Hacking Chinese

A better way of learning Mandarin

The 10,000 hour rule – Blood, sweat and tears

The traditional (or fraud-proof) character for 10,000.

Is mastering a subject mainly about innate gifts or about hard work? If it is about hard work, how long does it take? The first of these questions has of course been attracting people’s attention for a long time, but it’s not the people who ask this question who are in trouble, but those who don’t even think it is question in the first place.

Too many seem to assume that learning anything (especially languages) is about being talented and having a gift for learning (again, very common for language learning). Although it’s arguably true that some people seem to learn languages more easily than others, this is far from the whole truth.

In this article, I’m going to argue that learning Chinese is mainly about blood, sweat and tears, not talent. Of course, if you’re wise, you’ll find ways to bleed, sweat and cry that you actually enjoy or at least think is worthwhile, but hard work is still what will propel you forward, not some inner ability you were (or weren’t) born with. Similarly, saying that you can’t learn because you don’t have the gift is equally invalid. If other people can work hard to master Chinese, so can you.

The talent myth

I think what people usually call “talent” starts from early childhood, meaning that it’s something grown or learnt rather than something being genuinely innate  In school, pupils are very quickly sorted into categories: those who are smart and those who aren’t. If you’re the smart type, you’ll get lots of encouragement from your environment, but if you’re unfortunate enough to be placed in the other category, then you’ll have a more difficult time.

The problem is that people base their ability to learn something on what they did in school, perhaps ten or twenty years ago. I’ve read about and heard innumerable people state that they can’t learn a language and then follow it up with “I took French evening classes and it was really hard” or “I studied German for six years in school and I still can’t speak the language”.

This is nonsense. These people aren’t assessing their own ability to learn, they’re simply saying that under that kind of circumstances, they weren’t able to learn the languages to a satisfactory level. Then they go on and read about the polyglots who travel the world to learn many languages, usually very quickly. Even though I have argued that learning Chinese in just a few months is, depending on definitions, impossible, that’s not saying you can’t learn an awful lot. Let’s take French as an example, simply because I have studied French for more than six years in school and still can’t speak very well (in other words, I was once one of the people I criticise above).

Practice is counted in hours, not in years

If someone claims to have learnt French in just a few months, most people would either say that it’s a lie or that the person is extremely talented. Neither is necessarily true (although both might be, of course). The mistake people make is that they count practice in years and not in hours. Let me illustrate with a short dialogue:

A: Have you studied any foreign language?
B: Yes, I’ve studied French.
A: For how long?
B: Six years.
A: Wow! You must be very good then.
B: No, I can hardly communicate with natives.

This dialogue is weird only if you think that six years means six years of serious studying, because then you really should be very good at French. But if B in this dialogue only took one hour of evening classes every second week for six years and did no homework, I don’t think he’d be able to communicate very well, even after six years.

Don’t compare with your high-school French class

Let’s look at the numbers of a more realistic example. Let’s say that I study French in school for six years. That means roughly 40 weeks/year because of holidays and so on. Most people don’t have class everyday, let’s say we have three hours of French each week and do two hours of homework, then this adds up to 200 hours in one year or 1200 in six years.

Compare this with the serious language learner, immersed in the language and doing nothing but studying. Realistically, it’s very hard to maintain a lifestyle where you do nothing but learning languages, but for a short period of time, I know it’s possible to study non-stop, but let’s say 14 hours/day, which gives plenty of time to sleep, eat and so on. If you do that for three months, you’ll end up with 1260 hours.

As we can see, the avid language learner totals more hours in three months than an average high-school student does in six years.

The 10,000 hour rule

What can we learn from this? Mainly, we learn that what seems to be impossible feats of talent is in reality the result of hard work (counted in hours), although concentrated in a short duration of time (counted in years). We also learn that by erroneously comparing someone else’s learning process to our own experience, we draw incorrect conclusions about how others achieve success. We tend to dismiss expertise simply as the result of innate ability, which is wrong. Some subjects are more prone to this than others. For instance, would you attribute a surgeons skill to innate ability? What about a musician? Do you realise how many hours an Olympic gymnast has practised when you watch him or her on TV?

Let’s see what Malcolm Gladwell (the guy who is usually attributed with popularising the 10,000 hour rule) has to say about this:

Basically, the 10,000 hour rule states that if you want to get good at something, you need to spend approximately 10,000 hours practising. Gladwell claims that this figure is relevant for many fields, but I don’t really care about the exact number. The point is that it’s there and that it’s there without referring to talent. Anyone can spend 10,000 hours if they really want to.

