Learning Chinese is a process both miserable and rewarding - often within the same 5 minute period. In some ways Mandarin doesn’t seem like it should be very difficult, after all the number of sounds is limited and there are no conjugations or noun classes. Unlike English which has chicken, pork, and beef – Mandarin mercifully goes the logical route with chicken meat, pig meat, and cow meat. Unfortunately, as anybody who’s studied Chinese a bit knows, the sum of the parts is an unwieldy language chock full of characters and tonal intonations that few foreigners ever master.
There are several aspects which make Mandarin exceedingly difficult to learn on one’s own. Because the writing system isn’t phonetic it’s entirely possible to speak and understand fluently without being able to read or write at all. And vice versa, you can read or write a book but still be unable to order food at a restaurant without pointing. There are some motivated individuals whose drive and discipline is sufficient to enable them to learn Mandarin quite well without any formal study. It’s more common for self-taught foreigners just to learn how to speak but there are people who have spent enough hours with dictionaries, books, and a combination of online tools that they can read and write as well as speak.
But for most of us learning Mandarin on our own is probably not going to happen. It takes a huge amount of time to learn Mandarin and few of us are capable of making the time every day to study several hours worth of characters and grammar.
For foreigners wanting to learn Chinese in China there are two main options – enroll at a university or take classes at private language center.
There are pros and cons to both and the route you choose will probably depend on your personality and learning habits.
One of the biggest advantages to studying at a university is the support the institution can give you. If you’re already living in China you’ve found a place to stay and worked out some sort of visa but for those coming to China for the first time a university can offer invaluable assistance. If you sign up and are accepted to a long-term program (usually 6 mos to a year) at a university such as the Beijing Language and Culture University or Shanghai’s Fudan University they will supply you with the documents needed to acquire a student (X) visa before you come to China.
And although these universities are often not as helpful or clear about things as prospective students would like, they offer dormitories and a certain amount of advice and assistance with residency permits and health examinations.
The biggest complaints students studying at Chinese university programs have are usually the class sizes, the teaching materials, and the fees. Classes are usually large – up to and around 20 students – which means individual attention and opportunities to speak during class are minimal. As a result students’ spoken Chinese sometimes suffers.
The books for most Chinese classes in China come from a small number of university presses but some are better than others. The books used in the university programs are sometimes out of date and the subjects can be ridiculous. If you’re going to be studying at the Beijing Language and Culture University (BLCU) be prepared for a lot of chapters on love and flowers; and endless stories in which characters are moved to tears by completely implausible acts of kindness by strangers and a variety of other random events you wouldn’t normally consider to be tear-inducing.
Despite the larger classes, university programs tend to be significantly more expensive that private schools and far more rigid in their class times and attendance policies. If you are going to stay up chatting with friends back home on MSN until 4 every morning you’re probably not going to make it to class at 830 AM. In recent months schools have been stricter about attendance – if you miss a certain number of classes (it’s a quite high number – if you show up once or twice a week you’re still fine) they will cancel your visa and you’ll have to leave the country.
Another advantage to studying at a university is that the bigger classes give you more opportunities to meet friends and your classmates will be from all over the world. An average class at BLCU has 20 students (at least at the start of the semester – numbers dwindle as the semester goes on) from about 10 different countries. It’s a great way to make friends from across the globe and learn more about other cultures.
Private language centers tend to have much smaller classes and, depending on the location, the majority of the students can often be Korean or Japanese. Some students enrolled in the university programs also take afternoon and evening classes at language centers because the classes include more specialized offerings – oral Chinese, HSK preparation classes (the HSK is like the Mandarin equivalent to TOEFL or IELTS), or business Chinese classes.
Smaller class sizes mean more individual attention which is a huge asset when trying to improve grammar, and particularly, tones. The teachers are usually young and not very experienced but qualified, most of them come from the same programs at the universities that train the university teachers, but the lack of university jobs results in many graduates working for language centers.
Class times are more flexible and there are usually options in the evenings and weekends as well. The prices are better too, many programs run from 30-50 per class hour whereas a university can cost up to double that. Unlike the universities, though, the language centers do not offer scholarships.
Language centers are often able to help you acquire a shorter term work (F) visa through agencies they may have a relationship with but they don’t have any official ability or power in this area. You will also be on your own for housing as the centers don’t have dorms.
Many students start at universities as it gives them a more secure passage to China and once they are acclimated take extra classes at language centers or, when their university program is over, switch to a language center. Nowadays, perhaps just as many students study full-time at the language centers or attend classes at night or on weekends when they’re not working. Where you choose to learn Chinese will depend on your schedule – are you working or not; can you make morning classes or not? And on your budget – can you afford the university tuition without a scholarship; can you only afford to study in China with the aid of a scholarship? How you wish to deal with housing and visas is also a big part of your decision.
Ultimately though, no matter where you choose to study, you will only learn Chinese if you’re willing to put forth hundreds and hundreds of hours of often humbling effort. There is no program that can teach you if you’re not ready and willing to learn.
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I have been learning Chinese on my own for over 5 years and the results are quite sad. However, recently moving to China, I tried out a few options for a more regimented learning process. I was able to try out some of the smaller private schools/ learning centers. However, I was very disappointed. They promote the fact that the classrooms are small and you will have more personalized attention from the teacher. However, you cannot control the unruly American girl that wants to swear out loud every 5 seconds when she makes a mistake. Or the students that answer their phones and make their weekend club plans during the class. (I am also American, it just made me embarrassed that all the big mouths in the class had to be from the U.S.) I found this very distracting and the teacher did nothing about it.
I recently signed up at JiaoTong University and am very pleased with the teachers and the curriculum. Because the classes are larger, there is a variety of students from many other countries, and many different ages. I think this contributes to the nice atmosphere of the classroom. The classes seem to be more organized and regimented. If you are seriously considering learning Chinese, I would recommend trying a University over a Learning Center. This is my personal feelings.
Mar 24, 2011 03:10 Report Abuse
I think the main difference between a private school and university is that the university focuses more on academic Chinese as in many cases they want you to stay on and do study of other courses there. Private language schools are more concerned about 'living language'.
The article makes mention of some of China's most famous Chinese language universities, but not private schools. Probably the most famous school I have heard is Mandarin House - they have schools in Shanghai and Beijing and from what I hear have won international awards and accreditations. Them aside, I know there are lots of other smaller schools popping up all over China so there is plenty of choice.
Aug 29, 2011 19:01 Report Abuse
Ed, I live here in Futian and work with a local Mandarin language center. Classes are very small (2-4) students and they also offer 1 on 1 training. Compared with Shenzhen Univ and others that have very large classes, your progress level with be much faster with this type environment and they teach at all levels. If you have any questions on it, feel free to contact me... rc6260(at)gmail.com
Jul 06, 2012 04:52 Report Abuse
I live here in Shenzhen and currently work with a Chinese language center that offers both 1 on 1 training as well as small group classes from 2-4 students. Definitely a better, more focused learning environment for students than trying to enroll in a very large class such as in a university. If you want to learn more, just email me at rc6260(at)gmail.com, call me at 704-557-0357
Jul 06, 2012 04:50 Report Abuse
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