Become fluent in Chinese in 2 years without leaving the house: My step-by-step plan

9th August 2018

Become fluent in Mandarin Chinese without living in China? Let's do it! Read on for a step-by-step guide to learning Chinese from home.

I know, I know, it's not a very sexy title. I thought about something more tantalising like: "Learn Chinese in 5 minutes a day" or "speak Chinese like a native in 8 weeks". But those would be false promises. As I'm really planning on doing this and giving you advice on how to do the same, I thought it'd be wise to go for an achievable timeframe. In this post, I'll share the formula I'm using to become conversationally fluent in Chinese in 2 years, without living in China. It's the same one I used to learn French and Spanish. Here's what we'll cover:
  • How long it takes to learn Mandarin Chinese.
  • My step-by-step plan to reach conversational fluency in 2 years.
  • Tips on how to choose the best resources.
  • A proven system you can adapt for your life and Chinese goals.

Conversationally fluent in Mandarin Chinese: What does it look like?

One thing I'd like to make clear is that I'm not talking about native-level fluency in this post. I'm aiming to reach a kind of "conversational" fluency, which means:
  • I can have conversations at a natural speed.
  • I rarely need to stop and search for words.
  • I still make mistakes, but they don't often impede communication.
  • I could work or study in the language (though I'd need time to learn specialist vocabulary and probably couldn't work in fields which require native-like proficiency, such as law)
In short, conversations that feel comfortable, without much strain from the listener or the speaker.

How long does it take to become conversationally fluent in Mandarin Chinese?

Most people think about this question in terms of months or years. But that's an illogical way of looking at it, and here's why: Imagine 2 people decide to learn Mandarin Chinese.
  • Person A studies Mandarin for 10 hours a day.
  • Person B studies for 30 minutes a day.
Both approaches could work well, depending on your life situation. But the number of months/years it takes each person to reach conversational fluency in Mandarin Chinese will vary significantly. It makes more sense to answer this question in terms of total hours spent learning Mandarin Chinese. Let's look at some people who've done it and how long it took them. On a forum question entitled "How long does it take to get fluent in Chinese", Steve Kaufmann explains that he learnt Mandarin in 9 months, studying 6 - 7 hours a day. That's 1644 - 1918 hours in total. Ruby Ronin learnt Mandarin Chinese after 6 months of full immersion. It's difficult to say exactly how many hours she spent learning it, but from her post, it seems like she lived and breathed Chinese during that time. Let's say 10 hours a day x 6 months = 1830 hours In her talk at the Polyglot Gathering, Judith Meyer mentions that it took her around 1500 hours to reach an advanced level in Mandarin Chinese. From these figures, we can estimate that it takes around 1500 - 2000 hours to get comfortable in Mandarin Chinese. At the moment, I have a basic conversational level in Mandarin Chinese (turn on the subs to see what we're saying). I can chat about simple topics, but it takes me ages to string sentences together and communication isn't exactly natural - my tutors and I still sweat through each lesson! It's taken me a few hundred hours to get here (learning very intermittently - if you studied consistently, you might be able to do it faster). Being as I have a headstart, I'm guessing it could take me up to 1500 hours to become conversationally fluent in Mandarin Chinese. Studying for 2 - 3 hours a day, allowing for the odd day off and holidays, that's around 2 years. Everyone's different of course - it may take me more or less time, but at least now I have a ballpark figure to aim for.

That sounds intense!

Let's not sugarcoat it: becoming fluent in Mandarin Chinese takes a long time. Of course it does, it's Mandarin Chinese. But don't let that put you off. If you're worried that learning Mandarin takes too long, you're probably making one of the following assumptions:

1. Learning a language is painful

It doesn't have to be. Here are a couple of articles that will help you enjoy learning Chinese: The lazy person's guide to learning Chinese How to learn a language from home (even if you're really lazy) The better your Chinese gets, the more you'll be able to improve by doing fun stuff, like reading and watching TV.

