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What to Know Before Learning Chinese Abroad

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Quynh Phan
Topic Expert

Quynh is an aspiring digital nomad with a background in social media marketing, community and content management. She is passionate about learning foreign languages and can speak 5 languages without any problem, including Chinese.

What to Know Before Learning Chinese Abroad

Chinese is notoriously known as the world’s most difficult language. If you’ve decided to attempt to learn this language, my biggest applause to you!

Learning Chinese abroad, especially the writing, can be intimidating, and for good reasons. I wasn’t sure if I could make it myself but I was able to carry a simple conversation and read basic restaurant menu after just 3 months of learning the language abroad. Cultural immersion and in-country language learning can definitely do wonders.

If you’re reading this, you’re already a step ahead by doing your research. Whether you already have a program in mind or just gathering information, this post will give you some insights into what it’s like to learn Chinese abroad and the tips to mentally prepare yourself for the incredible adventure ahead.

Choose Where You Want to Learn Chinese

Chinese, being the world’s most spoken language, is the official language of several countries. Now, you might think China is the obvious choice but depending on your goals and priorities, the choice might not be so obvious. The countries that have Mandarin Chinese as their official language are China, Singapore, and Taiwan. Let’s do a quick overview of these countries:

China: The Natural Choice

China is home to approximately 1.4 billion people and is second in the world’s economic power. If you’re going to learn Chinese and want to stay in big cities like Beijing or Shanghai, consider things like air pollution and food-fraud which have been hitting the news.

In terms of learning Chinese, the only difference between China and Taiwan is that China uses simplified Chinese for writing while Taiwan uses traditional Chinese.

Singapore: Great for English Speakers

You’ll have no problem communicating or getting around as pretty much everyone speaks English. English is their official language and the primary language in education and everything else.

I’ve heard of people from neighboring Asian countries going to Singapore to learn English but not many going there to learn Mandarin. However, there are a few Mandarin language schools there and part of the population can speak Mandarin but your chance of practicing Chinese in daily life is quite slim; if you’re looking to pick up some Chinese skills but aren’t ready to dive in on a huge language immersion experience, Singapore may be a great choice.

Taiwan: A Goldilocks Option

Taiwan is a small island known for its delicious pineapple cake and rainy, humid weather. Personally, having Taiwanese friends and learning about Taiwan through them did have an influence on me choosing Taiwan.

In Taiwan, you can benefit from plenty of opportunities for Chinese language immersion, while still experiencing a nice quality of life and welcoming communities.

Whichever country you choose, there will be pros and cons. But every experience is what you make of it; with research and preparing in advance of your arrival, you can set yourself up for a successful language learning experience.

Make Local Friends Before Departure

What to Know Before Learning Chinese Abroad: Make Local Friends

You don’t need to wait until you arrive to start making friends. Finding penpals or language exchange partners who live in the city you’ll be going to gives you a tremendous advantage. You’ll get to learn more about the country’s culture and language through them. Best of all, they will help you acclimate to your new life abroad.

I still keep in touch with the friends I made through online language exchange and I’d say they are what made my study abroad in Taiwan so enjoyable.

It’s easy to find language exchange partners online. Joining Facebook groups is one way to do it. There are also many websites to find penpals; the one I like the most is ConversationExchange.com. It’s free and available in any country.

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Takeaway Food (in Plastic Bags) is the Norm

Ask any language learner, and they’ll tell you: learning the language through food is one of the best ways to ensure you remember new vocabulary clearly (and deliciously). That’s definitely the case when learning Chinese.

One of the most awesome things about food in Asia is that it’s always readily available and usually only within a few steps from you, especially if you live in a big city. As space is often limited in restaurants, take-out food is the norm. And most of the time, you’ll get your food in plastic bags, even if it’s soup.

If you’re environmentally conscious, you’re always welcome to bring your own container to get the food. That’ll make you, the food vendor, and the environment all happy. A win-win-win, don’t you think?

Most Taiwanese Speak a Second Language -- It’s Not English

What to Know Before Learning Chinese Abroad: Most Taiwanese Speak a Second Language

If you choose to learn Chinese in Taiwan, you might be surprised: Taiwan is more diverse than one might think.

