Hacking Chinese

A better way of learning Mandarin

How long have you studied Chinese?

The question of how long I have studied Chinese has followed me almost from day one. I have been asked this question a lot, I have asked others the same question, and I have spent a good deal of time thinking about both the question and the answer.

In this article, I’m going to discuss it from numerous angles and my goal is to start a discussion, so I would very much appreciate any comments, thoughts or questions you might have yourself!

If you don’t have time to read the entire article, please answer the first two questions below, it shouldn’t take too long. If you plan to hear me out, please don’t submit the survey now, wait until you have done the guided estimate below and then submit the results.

Editor’s note: The survey that used to be here has closed. There were two questions, both related to how many hours you had studied Chinese. The first was a quick guess, the other was a guided approach which presumably lead to more accurate results.

Note that I discuss the question of how long time we have spent learning Chinese for a number of purposes, the goal isn’t to be able give an accurate answer to random stranger.

The standard/expected answer and why it’s meaningless

When a random person asks another person how long she has studied Chinese, we can be reasonably assured that the expected answer is a number of years. I don’t know about you, but I feel very uneasy giving such an answer because it’s terribly inaccurate. Let’s look at my study background and you’ll see what I mean.

  1. 2007-2008: Foreign language education in Sweden
  2. 2008-2010: Reasonably serious studying in Taiwan
  3. 2010-2012: Self-studying part time in Sweden
  4. 2014-2014: Master’s degree programme taught in Chinese
  5. Now: Using Chinese quite a bit, but not actually studying

So, what should I answer? Seven years? What about the summers when I didn’t study much at all? What about the part-time studying on my own between 2010 and 2012, should that count the same as the incredible intense few months in early 2010 or the master’s degree program I’m currently enrolled in?

Other people might have complete breaks in their study history: weeks, months or years when they haven’t studied at all. Counting from when you first started learning is obviously a bad idea in this case, but depending on how detailed your counting is, you might end up with very different results.

The smaller the unit, the more accurate the measurement

Answering in years is obviously a bad idea if accuracy is what we’re after, so choosing a smaller unit is a good idea. I think the ideal unit should be hours, which is small enough to give accurate measurements, but not so small that it becomes impossible to estimate.

Of course, if you’re a real stats freak who log every minute of studying, you could go with smaller units, but that should be extremely rare in the real world. In fact, hours are quite hard to estimate as well. Do you know how many hours you have studied Chinese?

This is an interesting exercise and I think you should take a few minutes to think this through and make a rough calculation. You can also enter this as your “wild guess” in the survey above.

Since this question is also important for almost any experimental research into language learning (we want to know how experienced the students are), it’s also a question that appears a lot in research. You have surely answered such questions before, perhaps in connection with official exams.

Guided recall and better estimates

Research generally suggests that humans are very good at remembering events and specific episodes, but bad at weighting them for duration. We remember what we have done and what happened to us, but we typically don’t have a number attached to that indicating how long that episode lasted. This makes it very, very hard to estimate how many hours we have studied Chinese unless we’ve actually kept a record since we started learning.

A guided approach might help here. It takes a bit longer, but the results are far more accurate. Do the following:

  1. Divide your Chinese learning into distinct episodes, perhaps based on semesters and/or where you were studying.
  2. Try to think back at what your life was like for each of these episodes. How often did you go to class? Did you have lots of homework? Did you speak much with Chinese people? Did you read much? If you have any time logs from this period, that would of course be of great help.
  3. Multiply the number of hours for an average week with the duration of the episode you have chosen (hint: one month is roughly 4.3 weeks). If you have significant periods deviating from the norm (such as a summer vacation), these should be counted as separate episodes.
  4. Add the numbers for all the episodes and you should arrive at a number which is still a very rough guess, but it should be much more accurate than than the guesstimate you made above.
  5. Go back to the survey above, fill in your guided estimate number and submit the survey. Thanks!

I’m not going to list my own calculations in detail here (but I do plan to share them later when I start writing a series about my own learning). Adding all the hours from all my episodes (17 in total) gave me roughly twelve thousand hours. This means that I should have mastered Chinese by now, which o course isn’t the case, so there goes the 10,000 hour rule.

If I had studied as intensely as I did for short periods of time (~70 hours/week), it would take three years and a few months to accumulate those hours. That’s about half the time it actually took. If I had studied at the pace I did when I wasn’t in Taiwan and wasn’t actually studying Chinese (around ~15 hours/week), it would have taken almost sixteen years.

Clearly, counting in years means almost nothing.

Does it matter how long you have studied Chinese?

If you answer in years, I would say no, but if you count in hours, I think it’s interesting. Studying for a few hours a week for years without becoming fluent is natural, studying full-time for two years without achieving conversational fluency is a clear indication that something is wrong.

You can’t compare yourself with people who have studied the same number of years as you but have spent twice as much time (and vice versa). You can’t compare yourself with a younger you that spent more time either, for that matter.

Finally, there is another reason I think counting in hours is important. It highlights the fact that you can live in China for two weeks without spending a single hour learning the language. It doesn’t matter when you started doing something or how long you’ve been doing it, what matters is the actual time you spend. Counting in hours helps us understand that it’s the daily studying that counts, not the date we started learning Chinese.

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  1. Are you just collecting data for learners of Chinese or is it open to others?

    I think you’re right that the number of hours is a much better way to measure things than ‘years’. However I still struggle to estimate a total number of hours (for Vietnamese). Before I’ve done it only counting input-intensive hours (like classes, reading, writing and listening) but when I read this sentence “Did you speak much with Chinese people?” I wondered if I’m missing something. Should I try and estimate that and/or immersion time in Vietnamese? It sort of feels like cheating at hours because an hour chatting is totally different in intensity to an hour writing. Any advice?

