The difficulty with this question is that language courses are usually not based on HSK levels or the learning goals required for the HSK levels.
Language textbooks such as New Practical Chinese Reader and Integrated Chinese and self-learning courses such as Colloquial Chinese are not based on HSK or the HSK vocubulary lists.
So in order to determine how long it takes to reach each HSK level, there are two basic approaches:
- Use the data provided by Hanban, especially the number of hours of study required to reach a specific HSK level, and the convert these hours to the number of months or years that would be rquired.
- Find a correspondence table between CEFR levels of Chinese and HSK levels. Then find out how much time is required to reach each CEFR level in order to find out the corresponding time requirements for the HSK levels.
The ChineseTest.cn website claims that you need the following to pass the 6 HSK levels (my emphasis):
- HSK 1:
The HSK (Level I) is intended for students who have studied Chinese for a semester (half an academic year), with 2-3 class hours in each week. These students have mastered 150 commonly used words and basic grammar patterns.
- HSK 2:
The HSK (Level II) is intended for students who have studied Chinese for two semesters (an academic year), with 2-3 class hours in each week. These students have mastered 300 commonly used words and related grammar patterns.
- HSK 3:
The HSK (Level III) is intended for students who have studied Chinese for three semesters (one and a half academic years), with 2-3 class hours in each week. These students have mastered 600 commonly used words and related grammar patterns.
- HSK 4:
The HSK (Level IV) is intended for students who have studied Chinese 2-4 class hours per week for four semesters (two academic years). These students have mastered 1,200 commonly used words and related grammar patterns.
- HSK 5:
The HSK (Level V) is intended for students who have studied Chinese 2-4 class hours per week for more than two academic years. These students have mastered 2,500 commonly used words and related grammar patterns.
- HSK 6:
HSK (Level VI) is intended for students who have mastered 5,000 or more commonly used words.
Note the following issues:
- While HSK 2 requires knowledge of 300 words and two semesters of language classes, HSK 3 requires twice that amount of vocabulary, which can supposedly be learnt in the same time as the additional semester that was needed to move from HSK 1 to HSK 2.
- HSK 1 and HSK 2 do not require knowledge of any characters, and you can't learn 300 characters (for HSK 3) in a single semester (unless perhaps in a university course where they force you to do this at home).
- Between HSK 3 and HSK 4, Hanban expects you to double your vocabulary size within a single semester.
- For HSK 5 and HSK 6, Hanban has no idea how much time would be needed.
- Hanban ignores the fact that the first 300 or 600 (or 1200) characters you learn in a course overlap only partially with the lists of characters that they expect you to know for each level.
In summary, it seems that Hanban's estimations are not based on observations of real learners.
Hanban has also published a table that maps HSK levels to CEFR levels:
- HSK 1: CEFR A1
- HSK 2: CEFR A2
- HSK 3: CEFR B1
- HSK 4: CEFR B2
- HSK 5: CEFR C1
- HSK 6: CEFR C2
When you combine this table with the information from the ChineseTest.cn website, it appears to follow that you can reach level B2 in Chinese in four semesters with 2-4 classroom hours per week.
I consider this unrealistic for Spanish (see How long between each CEFR level for learning Spanish?), let alone for Chinese, which requires roughly three times the effort that you need to put in for Spanish.
In other words, Hanban publishes fairy tales about the time and effort that is needed to reach the HSK levels.
First, we need to look at a realistic mapping between HSK levels and CEFR levels.
In 2010, the Fachverband Chinesisch published a statement about HSK and about how the levels map to CEFR:
- HSK 1: -
- HSK 2: CEFR A1.1
- HSK 3: CEFR A1
- HSK 4: CEFR A2
- HSK 5: CEFR B1
- HSK 6: CEFR B2
Then let's look at a language school that provides information about the time you need to reach these CEFR levels.
The (Centrum voor Levende Talen, CLT) in Leuven, Belgium, provides such information.
- CEFR A1: two years of 120 classroom hours each. For Chinese (unlike languages such as Spanish), CLT recommends learning Chinese at home for 30 minutes per day.
- CEFR A2: another two years of 120 classroom hours each. (So four years in total for CEFR A2.)
- CEFR B1: another four years of 120 classroom hours each. That's eight years in total for CEFR B1.
Publicly funded language schools in Belgium don't offer language courses of more than 8 years, so after CEFR B1, you're on your own.
For HSK, this means the following:
- You can pass HSK 1 before the end of the first year. (CLT teaches over 200 characters in the first year but does not take Hanban's list into account.)
- You can pass HSK 2 before the end of the second year.
- You can pass HSK 3 before the end of the third year. (This is what I did. However, it is useful to check Hanban's character list to complement what you've alrady leant.)
- You can pass HSK 4 after four years, if you put in some extra effort to learn the vocabulary required for HSK that is not covered in the textbook used at the language school. You will also need to check that your listening skills are good enough.
- You can pass HSK 5 after eight years, again with the conditions mentioned above.
This learning process can be speeded up with more intensive language courses.
For example, students of Chinese at the university of Leuven (KU Leuven) have twelve hours of Chinese per week (first two semesters) and pass HSK 3 fairly early in the second semester. (I talked to one of them after the test; they didn't even find it difficult.)