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The Chinese language learning curve

The following bar chart is often seen in Chinese course descriptions:

Levels are evenly spread out, suggesting an incremental increase of the difficulties of Chinese courses and promising “Advanced Chinese” as the result.

However, progress in learning Chinese is never as neat as shown in this bar chart. Students always experience huge gaps between one course and the next one. And that promised success always seems so ever distant. 

“Perhaps, had I known that learning Chinese required so much effort, I would probably have stopped earlier. Especially all I wanted was to get by in a Chinese language environment.”

We hear you.

That’s why we do not give students false promises. A truthful estimate is that it takes 6-10 years of hard work to reach a decent plateau. 

At MSL Master, we do not use bar charts to represent our Chinese courses. Instead, we use a learning curve, an upward spiral, to explains our program:

Chinese Learning Curve

There is a clear upward trend. Yet at the same time, while you’re moving up vertically, the higher you go, the longer distance you have to travel. Detours are inevitable. 

Different colours represent different aspects of students’ learning experience, both physically and mentally, such as moving between pinyin and Chinese characters, between psychological resistance and receptivity, between intellectual excitement and indifference, or between learning with a teacher and doing self-study. Things are never the same, and are always in fluctuation. 

This path stops at Mandarin Express Intermediate Level. From there onwards, we believe that a formal teacher is no longer necessary. 

This path is divided into four stages, Introduction, Foundation, Development and Acculturation stage, which are achieved by two series of textbooks, the Mandarin Express series and the Chinese Reading and Writing series. 

This path transforms students from complete beginners to fluent Mandarin speakers with substantial cultural knowledge. 


This stage includes: 

  • Mandarin Express Intro Level A

Pronunciation is the most difficult part. When students, who have no prior learning experience, first start learning Chinese, they always feel that they could not grasp the sounds of Chinese. They are not sure whether they can say the words right or not, nor can they tell the difference when they hear others speaking Chinese. Many students feel uncertain when it comes to the four tones. 

This hurdle is real, but also can be easily overcome. Pinyin is the first tool for students to “see” the different sounds. The second tool is numerous small drills scattered around the Student’s Book and the Work Book, where students can concentrate on a few words at a time. The third one is the audio lessons which help students follow a natural musical flow of the language. And finally, students get adequate opportunities to practice listening and speaking. 

As students make progress, they’ll feel more and more comfortable with Chinese pronunciation and become better and better at carrying small social conversations. 


This stage includes:

  • Mandarin Express Intro Level B
  • Mandarin Express Basic Level A
  • Mandarin Express Basic Level B
  • Chinese Reading and Writing 1
  • Chinese Reading and Writing 2
  • Chinese Reading and Writing 3
  • Chinese Reading and Writing 4
  • Chinese Reading and Writing 5
  • Chinese Reading and Writing 6  

The difficulty is primarily centred around Chinese characters and Chinese texts. 

It is at this stage that Chinese characters are first introduced to students. They will find that Chinese characters are so different and reading Chinese is nothing like reading an European language, which conveniently gives word boundaries. 

To mitigate this challenge, a super tight control is placed on the total number of Chinese characters. This small number of Chinese characters (320 to be exact) allows students to develop their Chinese reading and writing abilities without feeling being overwhelmed.

Cultural practices are covered extensively, including Chinese food, places to go and leisure activities. 

Towards the end of this stage, students can communicate well in daily life and work, read and write interesting stories. They can definitely get by in a Chinese language environment.


This stage includes: 

  • Mandarin Express Pre-Intermediate Level A
  • Mandarin Express Pre-Intermediate Level B

The difficulty is primarily due to the large volume of new characters and new words. Although the 320 Chinese characters students have learned previously cover more than 50-60% of the Chinese texts, there are still lots of new ones for them to learn. 

This is where the long tail of vocabulary begins. At this level, there are less and less wildly useful words, not in the same way as words appeared during previous stages. 

In order to mitigate this impact, the texts are divided into many short stories, with each one containing a manageable amount of new characters or new words.

Once students expand their vocabulary base, they will feel quite comfortable to read longer texts. 


This stage includes:

  • Mandarin Express Intermediate Level A
  • Mandarin Express Intermediate Level B

The long tail of vocabulary continues here with a growth being measured in the hundreds, or even thousands, of new words, including idioms and synonyms with subtle differences. Individually, there isn’t any single word that will make students significantly better at Chinese. But taken as a whole, these words will make a huge difference.

If your goal is to really be able to fully immerse yourself in the Chinese language, you'll need this level of competency. Having this dramatically large vocabulary allows you to be eloquent when speaking and get you ready to engage in media the same way native Chinese would. 

Long articles written in a formal style are presented in Intermediate Level A, and in Intermediate Level B, Classical Chinese. 

Classical Chinese is extremely hard for everyone, including Chinese people. It is terse and concise, and each character carries so many different meanings. But it provides students a chance to understand ancient Chinese poetry and philosophy in its original forms. A truly priceless experience.  

April Zhang

If you're not ready to start your learning journey with us, try a weekly newsletter course first.

Insight into Chinese Learning, a six-week course designed by Chinese teacher April Zhang to help you improve your knowledge about Chinese language, delivered to your email inbox. (HKD19.5)