What does it mean to “learn” a language?
The word “learn” can be complicated when we talk about languages. Generally speaking, when people talk about “learning” a language, they are referring to being able to get by in most day to day situations. In other words, being able to understand most spoken and written language in their target tongue, and being able to respond and communicate fluently.
And, what exactly does fluency mean? That’s another tough one… Fluency takes into account two aspects: ease and accuracy. So, usually, when we talk about speaking a language fluently, we don’t necessarily mean perfectly but comfortably with limited errors.
How long does it take to learn a language in general?
There are 3 main factors which influence how long it takes to become fluent in a foreign language.
- Attitude - How motivated are you? Do you really want to learn the target language or are you just learning it because you feel obligated to? Are you happy to be in class? Do you find ways to practice every day?
- Time - How much time can you dedicate to your studies? How focused are you when you do? The more quality time you can spend studying, the better.
- Experience & Background - How similar is the target language to your first language? Have you studied a foreign language before? Do you have any knowledge of grammatical structures or other features of language? Have you traveled to a country where they speak your target language?
So, how long does it take to speak Chinese fluently?
Unfortunately, there isn’t really a one size fits all answer to this question. That’s because you need to take into account all the factors mentioned above AND define your personal goals clearly. In other words, you decide what speaking “fluently” means to you.
This could be choosing a level in a proficiency framework like CEFR (the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages) that you want to work towards or another personal goal. If you’re not sure what to aim for, working towards a B2 in the CEFR framework could be a good place to start.
When you're clear on that, you'll want to make a plan to execute your goals. To do that realistically you should think about the following questions:
- How much time am I willing to dedicate to practicing Chinese every day? Yes, you read right! Every day. If you're serious about learning Chinese, you need to dedicate time to practicing every day. Not studying, but reading, writing, listening and speaking Chinese. So that could be anything from listening to music to writing a summary of your day.
- Is it possible to travel to a Chinese-speaking country as part of my learning experience? Immersion really is the best way to speed up language learning. Even if it's only a short vacation, it'll give you loads of chances to practice in regular day to day situations like ordering at a restaurant and taking the bus. You get a lot of exposure to vocabulary too which will help you build a good foundation.
- Who can I practice speaking with? If you want to speak Chinese, you need to, well, speak it. Duh! So, it's important you have someone to practice with, whether that be your classmates, a friend or a tandem partner. Check out Tandem to find a native speaker to do a language exchange with. You can also often find language exchange get-togethers or polyglot meetings on Meetup or Couchsurfing.
- How serious are you about learning Chinese? This might sound silly since you've spent all this time reading this article but, it's important to be honest with yourself when setting goals. Is learning Chinese really a priority for you? Are you prepared to put in the necessary work to get the results you want?