How Long Does It Take To Learn Chinese?

“How many years does it take to learn Chinese?” 

“Is it hard to learn Chinese?”

According to the Foreign Service Institute (FSI) scale, it will take English speakers 88 weeks (2,200 hours of active learning) to reach native/bilingual Chinese proficiency. Chinese is one of the 5 languages which is most challenging to learn for native English speakers.

Japanese and Korean speakers may have an advantage here, since these languages evolved around each other and are both character-based languages. But no one has a huge advantage: even speakers of other Asian or character-based languages will still need to put in the hours to learn Chinese.

How Long Does it Take to Learn Chinese How Many Chinese Characters Do You Need to Know

How many Chinese words do I need to start speaking Chinese?

Learning Chinese is different from person to person. There are people who are naturally inclined to learn foreign languages faster than others.

The Hanyu Shuiping Kaoshi (HSK) or Chinese Proficiency Test provides a basis for how long it takes for you to learn Chinese.

HSK is an international standardized test of Chinese language proficiency. It assesses non-native Chinese speakers’ abilities in using the Chinese language in their daily, academic, and professional lives. HSK consists of six levels. Here’s an overview of each level.

HSK Level Chinese characters known Chinese words known Ability upon completion
1 178 150 Uses familiar Chinese everyday expressions and basic phrases. Can introduce oneself and answer personal questions.
2 349 300 Understands sentences and relevant topics such as local geography and employment. Can speak Chinese while doing simple and routine tasks.
3 623 600 Can speak on topics used in school, work and leisure. Can answer in Chinese during unexpected situations during travels and can connect topics of personal interest.
4 1071 1200 Able to comprehend advanced Chinese text on both concrete and abstract topics. Can hold conversations in technical topics. Regular interaction with native speakers is highly possible.
5 1709 2500 Able to understand difficult and long Mandarin texts. Can express him/herself fluently and spontaneously in social, academic and professional purposes.
6 2633 5000 Proficient in reading, writing and understanding Chinese. Can create summaries of information from different spoken and written sources of Chinese language in relevant form.

Usually, students who study the Chinese language after one year can reach HSK 4 level certificate. On the other hand, students who go to Chinese classes every day and spend 4 to 5 hours studying can reach HSK 5 level certificate. It usually takes students a year and a half to reach HSK 6 because the gap between HSK 5 and 6 is pretty big.

How long does it take to read Chinese?

Most experts estimate that you will need to know around 2000-3000 Chinese characters to read an average Chinese newspaper article. Yes, that is about an HSK 6 level! Chinese newspapers generally use specific vocabulary, advanced grammar, idioms, and cultural references that make reading at a fluent level one of the most challenging skills for new students.

How long will it take to read a Chinese book? If you want to try reading a Chinese novel, I would estimate the number of characters you need to know is even higher than in a newspaper, maybe even 4000 characters. Chinese novels and poetry use literary language–idioms, metaphors, poetic words, and “literary words” that are only used in writing and nearly never in spoken Chinese. The language sounds more formal, poetic, and even more historical, as many words used in modern Chinese literary writing emerged from thousands of years of writing history in China. For this reason, jumping from HSK 4 straight into a novel is not impossible, but quite a big leap!

How can you improve your reading ability? Taking an online class is highly recommended, and in a one-on-one class, the teacher can help you specifically with reading skills. Other online options are: This Memrise course teaching commonly used newspaper characters, Chairman’s Bao, and China Admissions’ self-study resource guide for solo students.

How can you learn Chinese faster?

We have dozens of free and affordable resources to help you learn Chinese faster.

Browse all our Chinese course offerings at universities across China here.

Highly recommended online Chinese language programs!

Beijing Language and Culture University (BLCU) is one of the top Chinese language universities in China. BLCU offers some of the best Online Chinese Programs in China.

BLCU makes learning Chinese easy and fun. Here are three distinct features that BLCU offers:

  • High-quality classes – structured classes with professional BLCU teachers with over 7 years of training
  • Affordable – classes are just $210 USD per student for 12 weeks
  • Flexibility – take Chinese classes wherever suits you, all you need is an internet connection

Check out other Chinese language programs from BLCU!

Savannah Billman has a master's degree in Chinese Law and Society at the Yenching Academy of Peking University. She holds a B.A. from NYU Shanghai and has also written for The World of Chinese, TechNode, SupChina, and Sixth Tone.
Savannah Billman

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