Experience and deliberate practice

Note that “practice” in this case means deliberate practice, i.e. striving actively to become better by challenging yourself. Most people who practice simply do so in a passive manner, which doesn’t really count (or if it counts, it counts less than true deliberate practice). Anders Ericsson, a pioneer researcher in the field of deliberate practice,makes a clear difference between deliberate practice (top musicians) and ordinary experience (everyday activities). Since this is a major topic of its own, I’ll save this discussion for an upcoming article.


What I want to say in this post is very simple: Learning Chinese takes a long time (measured in hours, not in years) and hard work. If you’re smart, you’ll make sure the road is enjoyable, but you’ll still have to walk it. Each persons road might be different, but it’s simply not the case that someone else’s road is half as long as yours, provided you have roughly the same background.

So, don’t use talent either as an excuse not to learn, either because you think you’re talented and therefore don’t need to study, or, perhaps more commonly, because you think you aren’t talented and therefore can’t learn. Everyone can invest 10,000 hours if they really want to and if they think it’s worthwhile. As I’ve stated earlier, the number itself isn’t the point, what’s important is that it’s there and that you have no real excuse of not getting there, provided you are really interested.

Reaching your goal might take more or less than 10,000 hours, but whatever the true number is, it’s still an indication that you can and need to study, regardless of talent.

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  1. Olle Linge says:

    These comments have been manually retrieved after a server crash:

    7 Responses to this entry

    Hugh Grigg: So true, I’m glad to see this being popularised further. Thinking back to our first year of university, attitude really was the best predictor of grades. People who put more time and effort in got higher grades, in general (of course there are one or two exceptions).

    Also a quick question, what is the font for the 萬 there? I want it!

    March 4th, 2012 at 06:21

    Mike: Great post!

    I’ve seen the Hacking Chinese name floating around on multiple occasions and my brain is finally recognizing it as an awesome blog. Subscribed!

    Also, that font is pretty rad.


    March 4th, 2012 at 06:44

    Maggie: The great flute teacher Trevor Wye says mastering the flute is a question of ‘time patience and intelligent work’. The same applies to learning Chinese – and most other things.


    March 4th, 2012 at 09:47

    Guus: I much agree. Think of it. Why are native speakers so fluent? No other reason than that they’ve had loads and loads of practice. If any Chinese person can learn Mandarin, then anyone can learn it, given enough practice. Perhaps a talented person will spend 10-20% less time, but that’s it.

    Besides, it’s often said that children learn language faster. Not true either, if you count the hours of practice they put in every day, playing with language and trying to express themselves.

    March 4th, 2012 at 09:50

    Sara K.: Blood, sweat, and tears, hmm?

    Have I bled for Chinese? Literally, yes – there have been a few times when I managed to cut myself with my pencil in the course of studying Chinese. Considering how much I was using that pencil to study Chinese, it was inevitable that I was eventually going to fumble in such a way that it would cause me to bleed.

    Has studying Chinese made me sweat? Also literally yes – I do sometimes combine studying Chinese with physical exercise, and one time I kept it up for 3 hours straight without breaks. I don’t think I would have kept up the physical exercise 3 hours straight without breaks if I weren’t studying Chinese at the same time.

    Has studying Chinese made me shed tears? The answer is easy – yes. Soap operas – and other weepy forms of entertainment in Chinese – have made me cry.

    March 4th, 2012 at 12:00
    Reply Quote
    gweipo: gweipoI don’t completely agree with you. I think that yes, it does take time and effort, but I noticed with my two children, one learnt it with ease and the other spent far more time on it far more intensively and still has not mastered even the basics of chinese despite immersion. The fundamental difference was the strength of their respective memories. And yes, memory can be strengthened, but some children / people have an advantage in this area, and others, with LD have a disadvantage. If you have poor working memory chinese is going to be a huge huge struggle and you may not ever get it.

    March 4th, 2012 at 15:40

  2. Laurenth says:


    There’s another factor that should be considered: consistency. 10,000 hours could mean 50 hours/week for 200 weeks, i.e. almost 4 years, which is great if you can afford it. But it could also mean 20 hours here, 2 hours there… you may reach the 10,000-hour mark after 15 or 20 years, and yet you won’t have progressed much beyond a basic level.

    Also, the optimal spacing-out of learning sessions count, which is the whole idea behind SRSs.

    1. Olle Linge says:

      Yes, you’re right in general, but your numbers are a bit off, I think. To reach 10,000 hours in 15 years, you’d have to study roughly 13 hours per week, which is still quite a lot. If you really only take evening classes or study an hour a day, it would take a lifetime or longer, meaning that it’s not possible.