Taiwan still has many indigenous groups and tribes living throughout the country. As such, they have their own dialects which are quite different from Mandarin Taiwanese. Many Taiwanese speak Hakka or Hokkien as their second language. Though both are immigrant groups, Hakka people originally came from Northern or Central China while Hokkien people originated from Fujian Province in China. They also brought with them their own unique cuisine which contributed to specialized cuisine restaurants throughout Taiwan.

The Chinese language can be intimidating but just like any other language, it can be acquired with practice and determination. Learning Chinese in Taiwan has been one of the most amazing adventures I’ve ever had. Six months went by like a breeze and I made so many good friends, explore different parts of the country and tried the countless delicious food (that’s always the most important part).

Deciding to learn a language abroad is never an easy decision as it’s not just the challenge you have to face in learning a language but also in cultural immersion. But above all, you’ll have lots of fun and amazing stories to tell your friends and family back home. So go out there, work hard, and have fun. You’ll gain much more than a language skill.

Accommodation Tips You Need To Know

The most challenging part about learning a language abroad is finding accommodation. If you’re like me who couldn’t wait and started apartment hunting months before arriving, then stop right now. No matter how nice the apartment looks in the photos, the actual place will not be the same. A ten-minute walk to the station might actually be longer. And trust me, you wouldn’t want to live so far away from the convenience store. So the bottom line is, wait until you arrive, stay at a hostel or Airbnb for a couple of days and start looking then. The money you’d spend on hostel will be much cheaper than paying the deposit before hands to sign a contract and trying to get out of it.

There are a few places you could start your search, such as Craigslist and Facebook groups. You’ll be able to find many Facebook expat groups dedicated to the school or city of your choosing. It’s the best place to look for apartments or 'sharehouses.' Some language programs have a bulletin board or classifieds section on their sites so definitely look into that as well. Schools do offer help in finding accommodation to a certain extent but it’s best to do your own research.

Dive Deep into Chinese Culture

What to Know Before Learning Chinese Abroad: Chinese Culture

After learning 6 languages through formal education, I can finally say that I know a thing or two about what’s most important when it comes to learning foreign languages. When you learn a language, you don't just memorize the vocabulary or grammar. You learn everything about the country where that language is spoken including culture, history, customs, people, etc. Being the world’s oldest language with a history of over 6000 years, Chinese culture and customs heavily influenced its language structure and development.

Some language gets harder the more you learn but Chinese is hard to learn right from the beginning. If you learn Chinese without at least some interests or goals, you will eventually give up. You don’t need to be head over heels with Chinese culture but you do need to be interested in it, be it Chinese food, soap drama or arts. If you want to master something, you need to love it first. This is the motto I follow when learning a new language and it’s especially true when learning Chinese because you will need a lot of love and determination to keep going.

A Hobby Will Help You Achieve Fluency Faster

Cultural immersion is very important to any language study, especially for beginners. It goes without saying that practice makes perfect. And when it comes to learning Chinese, you cannot practice enough. When you learn Chinese abroad, you get even more chances to practice and they are all around you. The best way to take advantage of this is by having a hobby.

For me, I used my badminton hobby as a way to get more practice. I’d join the badminton club at the university I was studying. Even though I was only at the beginner level in Chinese, I used what I learned to talk to the club members. They would teach me new words and popular slangs whenever we hung out after matches.

The reason why learning Chinese abroad is so much more effective than learning in your home country is that you get to surround yourself with everything in Chinese. You have no choice but to push yourself to put what you learned to use because otherwise, how would you be able to order that braised pork over rice without onion?

Learning Chinese is all about taking initiative to practice as much as you can and wherever you can. You don’t need to be in advanced level to do this. And it doesn’t matter what hobby you have as long as you’re willing to step out of your comfort zone. Beside resources from your language institution, you can go to MeetUp.com to find the groups of your interests. If you can’t find the group you want then join a university Facebook group and chances are that someone in there will know someone who knows a group you can join.