To answer this question, I’ll start by quoting from a Quora page, where two heavyweights gave excellent answers:
Mark Rowswell, AKA Dashan/大山:
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. Due to my work on television, some Chinese language learners 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.
“Fluent” is a relative concept. I would summarize:
2 years to lie on your resume and hope no Chinese speaker interviews you for a job (because 2 years is enough to bullshit your way through a situation in front of non-speakers).
5 years for basic fluency, but with difficulty.
10 years to feel comfortable in the language.
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. And still does.
As the the above answers indicate, the notion of “fluent” is very vague and goal-dependent. Needless to say, the Chinese writing system does more than any other aspect to hamper mastery, to the extent that adult speakers must address the daunting problems of the script in order to function in the language. As an instructive metric, however, we can turn to the Defense Language Institute in Monterey for some rough estimates of the relative difficulty. They divide languages into different difficulty groups. Group I includes the “usual” languages a student might study, such as French and Italian. They estimate “Hours of instruction required for a student with average language aptitude to reach level-2 proficiency” (never mind what level-2 means) to be 480 hours. A further level is characterized as “Speaking proficiency level expected of a student with superior language aptitude after 720 hours of instruction”, which is “Level 3″, which apparently is their highest level of non-native fluency. Chinese is grouped into Category IV, along with Japanese. The number of hours needed to reach level two is 1320 (about 3 times as much as required for French), and the highest expected level for a superior student after 720 hours is only 1+, i.e. an advanced beginner. These are old statistics, but the proportional differences are bound to be similar today.
My own experience, in a nutshell: French language students after 4 years are hanging out in Paris bistros, reading everything from Voltaire to Le Monde with relative ease, and having arguments about existentialism and debt ceilings. Chinese language students after four years still can’t read novels or newspapers, can have only simple conversations about food, and cannot yet function in the culture as mature adults. And this even goes for many graduate students with 6-7 or 8 years of Chinese. Exceptions abound, of course, but in general the gap between mastery of Chinese vs. the European languages is enormous. To a great extent the stumbling block is simply the non-phonetic and perversely memory-intensive writing system, but other cultural factors are at work as well.
(David Moser is the guy who once explained why learning Chinese is so damn hard.)
My own experiences:
I’m not going to go into the complex issues already covered above (and I should also note that my Chinese is nowhere near as good as Mark Rowswell’s), but Mark’s numbers seem fairly realistic to me.
Because I began my study of Chinese in the States, then moved to China and started practicing on my own pretty hardcore, I’d say I hit Mark’s “basic fluency” milestone at around 4 years of study. “Feeling comfortable” probably came after about 8 years, but I think my standard for “comfortable” is also lower than Mark’s. (I seriously doubt I am as comfortable now as Mark was after 10 years!)
What’s the deal?
It always pisses some people off when you say that learning Chinese is hard, or that it takes a really long time. In fact, it tends to inspire certain learners to go out of their way to prove that the opposite is true: Chinese is not hard, and doesn’t take long to learn. That’s fine; somewhere between the extreme views the truth can be found. But I’ve always found it important to have a realistic view of what you’re getting into, and getting someone like Mark Rowswell’s take on the question is certainly interesting!
It seems that some people are afraid that many people will be “scared off” if Chinese is too often represented as “difficult,” and that those that attain some mastery and then tell others that it wasn’t easy are simply jealously guarding their own perceived “specialness.” Personally, I started learning Chinese precisely because I viewed it as a serious challenge, and didn’t fall in love with it until much later. I’ve heard many times that Malay is really easy to learn, but that’s never made me want to learn it.
The good news
The good news is that I truly believe that learning Chinese is getting easier, or that students are learning it faster than they used to. I’ve been observing this trend on my own anecdotally over the years as I meet ChinesePod visitors, as I meet new arrivals to China, as I take on new AllSet Learning clients, and as I work with new interns. The “Total Newb on Arrival” is getting rarer, tones are getting better, and some people are even showing up in China for the first time already able to hold a conversation. Nice!
I’ve compared notes with Chinese teachers abroad, and some teachers are making the same observations. One teacher told me that universities are having to restructure their Chinese courses because the original courses were not demanding enough, or didn’t go far enough. What’s going on here?
I think a combination of the following factors are playing a part:
- Kids are starting to learn Chinese sooner
- Chinese learning materials are getting better
- Technology is making learning characters (and pronunciation) less laborious
- Competition is naturally raising the bar
- Increased awareness about the Chinese language and culture make the whole prospect less intimidating overall
This is all very good news! And if this is a long-running trend that has been accelerating in recent years, it could also mean that while Mark Rowswell’s and David Moser’s accounts are totally truthful, it won’t be as time-consuming for you as it was for them because the difficulty (or time involved) to learn Chinese is depreciating, without us even having to do anything!
One more thing
Oh, and let me also quote Charles Laughlin from the Quora thread, who replied:
Who cares how long it takes? Just do it! If you really want to learn Chinese, you will devote yourself to it however long it takes.