way to do this would be to move somewhere that the language is spoken natively. If that's not practical, look for local conversation groups.
posted by kavasa at 10:44 AM on March 16, 2013 [6 favorites]


Should have phrased that better: find a local conversation group and attend as often as possible.
posted by kavasa at 10:46 AM on March 16, 2013 [1 favorite]


I suggest you to use the HSK (Chinese TOEFL test) vocabulary list which classifies characters and words into 6 levels as a complement to what you are learning now. What I've done is to download the premade flashcard deck off Quizlet and import it in Anki with English as the prompt and Chinese as the answer. The app asks you whether you knew the character and increases or decreases the interval of the next review accordingly.

I find this to be indispensable in order to retain how the characters are written.

I'm currently on my smartphone but I'd gladly tell you in depth how I learned Chinese.
There's a famous French tv guy in china that speaks Chinese fluently and it's very impressive, his name is Julien Gaudfroy.
posted by lite at 11:01 AM on March 16, 2013


When I lived in Japan and worked in a Japanese workplace surrounded by Japanese I studied 8 hours a day, every day, seven days a week (this was before kids). It took me a year to go from low-intermediate to "advanced" (ability to read the newspaper).

But I studied like mad, and used more than just textbooks.
posted by KokuRyu at 11:03 AM on March 16, 2013


The U.S. Foreign Service Institute divides languages into four categories:

-world (a.k.a. easy) languages
-slightly harder languages
-hard languages
-super-hard languages.

They define full-time study as 25 hours of classroom instruction and 15 hours of self-study a week (5 hours in the classroom and 3 hours on homework a day).

"Fluency" is usually defined as a 3/3 Interagency Language Roundtable Score.

Mandarin falls into the category of super-hard languages—FSI estimates that it takes 88 weeks or 2200 classroom hours to reach a 3/3.

If you are going to be studying Mandarin full-time in China for 52 weeks, that means you need to cover 36 weeks of full-time study—or 900 classroom hours and 540 hours of self-study—before you start that year.

Of course, none of these numbers are an exact science. A motivated or talented student can go faster than these numbers suggest.

You can read more about FSI's estimated time for learning different languages here.
posted by whitewall at 11:34 AM on March 16, 2013 [8 favorites]


Great work, guys. Thanks for all the advice.

I'd be interested in hearing any more information people have.
posted by Musashi Daryl at 11:40 AM on March 16, 2013


15-30 hours is a decent number, but it's more about how you study than how much you study. I'm not familiar with that particular textbook, but if you're studying that much and only making it through a chapter every 2 weeks, I think something is off with your approach. Have you had any formal instruction, or are you trying to do this on your own? (I'm not suggesting that formal study is a requirement by any means, and it's definitely not sufficient on its own, but it can be helpful.)

Studying is important, and you should do lots of it. But Kavasa is right - you have to have to have to talk to actual humans as early and often as possible. I studied Chinese in university for three or four years and I was still basically useless when I got off the plane in Beijing.

Actual human practice is especially important with Chinese, as one of the most difficult aspects is the tone system, which you're not going to learn how to hear from a book.

Verbling looks neat for instant language practice opportunities. There are inexhaustible supplies of Chinese and Taiwanese people looking for Skype language exchange partners on mylanguagexchange.com, too. You can pay for reasonably-priced tutoring sessions on italki if you aren't confident enough to start in on regular folks.

Another thing I have found helpful - I'm doing this with Spanish right now, but I've done it with Chinese before - is create a language bubble. Put your computer operating system in Chinese. If you want to watch TV, watch a Taiwanese soap opera on Hulu. Look for Chinese-language alternatives to the sites you read every day. Whatever kind of music you listen to, look for Chinese artists who work in that genre. Pretend, as much as possible, that you're living in a world where English-language media is not available. Put yourself in positions where you're forced to learn to accomplish tasks.

Chinese is a difficult language to do this with, sometimes, since you can't sound out words as you read (although you can get close sometimes as you learn enough characters for the system to make sense). But try at least to muscle through an article or blog post a day in a topic that you're interested in. Always be on the hunt for vocabulary to add to the collection of homebrew flashcards you should be amassing (and whipping out of your back pocket to study whenever you've got a minute of downtime).