2. You have to be fluent before you can enjoy speaking Mandarin Chinese

Don't wait until you've studied for 2000 hours to start enjoying your Mandarin Chinese language skills! That number is fairly arbitrary - nothing magical will happen when you get there. For long-term projects like learning Mandarin, it's important not to focus too much on the endpoint. If you do, you'll spend the whole time worrying that you're not good enough yet. Fluency is an accumulation of many teeny things learnt over a long period of time. Each new thing you learn, no matter how small, will help you connect better with the Chinese culture and people - that's something you can enjoy right from day 1. And if you keep it up, you'll become conversationally fluent in Mandarin Chinese. It'll take time, but it'll be worth it!

Become fluent in Chinese Don't wait until you're fluent to start enjoying your Chinese journey. Every little thing you learn will help you connect more with the Chinese people and culture. You can enjoy that right from day 1.

Your 6-step plan to becoming conversationally fluent in Mandarin Chinese.

Most people who decide to learn a language try to motivate themselves by focusing on how great it'd be to speak it one day. Most people give up after a few weeks or months. What most people don't do, is think about the practical steps they need to take and develop a system that helps them do it daily. Having a system to learn Mandarin Chinese is key because it helps you study consistently over a long period of time (the only way to get results). It also helps you:
  • Learn Mandarin faster and to a higher level.
  • Focus on the right things.
  • Beat the procrastination beast (or at least tame it).
  • Learn in a healthy, happy and productive way.

Just deciding you want to learn Chinese and trying to motivate yourself probably won't work. To progress, you need to develop a system that will help you do the work every day.

I've created a system to help me become fluent in Mandarin Chinese from home, which I'll share with you shortly. That said, my system may not work for you because... We all have different lives: - Some people can move to China and do full immersion for 9 months. - Others have 4 kids and struggle to carve out 15 minutes between pulling fingers out of noses and picking up socks. We also have different goals: - I'm learning Chinese to chat to people, so I'm not particularly interested in writing Chinese characters by hand. - My fiancé loves calligraphy and is learning Mandarin precisely because he wants to write Chinese characters by hand.

Become fluent in Chinese Everyone's different: I'm learning Chinese to chat to people, so I'm reading to boost my vocabulary. My fiancé's learning it because he loves calligraphy, so he's practising writing.

For this reason, the following 6-step formula for learning Mandarin Chinese is completely customisable: you can adapt it to create your own system that fits in with your life and goals in Mandarin Chinese.

Step 1: Set your priorities

Why do you want to learn Mandarin Chinese? What exactly do you want to do with the language? I want to learn Chinese so that I can have comfortable conversations with Chinese people. For this reason, it makes sense to spend the bulk of my time doing activities that will boost my conversation skills, such as: - Speaking - Listening to realistic conversations - Increasing my vocabulary - Working on my pronunciation Take a moment to define your priorities for Mandarin Chinese: Why do you want to learn Mandarin? What do you want to do in the language? Choose activities that will help you develop these skills.

Step 2. Decide what NOT to do

As my main focus is conversations, I'm going to avoid activities like: 1. Memorising the stroke order of characters. 2. Working through a grammar book from start to finish. 3. Playing on apps like duolingo. These activities might improve my overall knowledge of Mandarin, but they're not a very direct route to my goal of having comfortable conversations. If I spend lots of time on these things, I'll end up feeling like I'm studying hard but not really getting anywhere (a common problem in language learning). I'll make faster progress by focusing on the activities I mentioned in step 1. Your turn: Which activities are NOT useful for developing the skills you defined in step 1? Write a short list. You now have my permission to NOT do these things.

Step 3. Choose the right learning materials

Now you've decided what (and what not) to focus on, it's time to pick the right learning resources. Here are some examples of skills you might focus on, together with resources you can use to practise them.

