How long to learn Mandarin to a conversational level?

im moving to tawian soon. i’m going to chinese classes and am a decent learner. how long does it take to be at a conversational level if i am speaking it every day?

Wellcome Taiwan!

I am a Taiwanese and living in Taipei now.
I major in linguistics, so if you want to learn Mandarin Chinese, I can teach you with no payment. Of course, I hope you can teach me English or your mother tongue in return

nice to meet you…


To get to a conversational level… well it depends who you want to talk to and what you want to talk about.

Some factors from my experience:

(1) Since there are many cognate words in Chinese (one that sounds like another) it takes longer to be able to understand other people’s speech than with other languages. You have to know more words and common patterns to deconstruct the syntax. It makes it harder to learn from TV for beginners for example.

(2) Initial difficulty in pronouncing tones will make it hard to be understood. Also Chinese are not in general used to hearing non-native Chinese speakers. This puts higher demands on the speaker for accuracy.

(3) You have to learn a phonetic form of alphabet first, to be able to write Chinese sounds for learning. Pinyin is the most common, Zhuyin is also used in Taiwan. This also takes some time.

(4) The written language makes learning from reading or exposure to written lanaguage much more difficult. If you speak English you can look up a French word easily in a French-English dictionary. Chinese dictionaries (paper or electronic) on the other hand take some time to learn to use.

(5) Asian languages are a long way from English in the way in which concepts are abstracted. Ideas are often expressed in a different way with a different emphasis. Culturally based idioms take a time to understand.

Someone studied the comparitive time taken to learn languages. The conclusion was, if it took 1 unit of time for an English speaker to acquire a level in French, then for other languages it would be:
Spanish – 0.7
French – 1.0
German – 1.2
Chinese (spoken) – 1.5
Chinese (written) – 5.0

As with any language, practice and exposure are key.

Hope that helps!

Can someone post those web addresses again for the 2 big universities in taipei…specifically the mandarin courses. If im gonna get a student visa in order to work here without being owned by the school…i may as well find a good school…i also need to know of i can apply when i get there or do i have to do it long in advance?

Just to answer the question, from the experience of myslef and my classmates who were all studying 2 hours a night, doing virtually no homework becuase we were working all day, but speaking Chiense as often as we could int he strret etc with a supportive teacher and friends:

About 3 months to get to a level where you can start communicating with a patient person.

About a year to be able to talk to most people about most basic things.

It starts getting really variable form there.


I think Bu Lai En’s assessment is pretty fair. It really depends how much you expose yourself to the language and challenge yourself. If you spend all your time teaching English then going to the pub with your foreign buddies and speaking English it will take years to get anywhere. If you go somewhere were no one speaks English and you simply must communicate in Chinese after a year you could be quite proficient.

I think most people who take it a bit seriously can hold a reasonable conversation after a year.

Like I said the other day, before the whatever-it-was erased my post, I have a student now who is a beginner with zero Chinese. Today was his 6th class. No foreign language background other than ancient forgotten HS German. Recently arrived in Taiwan (about 4 weeks). He has an active vocab of about 30 words (he can use them as well as respond immediately to them in any combination), he understands simple stories told at normal speed, he understands “grammar patterns” such as the “ba3” construction, subordinate clauses with “de” , and so on, and I explained to him all in Chinese why I was late for class this morning. I have him for another 8 sessions this month – stay tuned. There IS another way to learn Chinese outside of what the folks at Shita may think…and it works a helluva lot better.

FYI, he now really knows (i.e., can use with some hesitation and understand with no hesitation) the following: stand up, sit down, take the bus/train/MRT/a taxi/an airplane, possessives, personal pronouns (I, you, he…etc.) fast/slow, stupid, big/little, red/blue/green, chair, table, coffee, tea, numbers 1-5, go (both with “dao4” and just with “qu4”), buy, salad, restaurant, chopsticks, construction for “use X to Y”, dog, on top of, underneath, get on/ get off, interrogative words (who/what/which/where/how many/how much/how/why), put, touch, point to, and probably some more I don’t remember off the top of my head. One recent conversation had to do with a person firebombing a Starbucks in the US but we did cheat and use the word “Molotov cocktail” in English.

At this rate, if we could continue having 1 hour a day for another 3 months, this guy would be very good indeed. After about 6 months, look out! Of course he’s concentrating on speaking, not reading/writing, which would take more time.


Iron Lady, that sounds quite amazing. Can HE talk any though? Or is this just listening comprehension?

When I tell a story, it’s in (excruciating!) detail (who, what,where, when, why, how, what color, how fast, etc. on each and every event and sentence). When he re-tells the story, it’s in a basic form. The main thing I’m concerned with is that he can use the key words for the day, plus all the words he’s learned before that, to express the meaning.

When I ask questions (at native speed), he is currently answering with 1 or 2 word responses, which is about right for this stage. It’s only been 7 hours, after all. If he’s no different from other students (and I have no reason to believe he is!! ) he’ll begin to give longer responses of his own accord, depending on when he feels comfortable doing so. That will happen when he’s heard those words enough times to have them “sink into” the brain for active use without hesitation. If I prompt him for a fuller response, he can do it but it’s slow and/or hesitant, with some groping for the words and use of the accompanying gestures and/or mnemonics to get things going. I don’t push for a lot of production at this stage because you don’t learn a language through output, you acquire it through comprehensible input.

Just about normal for this stage, all in all.

We are at the halfway point as I’m going to the States in the beginning of July otherwise we could really see where this willing “lab rat” could get to!! (Maybe he’ll continue when I come back, but then people will say, “Oh, he took class somewhere else” or “he learned from friends” or something like that. You know. Ruins my grand experiment, doesn’t it??!)