You don't have to understand every word of what you read and hear - getting the gist is OK! Aim for a messy, imperfect, functional use of the language with practice, and clean up the details with book study.

It is totally possible to get where you want to get with that kind of study load, but plodding through a textbook isn't going to cut it on its own.
posted by zjacreman at 11:41 AM on March 16, 2013 [1 favorite]


I am afraid that "near-native proficiency" is an unrealistically high bar that enthusiastic language learners set for themselves. Even in the language where I have been taken as a native speaker, I would not say that I have near-native proficiency. I just say, "I speak it well".

With dedicated study, I think that you could get to B2 level on the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR) if you make studying Chinese your full-time job (or pretty close to it). The B2 level is "upper intermediate" as is described as:

* Can understand the main ideas of complex text on both concrete and abstract topics, including technical discussions in his/her field of specialization.
* Can interact with a degree of fluency and spontaneity that makes regular interaction with native speakers quite possible without strain for either party.
* Can produce clear, detailed text on a wide range of subjects and explain a viewpoint on a topical issue giving the advantages and disadvantages of various options

This is nowhere near "near-native proficiency" but is frankly much farther along than most language learners ever get. If you can pass Level 6 of the HSK, which is the highest level, you will be at about a B2 level, which is a vocabulary of 5,000 words. This report estimates this level could be reached in 1,200 to 1,600 of classroom study plus private study time.

In addition to the recommendations you have received above (I have just recently discovered Verbling and love it), I would also recommend Skritter. It has been a boon for my Chinese and Japanese. I also like Learning With Texts.

Regarding talking to people, I don't recommend that people start having conversations until they have a large enough vocabulary. Otherwise, you will not have much to say. It's worth waiting until you have at least 1,000 lexemes before having conversations. This usually takes a few months before one is at that level. I disagree with the "Fluent in 3 Months" guy who says to speak from day one.
posted by Tanizaki at 12:44 PM on March 16, 2013 [2 favorites]


I just wanted to throw out there that the last textbook I used in my university classes was the New Practical Chinese Reader book 5. I have never used any of the other books in the series but the consensus of my class was that this specific volume was not especially helpful to us in achieving our personal goals, which were mainly related to competency in conversation. My professor told us that the passages were written in a more literary style. The most fluent speakers in our class had many Chinese friends and their progression in the language could be attributed to that much more than anything we studied in class. I was a bit unique in that my primary interest was studying the characters, so to an extent traditional textbooks work for me, but I still think it is a lot more interesting to make use of current Chinese media. I think it might help to clarify your goals and I strongly agree with much of what zjacreman had to say.
posted by themoonfromthesea at 1:37 PM on March 16, 2013


Tanizaki: "If you can pass Level 6 of the HSK, which is the highest level, you will be at about a B2 level, which is a vocabulary of 5,000 words."

The level 6 of the HSK is actually excellent, you must have mistaken the German B2 for the actual CEFR B2. Level 6 is equivalent of the C2 which is according to the wikipedia article you've linked:

* Can understand with ease virtually everything heard or read.
* Can summarise information from different spoken and written sources, reconstructing arguments and accounts in a coherent presentation.
* Can express him/herself spontaneously, very fluently and precisely, differentiating finer shades of meaning even in the most complex situations.

As per what I said in my previous post, I've started learning the reading first, speaking second and writing third. That's a weird way of learning and I'm not sure that it's the best method but after 5 years I'm able to read mainstream Chinese websites such as Sina and talk fluently in Chinese and even understand most Xiangsheng. Writing is my big weakness though, I thought that I'd be able to write if I knew how to read but they're worlds apart.

I started with Chinese 1st grade textbooks a relative bought during a trip to China, no translation whatsoever on the book but there was pinyin. The level is perfectly adequate to someone who has never been in contact with Chinese. I looked each character one by one in a dictionary via their pinyin and noted their translations on the textbook. The most important part was to listen to the audio track and repeat after it, the speaker reads the text as he would read to a class of Chinese students, not a slowed down and over-articulated recording aimed at non-natives. I used to read the same text over 3 times in a row to speak at the same speed as the audio. Again it's different from books written for non-natives, the first few chapters introduce you to the sounds used in Chinese and the following texts are about things such as the sun is yellow, sky is blue... In one word you won't be talking in Chinese for a while.