Speaking Chinese

  • Find an online conversation tutor or language exchange partner on italki
  • Find native Mandarin Chinese speakers in your area via conversation exchange.
  • Use HelloTalk to chat with Mandarin speakers and set up a video call.
  • Talk to yourself in your head, or out loud if no one's home!

Understanding conversational Chinese

Improve your Chinese handwriting

  • Get a book dedicated to writing Chinese characters (I'm not focusing on handwriting so I can't recommend a specific one, but my fiancé is enjoying Chineasy).
  • Use an app that helps you memorise stroke order, like Skritter.
  • Write in Chinese as much as you can - how about keeping a diary where you write in Chinese every day? Or writing your shopping lists in Mandarin?

Improve your Chinese reading skills

Boost your Chinese vocabulary

  • Read as much as you can (see previous step).
  • Use flashcard apps to review the vocabulary you learn
  • Practice writing example sentences with the new words you learn. Try to think about how you might use them in real life as this will help you remember them.

Tidy up your Chinese grammar

Take a Chinese exam (like the HSK)

  • Work through a book specifically designed for the exam as this will help you get used to the exam questions.
  • Find a tutor on italki who is familiar with the exam and can give you tips.
  • Practice makes perfect! Do as many practice exam questions as possible.
A good study system will probably use a combination of these resources. To get the best results, mix and match them in a way that fits in with the goals you defined in step 1.

Step 4. Choose your daily learning time

Learning a language is a bit like going to the gym. Most people start off with loads of enthusiasm, but it's tricky to keep going for long enough to see the fruits of your labour. The key to learning Mandarin Chinese is to make it a habit. Something you do:
  • Every day
  • At the same time
  • In the same place
If you have an unpredictable life and this isn't possible, 2 out of 3 will work fine too. I try to study Mandarin Chinese for 30 - 60 mins in the morning. This works well for me because as my day goes on, life has a habit of getting in the way. Later, I do another 30 - 60 mins either between classes or when I get home from work. Finally, I squeeze in an extra 30 - 60 minutes by making the most of my dead-time (more on this in the next step). Your system may look similar or totally different, depending on your job and family situation. Think about your day. When and where can you block out some time for Chinese? Is it in the morning or in the evening? If you prefer, you can break it up, for example, 3 x 15 minutes throughout the day. When you're just starting out, it's a good idea to go for something small because if it feels too big, you're more likely to procrastinate. Start by setting yourself something really easy to do (like 2 minutes) and gradually build up to your ideal daily learning time. Related: Language Learning Habits: How to Achieve more by Trying Less

Step 5. Use your dead-time for learning Mandarin Chinese

Waiting for the train? Stuck in traffic? Long queue at the supermarket? If you're smart about how you use your dead-time, you can carve out loads of extra time for becoming fluent in Mandarin Chinese. Here are some examples of how to use your dead-time to learn Mandarin:
  • Use a flashcard app to review vocabulary as you wait for the bus/train.
  • Read a graded reader on the train/bus.
  • Chat to native Chinese speakers on HelloTalk instead of going on Instagram or Facebook.
  • Listen to a podcast/audio course in the car or as you walk to work.
  • Listen to a podcast/audio course as you do the dishes/clean the bathroom etc.
  • If you have friends who are always late, play on your flashcard app or read a graded reader while you're waiting for them to arrive.
When do you have dead-time during the day? Which activities could you do to learn Mandarin Chinese during this time?

6: Make Mandarin Chinese a part of you

After spending lots of time around language learners, I've noticed they usually fit into one of two categories.
  1. Those who focus on how "weird" the new language and culture is compared to their own. The idea of speaking the language and adopting a new culture makes them feel a bit silly.
  2. Those who throw themselves into the new language and culture so that learning it becomes a part of their identity.
The learners in group 1 hold themselves back, while those in group 2 usually end up speaking the language very well. Learning a language requires loads of time and energy. Especially one like Mandarin Chinese. If you're not willing to make the language and culture a part of your identity, you'll struggle to stay the course. Once you start seeing yourself as "the kind of person who's learning Mandarin", it's only natural that you'll learn it well.