      There is also the problem of deliberate practice being very taxing. It’s quite easy to spend 10 hours a day listening to or reading Chinese, but that isn’t deliberate practice. Challenging your skills is very demanding, so these 10,000 hours can’t be done very quickly. I think about 1,000/year is what people reckon is possible, at least in other areas. I’ll write more about this in the next article about this, thanks for the input! 🙂

  3. Federico Smanio 牛飞 says:

    Hi Olle,
    very good post! I have read “Outliers” and I think it’s a really must read book, not only for ordinary people but for our politicians and policy makers who could understand a lot from that. Especially that we can’t mark kids as non intelligent and explain to them that what really counts is hard work and good will and passion!
    As far as language learning, I do think the 10,000 rule is absolutely appropriate and just. I sometimes feel embarrassed when asked for how long I have been practicing chinese. When I say it all started in 2009, it doesn’t mean I have studied chinese for 3 plus years. It’s what you do in those 3 years that matters most, the time you devote to your practice and the quality and intention you put into it.

    This being said, I enjoy the process the fact that I study while I commute to work and if it’s one hour train I totally dive myself into my books and notebooks and I do enjoy the process.

    Keep up the wonderful work you are doing. I am sorry you had to experience the recent crash but I don’t think it will have negative effects whatsoever…

  4. Laurenth says:

    Ah, probably I have a personal problem with that 10,000 hour rule 🙂 I mean, I started learning Chinese when I was 41 or 42. Like many learners, I have a job, kids, a family, so I can devote, at most, 2-3 hours/day learning Chinese. Morevover, part of this time would not qualify as “serious” learning, as you put it. Mathematically, I’ll never be able to master Chinese. So be it.

    Also, “mastering Chinese” is a very broad idea. It includes many things that are not necessarily closely related, like learning to read, pronounce, understand, etc. Learning classical guitar, for instance, is a much more focussed objective. OTHO, as far as Chinese is concerned, does that principle mean 10,000 hours for characters and reading + 10,000 hours for understanding the spoken language + 10,000 hours for expressing yourself? That’s 30,000 hours. Or is it 3,333 for each task? It’s not obvious to tell how the 10,000 hours rule would translated to a multi-faceted task such as “learning a foreign language” besides the obvious principle that you have to work hard, and for a long time.

    Though I’ll never reach the 10,000 hour mark, there are things that I like to keep in mind:

    1. Enjoy the process itself. The objective is fine, but you have to make is so that the process itself is somehow beneficial and rewarding. That applies also to people who DO have 10,000 hours to devote to Chinese, otherwise they’ll burnout long before they make it to that mark.

    2. Have priorities. I don’t mind if I have a thick accent for the rest of my life, for instance. I also don’t mind if my understanding of spoken Chinese is more or less limited to standard mandarin (which should not be the case if you plan to live in China). However, I want to be as good as possible at reading contemporary fiction and listening to news. Just that. Reach whatever point I can reach with whatever time I have on my hands.

    I’m just trying to find ways to escape the cruel maths 🙂 It would be sad if people were finally convinced that there is no such thing as “a talent for language” only to be put off by the simple mathematical fact that they won’t have 10,000 hours to devote to a foreign language. There should be many things to gain from studying for 5000, or even 1000 hours.

    1. Sara K. says:

      I would say I am currently in the neighborhood of the 2000 hour mark. If I haven’t passed it, I’m close, and if I’ve passed it, I haven’t gone far past it.

      I can read contemporary fiction. I won’t understand every single word, and I certainly have plenty of room for improvement, but if my destination were ‘be able to read and enjoy contemporary fiction in Chinese,’ I would say I have arrived.

      I can understand the gist of the news, but I am not so good at picking up details unless they are repeated. Nonetheless, I think I will be good at listening to the news long before I hit the 10,000 hour mark.

      Caveats: Before studying Chinese, I did study some Japanese – while I never progressed beyond a basic level, it did give me a head start on the writing system. On the other hand, I have ear problems which interfere with my ability to work on my listening skills.

    2. Olle Linge says:

      You are right, of course. 10,000 is just an arbitrary number, even if Gladwell says that there is something special about it. There is no way we can define mastery or what getting good at something means, so therefore, whatever number we choose doesn’t really matter.

      Of course, studying 3,000 hours will take us very far, as will 5,00 or whatever. The point is, I think, that it’s the number of hours that count, not the numbers of years we claim to have studied. Looking back at my own studying, I can easily point to some periods where I have learnt ten times as much Chinese as other periods of equal length.

  5. Laurenth says:

    “The point is, I think, that it’s the number of hours that count, not the numbers of years we claim to have studied.”