The texts became more and more interesting as I bought books of 2nd and 3rd grade, up to 5th grade. By then I could read rather well, so I've spent a month with a friend that had family in China. Just like Tanizaki, I also think that speaking becomes really interesting after you have a sufficient level. That summer did wonders to my Chinese, the biggest benefit was that it helped me to become spontaneous for the day to day stuff.

I didn't read much afterwards and worked primarily on comprehension. The good thing with Chinese TV shows is that they're all subtitled because not everyone understand mandarin Chinese. I just paused whenever I met a character I didn't know and looked it up in the dictionary.

This semester I've enrolled in an advanced Chinese class in France and I discovered how bad I was at writing. It was very weird, I'd recognise the character but no picture came to my mind when I hold the pencil. Since then I've loaded up HSK flashcards in Anki, blitzed through the first few levels and learn 20 new cards per day and a hundred a day during holidays. I honestly think that it is the best way to learn how to write the characters.
posted by lite at 1:46 PM on March 16, 2013 [3 favorites]


By the way here's the French guy speaking Chinese that I've mentioned, I 've read somewhere that he worked up to eight hours a day on his Chinese when arrived in China. Listening to him speaking is absolutely amazing!
posted by lite at 2:03 PM on March 16, 2013


It really depends on the person. I have met some people who have studied Chinese for years, lived in China, married Chinese people, and their pronunciation is still awful. Chinese is relatively simple grammar-wise, and learning to read is just a matter of rote memorization, but it's the pronunciation that you need to focus on if you want to achieve a "near-native standard." I think mastering the tones is only half the battle; after all, plenty of Chinese people have nonstandard tones when they speak Mandarin yet they still understand each other. It's really the intonation, almost, or the tone flow of the entire sentence. And I think no amount of self-study will replace in-person practice when it comes to speaking. Most people I know (including myself) are really bad at judging the accuracy of their own pronunciation of foreign languages.

If you don't already have it, I strongly recommend Pleco. It's the one piece of software that has contributed the most to my Chinese. It's a dictionary app, but has a lot of useful features like handwriting recognition, OCR, flashcards, and a reading app. Basically being out and about and not being able to recognize a character is no big deal anymore because you can just quickly handwrite it in or even OCR it.
posted by pravit at 2:31 PM on March 16, 2013


The level 6 of the HSK is actually excellent, you must have mistaken the German B2 for the actual CEFR B2. Level 6 is equivalent of the C2 which is according to the wikipedia article you've linked:

I am afraid I did not. (so far as I know, there is not a German "B2") While I agree that HSK Level 6 is excellent proficiency, Level 6 on the HSK is generally considered to be a B2 level of proficiency on the CEFR scale. The HSK was revised in 2010 and is considerably easier than the old test. Level 6 on the old test might have closer to a C2. The PRC calls HSK Level 6 on the new test C2, but no one else seems to agree with that.

Again, I definitely agree that Level 6 would be an excellent Chinese level, but it would not be "near native standard". I think you get to "near native standard" when natives stop noticing that you're speaking a second language. But as I said in my previous comment, I think that is a bar that eager language learners set for themselves too often.

(since you mentioned writing struggles, definitely give Skritter a try. It's done wonders for my writing)
posted by Tanizaki at 2:57 PM on March 16, 2013 [1 favorite]


I agree that Chinese grammar is fairly simple, but I would also say that actually Chinese pronunciation is also not difficult (unless you are someone who can't master the concept of tones). However, aiming for near-native level in the way you describe is not realistic. In order to do that, you would need to be able to read and write at least one character system, or two if you want to cover both simplified and traditional characters, you'd need to be able to read scribbly hand-writing, you'd need to know a huge number of cultural references (are you ready to study centuries of Chinese literature, politics, history, etc.?), you'd need to know hundreds if not thousands of idiomatic expressions, and you'd need to be able to understand many different strange accents which abound in China. Practically speaking, what would be realistic to aim for is some degree of "fluency" in terms of having good listening comprehension, decent reading skills, OK writing skills (personally I feel in this day and age writing is less important than speaking and reading), and good speaking skills (fluidity when you speak and a good accent). It's not too realistic even to achieve that level of fluency just from studying. Those who have said you would need to spend some time actually living among the population in-country are correct. Unless you are truly some kind of linguistic savant whose brain is wired totally different from 99.9999% of other people (or whatever). One thing that's missing from the replies here, including mine, is a context, and that's because you didn't mention for what purpose you want to achieve near-native fluency.
posted by Dansaman at 3:21 PM on March 16, 2013 [1 favorite]


