Learning a second language can be difficult, especially if it is a language you have little exposure to the overall language. Learning a language like Chinese can be even harder depending on the language you are fluent in to begin within your life. For example, learning Italian if you are fluent in Spanish is not as difficult as going from English to French because the grammatical patterns and many of the words are similar. Going from a familiar language to a new one that has a different grammatical pattern and all new terminology makes it more difficult to learn the new language. However, when it comes to learning Chinese, and even further challenge is presented. Below you will understand why learning Chinese is both important and difficult.
Chinese has two options, Mandarin or Cantonese. They are each a distinct language but use almost the exact same writing system with very few cultural differences. Each language will take a good amount of time to learn, but Mandarin is more widely spoken. Those who choose to learn to speak Mandarin will likely be able to easily add Cantonese, but learning either will be time-consuming. It is estimated that to become fluent in either dialect, it will take an average of 2200 class hours. To put this in other terms, if you spent 5 hours each day doing nothing but practicing Mandarin or Cantonese, it would take 88 weeks to become fluent. This is a huge time commitment.
This is not meant to scare people from attempting to learn Chinese as many business transactions and conversations around the world are in Chinese, but to offer a realistic picture of what becoming fluent in Chinese means in real-time. Fluent refers to being able to speak to native speakers well and understand the language to have a normal conversation at a typical native speed. Most fluent speakers can also read and write in the language as well. Still, most people do not feel the need to become this fluent or at least not start at such extreme levels. So, let’s look at how long it takes to learn Chinese for different types of events.
There are many factors that could affect how fluent you need to become in Chinese. The first is your ability to learn a new language. Some people are simply better and faster at mastering new languages than others. A few people can hear a native speaker a few times and pick-up certain terminology in context with ease. Some can take a basic language course and learn enough to have a short conversation, and then there are others that may study for years and still not be able to use more than a few words in Chinese. Assuming you can pick up a new language with relative ease and some time spent studying, then you can choose the proficiency level you require in Chinese.
The US Department of State assigns dive levels of language proficiency that include elementary, limited working, professional working, fully professional, and native or bilingual. Those who have an elementary proficiency can handle routine travel needs and be able to read personal or place names, numbers, and street signs, possibly asking a few basic questions. Moving up to the professional working level, a business professional could speak with enough accuracy and vocabulary to conduct general or limited specific business. At this level, you could also read a standard newspaper and create, read, and write reports and correspondence. The fourth level would add the ability to speak and read fluently on all levels in areas pertinent to the specific job. Obviously, at top levels, the person becomes able to read, write, and converse like a native.
These levels are consistent no matter what new language is being learned, but it may take longer to learn Chinese than others and reach new levels. When trying to learn a new language at any level, the goal should be to immerse yourself as much as possible in the new language and actually use it to practice. Practicing with a fluent or native speaker is extremely helpful as they can correct inaccuracies as you are working together. The first step is always to get started and then keep up the work until you become fluent. Whether it takes weeks, months, or years, it will always be worth it.