It’s not like the European languages, where restaurant in English would be, well, the same word in French but pronounced a different way, and the same word in Spanish, just with an extra ‘e’ on the end. With Chinese you don’t have that.
Then added to the vocabulary challenge, you’ve also got Chinese characters, which you can’t just read by following the spelling and you really have to memorize over time. Chinese pronunciation, though, is not as hard as people say. Anybody who really puts their mind to it can learn to pronounce the ‘four tones’, and you can get used to them quicker than you think.
There’s a reason why Chinese is often classified as one of the ‘harder’ languages, but let’s not exaggerate things without reason. It is completely possible for a learner to get to a level of high fluency in Chinese, I know because I have been through this process myself.
Ok, let me give you a simple answer to the question now: how long it takes it to become fluent depends on how much effort you put into it. I’m assuming you wouldn’t believe the claims that you can learn to speak Chinese fluently in a week, or in your sleep, because it does take time to get used to the sounds of the language and the grammar.
If you work at it for at least an hour a day, I think you could easily be having simple conversations in a ‘real life non-class situation’ after 3 – 6 months. This is the rough goal I set with my Chinese course. That would already be enough to make a huge impression on Chinese friends, business partners, and it could make all the difference if you were planning to travel around China.
Then, in my experience, you can get to basic fluency, where you can basically make yourself understood and say the points you want to get across (maybe not in the prettiest way and with all the vocabulary, but good enough to communicate effectively) after a year and a half to two years – if you study consistently for at least a few hours a week.
If you get past the two year mark, then you will probably have already got over a number of hurdles and it will be much easier to continue, slowly adding to your vocabulary, honing your pronunciation, correcting specific mistakes and improving your listening and reading. After this point it is it not so much about learning to speak, but building on what you know and ironing out your mistakes.
Don’t get put off by standing at the top of the mountain and looking up. Chinese grammar is actually often very simple, and it’s really not difficult to start putting sentences together. The vocabulary is something that you will remember more and more easily as you see it and start to use it more. Chinese people are incredibly forgiving when foreigners make mistakes when speaking their language, so it’s easy to start speaking. Be sure to concentrate on your pronunciation early on, even if you have to start speaking very slowly to get the tones right. It will be worth it in the long run!
Chris Parker is the founder of fluentinmandarin.com, a platform for sharing tips and techniques for learning Chinese and is also home of the courses Survive in Chinese and How to Read Chinese (the Easy Way). He currently works in Beijing.