Tanizaki: "Again, I definitely agree that Level 6 would be an excellent Chinese level, but it would not be "near native standard". I think you get to "near native standard" when natives stop noticing that you're speaking a second language. But as I said in my previous comment, I think that is a bar that eager language learners set for themselves too often."

We're on the same page about the definition of "near native standard". But in my opinion, someone who has a perfect accent and speaks effortless only with HSK6 would not be noticed as a second language speaker. I am not talking about eloquent speech, it could be what you would expect from a 16 years old in a day to day situation.


Dansaman: "I agree that Chinese grammar is fairly simple, but I would also say that actually Chinese pronunciation is also not difficult (unless you are someone who can't master the concept of tones). However, aiming for near-native level in the way you describe is not realistic. In order to do that, you would need to be able to read and write at least one character system, or two if you want to cover both simplified and traditional characters,"

Traditional characters aren't hard recognise once you know the their simplification rules. As for Chinese literature, I'm a big fan of the Romance of the Three Kingdoms, widely available as modern and abridged with pinyin.
posted by lite at 3:34 PM on March 16, 2013


I studied Mandarin for six years at the university and graduate levels, including 2 years of classical Chinese and a semester spent abroad. I can hold a conversation on nearly any topic, within reason (e.g., bicycle or computer repair would be a problem). But because of the way I learned Chinese, many common household words, and lots of other vocabulary that you just don't cover in university courses, I've had to pick up informally.

"Near native" is a virtual impossibility and you're not being fair to yourself by setting that as your goal. What my Chinese teacher told me was that Henry Kissinger was basically as fluent of an adult learner of English as can exist, and that if I worked hard and spent a lot of time living in China or Taiwan I could, one day, speak Chinese almost as well as Kissinger speaks English.
posted by 1adam12 at 11:48 PM on March 16, 2013 [1 favorite]


I am not fluent, but my understanding of the mandarin language is that it's so full of historical and cultural connotations and context, including ones implied by similar looking or sounding words, that a nominative achieving "near native proficiency" would be a decades - long endeavor if it's really doable at all.
posted by cmoj at 11:44 AM on March 17, 2013


Assuming mastery is at 10,000 hours, at your current rate, you'll get there (sorry if my math is off) in 6 to 7 years. So if you double your study time (60 hours a week, which is "full-time" studying of 8-9 hours a day, 7 days a week), you might be able to reach your goal in 3 to 4 years.

However, echoing a few sentiments above, and as this blog post on SinoSplice points out, it's not the number of hours, but the quality of those hours. Obviously you could study until exhausted, after which you'll get decreasing returns. So there's no point setting a time goal if during most of that time you're not absorbing anything. So just put in as many quality hours as you can afford to, and don't worry about the numbers.

Don't forget to get enough sleep, to allow everything to marinate.
posted by pimli at 3:15 AM on March 18, 2013


Hi everyone,

Thanks for all the useful advice on this page. To clarify, I am thinking of studying the Chinese economy at Postgrad level. For this I would like to be able to read Chinese Economics research papers. However I don't need to achieve a "near-native" standard if that's not necessary.

Lite's post was particulary helpful. Could someone please tell me where I can get the HSK vocab lists with English meanings?

Thanks again.
posted by Musashi Daryl at 11:04 AM on March 18, 2013


Could someone please tell me where I can get the HSK vocab lists with English meanings?

Skritter.com has them. If you have an iOS device, I cannot recommend it enough. If you don't, I would actually recommend that you get an iOS device so you can use the Skritter app. You can also download the HSK vocabulary lists as Excel spreadsheets here.

For your stated goal, I think that HSK 6 would be great, but you will probably also need to supplement that with economics-specific vocabulary and terminology.
posted by Tanizaki at 1:44 PM on March 18, 2013


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