Hacking Chinese

A better way of learning Mandarin

How long have you studied Chinese? 290 years or 58 992 hours!

studytimeA few weeks ago, I posted an article about study time and why it should be counted in hours and not the more commonly used unit: years. I received over 100 answers to the survey and in this article I’m going to share some insights from the gathered data.

In general, the survey confirmed what I suspected, namely that:

  1. Years is a meaningless unit
  2. People overestimate how much they study

This is not a scientific report, but I do want to say a few words about the data. I have only included replies that answered all three questions, i.e. number of years studied, a wild guess and a guided guess. I deleted several responses that fit this category but were obviously not honest, such as guessing 3000 hours study time but arriving at only 30 hours after the guided estimate in the article. That left about 55 samples that I have used for the analysis here. I also excluded myself.

Years is a meaningless unit to count study time

This shouldn’t come as a surprise, of course, but number of years is almost no indication of how much someone has studied. The range is incredible! We have several respondents who study seriously and clock around 1000 hours per year, but we also have a large group who study less than 100 hours per year. Thus, someone who has studied for one year can easily have studied more Chinese than someone who’s been doing it for ten years. Clearly, number of years is a very bad indicator of how much we have actually studied.

In total, the 55 respondents have studied Chinese for 290 years (5.3 years on average) and guessed that they had studied Chinese for 82196 hours (1500 hours on average), but reduced this to 58 992 hours in the guided estimate (1100 hours on average).

Here are some other random stats that you might find interesting:

  • Longest time in years: 35
  • Longest time in guessed hours: 10 000
  • Longest time after guided estimate: 4500

Note that all these are different people!

People overestimate how much they study

The second point I want to bring up is much more interesting and also has more consequences for learning and teaching Chinese. In general, respondents overestimated their study time by 40% on average (comparing wild guesses with guided guesses). That’s a lot! To give you an intuitive (but meaningless) year-based example, it would be the difference between saying casually that you have studied for seven years while you have in fact only studied five.

Furthermore, it seems people don’t study that much. Perhaps it’s because all the really serious people who are immersed in studying didn’t have time to read the post and take the survey, but I doubt it. As I said, we have a relatively large group of people who average around 1000 hours per year, but that only averages out to about 3 hours per day (including weekends, holidays and so on).

That’s not very much and very far indeed from full-time studying, which I would consider to be at least twice as much. For brief period of time, I have spent closer to ten hours per day, but I don’t think many people can maintain that for very long. I average about 1700 hours per year so far, which is clearly much more than even the most serious readers. I’ve heard many people simply say that I learn quickly because I have a talent for languages. That might be true, but if I’m learning faster than you do, it’s much more likely because I spend, on average, seven times more hours per year.

Conclusion: You learn Chinese by… studying Chinese

I think the ultimate conclusion is related to the one about where you study Chinese. We know that it’s possible to learn Chinese from home without living in China, but we also know it’s possible to live in China without learning Chinese. Where you live isn’t the point.

The same is tor study time. It doesn’t matter, shouldn’t matter, when you started learning Chinese. What matters is how much time you’ve spent with the language since then, and, to some extent, what you have done with that time.

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  1. ArtFD says:

    I’ve learned a few things over the years, especially from practicing medicine, that leads me to drastically discount people’s self-reports on virtually anything and even to discount eye witness reports of unusual events. Centuries ago I was a college freshman and hoped to optimize my studying efforts. I kept a daily diary of activities over a 7-day span, eating, sleeping, studying, etc. to document my behavior somewhat. I was startled to find I was only spending a few hours a week studying outside of class. This was much less than I guessed before I started the diary. I think a better measure of one’s efforts in learning a language would be to note achievement benchmarks: how many words you know, in the senses of being able to speak them, able to distinguish one near-homophone from another, being able to understand a novel utterance in the words & grammar you already know, being able to recognize a character, being able to write a character after hearing it spoken, and ultimately being able to write dictated speech. There’s no quick way to summarize that. I can speak better than I can hear, which is better than I can understand spoken, and far far better than I can write characters. My gut feeling is that for all the effort and time I have so far put in (2 semesters of college Mandarin), I have very little to show for it. My putting the same effort into learning Spanish, for example, would have produced quite different results. Strangely enough, I enjoy the process of learning Mandarin far more than I have in the previous languages I’ve studied: French, German and Russian. So I will endeavor to persevere.

  2. David Lloyd-Jones says:

    Young lawyer has a heart attack and comes up before Saint Peter.

    “Saint Peter, Saint Peter, what am I doing here? I’m only 38 years old!”

    “That’s funny,” sez the Door Keep. “According to your billed hours, you’re 117.”


  3. Elizabeth Braun says:

    I missed your survey, sadly. However, just as a fun exception, I just ‘filled it in’ now.

    I’ve being working with Chinese for a few months shy of 20 years. I guesstimated the number of just class time as 1000. When I then did a more realistic estimate, it worked out as almost 1800 hours of classes and homework. That excludes personal study outside of any class arrangement and preparing and teaching Chinese to others and related stuff.

    I’m good at under estimating!!!:-)

  4. Guus says:

    I have long had the same suspicion, that learning a language is really much more about real time input than anything else. Talent has a place, but might just make progress happen 20% faster.
    It’s often said that kids learn their mother tongue without any effort. That’s not true – they’re exercising all day long with rhymes, songs, talking and being occasionally corrected.
    That’s why almost everyone manages to learn their mother tongue.

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