    In my post of March 19, I hinted at the fact that the 10,000 hour mark is there for those who aim at full mastery. Those who (at least initially) have less lofty objectives could enjoy this video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3Kzjn7kCAtU&feature=g-hist&context=G27a2833AHT3BIsgAAAA

    Basically, it applies the Paretto principle (80/20) to the 10,000 rule. This implies that you can reach a “good enough” level (80%) in 20% of the time, which is encouraging. On the other hand, it also means that, after that, the law of diminishing returns fully applies…

    Anyway, despite laws, rules and principles, have fun.

    1. Olle Linge says:

      Yeah, I think having fun is forgotten all too often. I have number of articles discussing this from various angles, but I haven’t finished any of them yet (dealing with games, music, TV, partners and so on). I don’t envy people who try to spend 10,000 hours doing something they don’t enjoy.

  6. gary says:

    (three hours per day)x(365 days per year)= ~1095 x ten years-> the 10,000 hour rule. jiayo

  7. Mike says:

    My goal is to fill out an Anki flashcard deck to 1000 basic characters. Then I am planning on adding 1000 or so phrases for basic communication. I’ve learned that knowing Chinese is essential, but I realize that I don’t care enough to invest the 10,000 hours to become an expert in it at the moment. I’m taking more of my time towards Japanese and Korean since I do a lot with electronics and technology.

  8. Manu says:

    Hahaha… reminds me of the time I spent a whole month during summer vacation only studying Chinese, I would wake up eat breakfast while listening to a podcast go on to study for about 10 hours. By the time the new semester came by I knew almost twice as much as I had learnt in one year. I guess if you calculate time wise: 1 year = 480 hours, while 1 month (at a crazy pace) = 310 hours… And the whole blood, sweat and tears is true. A lot of my classmates wondered why I picked up Chinese “much faster” than they did, but they didn’t realize I had just spent a whole month only devoted to it. I think if they is a person who is doing much better than you in class, it’s not as constructive to think that they are talented, that’s a lazy excuse.

  9. Dan Poole says:

    One of the main motivational problems have when learning a new language is they keep asking themselves ‘How long until I get fluent already!’. When I was learning French, I was constantly asking myself, and everyone around me, this very question. I actually remember one guy saying to me one ‘Wow, your French has gotten so much better!’ to which I responded ‘Yeah, but I’m not fluent’. This misses the whole point of studying a language! If you are too focused on the end goal of fluency, you will ironically never reach it. It is a long process, and you will inevitably give up along the way.

    If you have fun, and learn to love learning, than not only will you get fluent sooner, but you won’t even notice the hours fly by. Learning won’t be a chore, it will be your leisure activity, one that you look forward to throughout the day. Only once you realise this will you reach fluency.

    Great post, Olle. Just to expand upon the concept of thinking of your time studying in hours rather than any other arbitrary and inconclusive measure of time – you can actually record the time you spend studying! I don’t do this for all aspects, as I would get too anal about it. But I do record my time spent listening. It is a good way of keeping track of how much you’re doing, and having numbers on a page is a great motivator. I’m a big fan of ‘one month challenges’ – I recently did my first Chinese challenge (1 hour input per day – details are on my blog) and succeeded. I plan to step it up to 2 hours.

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  11. Kong Meilin says:

    Surely it should be 30,000 hours for Chinese since it takes three times as long to learn Chinese in order to become functional in that language if you are an English speaker. That is if the conclusions made by the FSI are anything to go by. Interpreting their Research, the 10,000 hour rule probably would not apply to the language in the tier 4 (and 2,3) category supposing we still continue to learn at the same proportional speed, when compared to tier 1 languages.

    Your article was not about that though. This comment was more tongue-in-cheek. Like others here, I agree with many of the points raised in your article.

    I do believe some people actually possess some skills that help them learn some things better and quicker than others. For example having a good memory or good associative skills can be really helpful when learning another language, at least early on in the process. Eventually though there is no reason why the students, who are supposedly better conditioned than others, should be any better long term, after, say, 30,000 hours.

  12. millard waltz says:

    Now that the gray winter days have arrived I’m spending 8-10 hours a day learning Chinese. In the spring and summer period I only have an hour or two to spend. Your November project of intensive reading is really what I was looking for. I recently purchased all volumes of the Chinese version of Harry Potter. In January I can start with my reading of Vol.1. Yout 10 000 hours article was very good.

  13. Xavier says:

    Great post and you are right that it’s 90% plus effort, endurance and 10% Talent. It sure takes a lot of time, but I believe it is possible to shorten the timeframe from 10000 hours – if you can transform some of the ”learning” hours into pleasure such as listening to music, watching films for one or thinking in the language time while day dreaming (on a train or during commute) or while sleeping and dreaming the language (better). I have found this to be possible (dreaming) quite early with some foreign languages but have so far not got there in Chinese due to the high hurdle.
    Thanks for you blog, it is truly motivational not to give up with learning this tricky language.

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