Avoid these common pitfalls

Becoming fluent in Mandarin Chinese is a big undertaking and you're likely to hit a few walls on the way. Here are some of the most common obstacles and how to overcome them.

1. All or nothing mentality

With things we feel we "should" do, like learning a language or going to the gym, it's easy to get into an all or nothing mentality. Missed a gym session? Might as well watch Netflix and eat ice-cream. But slipping up every now and then won't make a big difference -  it's what you do next that matters. If you planned to study Mandarin Chinese for an hour and you spent the first 20 on Facebook, just cut your losses and get straight back to it. You can still fit in 40 minutes, which is a whole lot better than nothing.

2. Procrastination

There are 2 reasons we procrastinate: 1. You don't like the activity Solution: Find ways to learn Chinese that you enjoy - that way it'll be much easier to sit down and do it. Here's a list of fun resources for learning Mandarin Chinese you might find useful: The Lazy Person's guide to learning Chinese. 2. It feels overwhelming Solution: The secret lies in getting started. Make it really easy for yourself by setting tiny targets and building up over time. If you're having trouble starting, here are a couple of posts that will help: Language learning habits: how to achieve more by trying less Why you procrastinate & 3 research-backed ways to stop it from ruining your language learning

3. Making excuses

I have a habit of telling myself that I "don't have time" to do the things I know I should be doing. But if I look at my day honestly, I see loads of moments I could put to better use, like spending 40 minutes online shopping for a bathmat or doing research for an article and getting lost in a YouTube web for 25 minutes. It's human nature to give excuses for why we don't do things. The problem comes when you believe the little lies you tell yourself, because they'll stop you from doing things you want in life, like becoming fluent in Mandarin Chinese. Train yourself to notice when you're making excuses so you can stop doing it. Remember: if you really want to do something, you'll find a way. If not, you'll find an excuse.

4. Obsessing over grammar

Languages are a "learn-by-doing" kind of thing. Spending months working through grammar books and getting lost in fiddly details will slow down your progress. The best way to learn grammar is to see examples of it being used in real life: read a lot, listen a lot, and pay attention to the sentence patterns. Don't feel like you have to know all the grammar before you start using Mandarin - you'll make faster progress if you learn it as you go along.

5. Beating yourself up

Imagine a child is learning a foreign language. What's the best way to help them?
  1. Deride them every time they make a mistake. Tell them they're stupid and that they'll never learn.
  2. Give them lots of praise and encouragement.
It's obvious that the first approach is not conducive to learning a language, yet it's what most people do to themselves in their heads! Be kind to yourself and celebrate your efforts in Mandarin Chinese, no matter how small.

6. All work and no play

Learning a language doesn't have to feel like hard work all the time. The more you enjoy the activities you do in your daily learning time, the easier it will be to get your bum in the seat. Watching Mandarin Chinese TV series instead of doing grammar exercises?  It's allowed!

Become fluent in Mandarin: a step-by-step guide

1. Set your priorities Why do you want to learn Mandarin? Your answer to this question will help you decide what to focus on and make faster progress.
2. Decide what NOT to do. Which activities are NOT useful for developing the skills you defined in step 1? You have my permission to NOT do these things.
3. Choose the right learning materials Find materials that will help you improve: speaking, understanding conversational Chinese, boost vocabulary.... (see step 3 for suggestions). 
4. Choose your daily learning time Build a Chinese habit and make impressive progress over time.
5. Use your dead-time wisely Learn Chinese in your dead-time: waiting for the bus, doing the dishes etc.
6. Make Mandarin Chinese a part of you See yourself as the kind of person who's learning Mandarin.
7. Avoid common pitfalls
  1. All or nothing mentality
  2. Procrastination
  3. Making excuses
  4. Obsessing over grammar
  5. Beating yourself up
  6. All work no play


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