    1. Olle Linge says:

      I’m trying to collect data for Chinese, actually, but I’d still be interested in your data, although perhaps not through the survey? Regarding the level of detail, please check my answer to “A”. We could of course try to measure in much more detail, but I think that would be quite meaningless.

      1. Fair enough.

        I think I might have to do a mini-log to enable me to make a new estimate.

  2. Sara says:

    I totally agree that answering this question in years is hard and doesn’t really tell anyone how much you have really studied. But I find it hard to count my hours from years back, as I’ve never done any logging. I can count class time quite accurately, but not time for homework or self study.

    My path has been like this:
    Autumn 2008 to Spring 2009: 4 hours classes per week
    Summer to Autumn 2009: 2 hours classes per week
    Spring 2010 to late Spring 2011: 4 hours of classes five times per week
    Autumn 2011 to Spring 2013: 20-25 hours of classes per week
    Autumn 2013: Thesis writing in Chinese
    Spring and Summer 2014: Still immersed in China, but very little formal studying

    Usually I answer this question by saying something vague like “about 5years”.

  3. A says:

    Well, since we are looking at hours- how do we define studying? My first year in China I spent loads of hours “pretending” to shop at markets so I could practice speaking. When we are talking about studying is it just textbook/ Chinese character work? Or are we talking about spoken Mandarin. I’ve lived in China consistently since 2007 and I have no problem saying it took me a about a year or two to reach a certain level then intensive study for another few years to reach another level. My point is answering the how long have you studied Chinese is also hard to classify even by counting hours.

    1. Olle Linge says:

      Of course. The scale is unlimited in terms of how detailed you want to be, but I think it’s completely impossible to estimate how much time you spent doing certain activities in retrospect. My own estimate here was very, very rough and with such accuracy, it stops being meaningful to go after a more detailed measurement. You’re right, of course, it’s just not very practical unless you keep a record while you actually study.

  4. 美灵 - Mei Ling says:

    Excellent! This has made me work out the real time I have spent learning Chinese. I can never answer the question when asked, without the qualification of my vague answer with ‘however’, ‘but’, etc. I started as a complete beginner in 2005 – 9 years ago. However, I work full time and until 2 years ago had only ever attended evening classes once a week. I also had a complete break for 3 years because of family illness. In the last 2 years I have used my annual holiday from work to study in China. Unfortunately, the total hours spent studying during the 9 years is only approximately 1250! Sadly, as I am by no means a youngster, my chances of fluency, ever, are nil! But I love it!

  5. Myles says:

    Incredibly tough to determine the amount of time put in. For me, learning a language means I incorporate it into my life in a big and drastic way. this mean studying or reviewing any little time I can find, reviewing flash cards on the bus, listening to audio during commutes, etc.

    I totally agree that hours put in is such a better measurement for anything in life. Whenever I get asked, “How long have you been studying?” there’s always that little voice inside of me telling me “We measure our time in hours, not years!”

  6. Jon Strauss says:

    In mainland China, you certainly do get this question a lot. I think, primarily, it’s just a conversation habit that is in the culture. Same question if you play an instrument.

    I don’t think I would normally ask this question to someone myself in English. But in China and in Chinese I’ve picked up the habit, too. If I meet somebody who is a learner of an instrument, if speaking Chinese, I would likely ask how long they have been playing, expecting the answer in years.

    But really it’s just making conversation – it’s such a common thing for Chinese people to say in that situation.

    It’s just interesting to me that I doubt I would ask this question to somebody outside of the Chinese context. If making conversation I would likely pursue a different line.

    Do you agree there is a cultural aspect to this question?

  7. character says:

    The question of level of Chinese mastery coming from Chinese people has as often come as “How many characters do you know?” Other learners ask about official tests: HSK for example. Casual enquiries I answer in years and follow up with a brief description of the types of learning activities if they ask further.

    1. Olle Linge says:

      Characters is probably an even more bizarre way of answering/asking, but HSK results are a lot better, I think. The tests aren’t perfect of course, but still cover a lot more than any single number of years/characters/whatever.

  8. Peter says:

    This is an interesting question. I overestimated at first, but despite the fact that I’m in China quite often, the time actually spent ameliorating my knowledge of Chinese is very short each time. This is due to the fact that 99.9% of all conversation when I do business here is lead in English. It mostly comes down to talking to cab drivers, hotel clerks and restaurant employees. Sometimes, like a couple of days ago in Xiamen I get lucky. I spent the day with two Chinesese girls exploring the place. Both students, and both interested in exchanging English for Chinese. And immediately my learning curve snapped up. I must have learned more in that one day than I usually do in weeks. And really, I hardly ever spend more than two or three days in China. Five days in a row is a long stay, and has happened only about half a dozen times. Writing postcards to both of them the following day extended my learning exposure nicely.

    Then again, a day like that uncovers a lot of unconscious learning that happens along the way. Maybe it’s not so much new learning, but rather a consolidation of what I already know. I had this happen in Mexico City once. I met a woman from Bolivia who spoke no English. Naturally I was forced to speak Spanish with her, and I did. All day long for three days, and about a host of rather abstract subjects as well. Had you asked me a day earlier whether I would be capable to do so, I would have vehemently denied the possibility. The jist of all this is that I’m convinced that even quite unstructured exposure to the language makes a difference. These moments when it all comes together makes it seem like language learning has these spurts with times in between where nothing much happens. But I believe that learning is really quite continuous during times of exposure. Which of course is exactly what your adding of hours suggests.

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