Student X started talking the other day (Friday); now I can’t shut him up when I’m trying to spin the narrative my way. Ah, it’s so nice when they’re little, but they grow up so fast! I’m still not really pushing him to talk though; he needs to hear Chinese to acquire it, not speak it, although his input makes the lessons more interesting (by far!) and there’s no harm in it as long as he still gets the reps of the items for the day like he should.

No grammar problems thus far; I believe this is because he is not translating, but using the stuff he’s heard so much. He must have internalized the “grammar” because he’s creating new sentences, not stuff he’s specifically heard word for word. Not so much on the subordinate-clause-with-‘de’ yet, but give him time. He missed 2 days last week so we’ll see where he can get to this week.

Gosh, I forgot to mention to him that Chinese has 4 tones…maybe I should, one of these days! He isn’t having too many problems pronouncing them at any rate. (Actually, he should start to read tonally marked Romanization for the stuff he knows already pretty soon, so he can learn the system – or maybe, because he’s in Taiwan, he should learn Bopomofo so he can ask people for words he might want and read the results.)


Interesting statistics on language acquisition. Where did you get the data? Is there information available for native speakers of languages other than English? e.g., what is the relative difficulty of learning English vs. Korean for a Japanese speaker.


I’ll be a ready and willing lab rat to learn Chinese from Ironlady. You sound as if you know a thing or two about languages. I have some knowledge of mandarin though and want to do a 3 week blitz every day when I return from travels on the 11th Aug. I work during the day so it should be after 18;00. What would you charge? I think I could take 1.5 hours every night and exclude week ends. So that would total 7.5hrs per week. I really really wnat to make a big push so am very keen…
what do you say?

Hi Chucky,
We can probably work something out after I get back from the States – big vacation coming up!

I’ll be back at the latest at the beginning of September…can you hold off until then?? I always need “lab rats”!

BTW, we just checked against “Audio-Visual Chinese” book 1, and my current student, after 13 hours, has done the material through Lesson 6 (although there are a few words we have not covered, like the full list of family members). He knows a number of grammar “patterns” that are not presented until much later, however.


This is a really interesting thread,

I never took formal classes, I was submerged in a Chinese environment from day 1, only one of my co-workers had English, and that was very rudimentary.

I was really bad at languages, at school I dropped out of French and German, even my English (as you can see from this post), is full of grammatical errors

Now, 10 years on, I am what I like to call street-fluent in Mandarin, rarely do I hear a phrase or word that I don’t recognize, and I can perform translation between two people fairly rapidly.

But Chinese is a beast of a language,

I am really fluent when It comes to Railway/Electronic Engineering terminology, but start me on Chemical engineering or Chinese philosophy then I will stumble, this is where Trained professional translators come into there own.

I think my tips would be,

Don’t concentrate on Matching Characters with sounds straight away, get a basic set of 100 words that allow basic conversation, and force yourself to speak Chinese at every opportunity.

Listen, Listen, Listen, Listen How many foreigners have I met that have a fantastic vocab, but there pronunciation is at best, terrible.

It took me 2 years, to stop translating in my head, and start thinking in Chinese

On buses, and the subway I would rattle-off fake conversations in my head

Use Pinyin at first (No arguments, not in this thread), It’s much quicker, and allows you to write down fairly complex sentences quickly, for practice. (Although in Taiwan they use another system, it sucks IMHO).

If you’re single get yourself a longhaired dictionary, if not get yourself a language exchange partner (Be careful).

Accent is everything, perfect it.

I have been told musicians learn quicker, because of the tonal nature of the language.

Anyway, once you get quite good, its like a drug, you just want to know more.

you’ll love it

thanks for the tips Subway and thanks for the quick response Ironlady, but unfortunately I only have a limited window of opportunity.
This is because I have a wife and baby who will be away for 3 weeks from the 11th Aug to the end of the month. This is the time when I can get things done.
So is there anyone out there who knows of someone who can do these 3 weeks?

I’m a Forumosa virgin so be gentle with me please.
I’m really keen on coming to Taiwan soon to study Mandarin. I’ve been teaching myself at home for a while but really want to stretch myself and excellerate my learning. Been looking at going to study at wenzao because i have a friend near by. (
My question is:is 2 hrs a day enough?
I’d really like it to be abit more intensive-more like a proper school day. What do you people with experience think? Are their options for doing more lessons? Seems abit expensive to start 2 courses at once.
Any ideas gratfully excepted and considered :slight_smile:

You could also do language exchanges or simply walk outside, when you are in Taiwan, and speak to the people. You’d be surprised just how much you can learn if you are fearless.

P.S. Did you have to copy my name? :stuck_out_tongue:

Kindly disregard my advice if you want to.

Study before your lessons. Listen to the school’s CDs. You have the book, so try to get the vocab down before you go. Do the reading before class, too. A book I read about studying says you should do two hours of study for every one hour of class. That means you can somehow practice everything you are learning for four hours a day outside of class, including reading, speaking, listening and writing.

Don’t talk to people in English. Even if they try to speak to you in English, answer them in Chinese. If you can understand what they’re saying in Chinese you’re reinforcing what you’re learning in school and making it into something practical that you can use.

Take a martial arts class taught only in Chinese. You stay healthy and they will also be using Chinese to instruct you. Take notes, and learn all the vocabulary that they use.

And the best advice I can give is to read as much as you can. Reading is really the best way to become fluent in a language. Try to read every day extensively. There are libraries and bookshops in Taiwan, so you don’t have to pay to read. When you reread the books you’ll be amazed at all the new characters you now know.

Two hours a day doesn