Going to a Chinese language school is essential to any new Chinese learner. Yes, learning Mandarin at home with a book or online is possible. However, most forms of Chinese are strongly tonal which is very difficult for the newbie Chinese learner to grasp UNLESS you have a native speaker right next to you who is able to pinpoint exactly where the pronunciation problem lies. This makes studying abroad in China all the more important as you will have 1.3 billion people who can help correct your pronunciation!
Studying Mandarin is easier than studying Cantonese as the first only has four tones while the latter has nine tones. Learning in Beijing is also preferred as most people in Beijing speak a very standard form of Mandarin. However, learning Chinese in Shanghai does have its advantages. While you’re studying Mandarin, you could also pick up the local dialect, Shanghai-ese.
To be honest, learning Chinese in China is just as hard as learning it anywhere if you do not know any other Asian languages (but you should be able to pick it up quicker if you study Chinese in China). Chinese differs a great deal from European languages in that the written language is completely different than the spoken. Some say there are more than 80,000 characters in the Chinese language although a college graduate needs to know only about 6,000. Seeing a bunch of lines on top of each other can be intimidating, but within no time at all, you’ll be recognizing various common characters (writing them takes a little longer). Before long, your Chinese teacher will be asking you to submit written articles in Chinese and you’ll be able to do it (albeit they might look like a 2nd grader wrote them)!
Taking language classes in China versus your home country allows you to put your homework to work. Say you’ve just learned how to say, “I want to order a beer”. During lunchtime, you can actually use your knowledge then and there. It is ten times as effective to study Chinese in China than anywhere else because if you don’t use it, you will lose it.
Most Chinese language schools in China actually help with much more than just learning Mandarin. They can assist with finding internships or jobs in the city you are in. Sometimes they can also help you find jobs in smaller cities, but the bigger cities have more opportunities. Some agents can also help you find work and suggest where to study Chinese. Whichever Chinese language school or agent you choose, they will probably become your extended family as they can help you with all kinds of problems and you’ll be able to use their resources to do everything from opening up a bank account to finding friends or work.
Speaking of work, working at a Chinese company or in a Chinese school is an excellent way to improve your Chinese quickly. Teaching English in China will also help you quickly learn about Chinese culture. If you keep your ears open, you’ll start to understand what your co-workers are saying around you.
It can’t be emphasized enough: putting your language to work is one of the best ways to pick it up quickly and keep it forever. It takes time and effort to succeed at anything and language learning is no different. Studying the language in China while also working is a great way to not only be taking in the knowledge, but also using it on a daily basis.
Here are a few tips:
1. Study Chinese in China.
2. Find an experienced language school in China, which has teachers who have taught foreigners before.
3. Take at least 2 hours of language classes every day and on top of that study Mandarin on your own for at least 1 hour per day. The first four months will be the most difficult.
4. If possible, take intensive classes which means taking up to 8 hours of Chinese language classes per day for at least two months. You will be fluent in half the amount of time this way. The first month will be the most difficult.
5. Find work in China. Using your newly acquired language skills on a daily basis is extremely beneficial.
6. Make Chinese friends and say yes to every invitation you are given, even if you have already sung karaoke 3 times that week. Building relationships in China is crucial.
7. Get a Chinese boyfriend or girlfriend who can’t speak English. It’s a win-win. You help them with English, they help you with Chinese and you’re sharing the free “benefits” of the relationship.
8. Never be afraid to speak because you think people won’t understand you. They very well may not, but it doesn’t matter. You’ll never get better if you don’t practice in real situations.
9. Study abroad in China. If you’re still in school, see if you can do a semester abroad. You’ll be able to pick up the basics of the language and culture this way and then you can decide if you’d like to actually live in China and learn Chinese in China.
And one last tip: don’t forget the importance of tones. You will save yourself from looking like an idiot by paying attention to the tonal differences of words. For example, the pinyin word for mother is “ma” first tone, while the pinyin word for horse is “ma” third tone. The question word is also “ma” but with a neutral tone. Chinese has a lot of words like this that are the same except for the tone. So don’t sleep in your language classes and pay attention to what people are saying while you’re teaching English in China. Otherwise you may end up insulting the last person on earth you’d ever want to insult. You’ll know you have truly made progress with your Mandarin when you stop calling your mother a horse!