Ni hao! Sometimes the proud and glorious history of a language is joined by a bridge to its bright modern future. It isn’t always a bridge, though. Sometimes, it is joined by a Great Wall.
Mandarin Chinese is the most widely-spoken language on Earth, and is the native tongue of nearly a billion residents of this wonderful blue marble. For centuries the most advanced empire on earth, China and its language have been shaping the fields of science, medicine, technology, and music since the early days of civilization. But you live now, in the present, and Chinese is as relevant now as it has ever been. With the Chinese economy projected to surpass the United States as the world’s largest by 2030, students, employers, and professionals are flocking to classrooms to learn Chinese! Hen hao!
Why Learn Chinese Abroad?
For most students reading this, Chinese is completely unlike their native tongue. For most students reading this, China is completely unlike their native home. Learning Chinese, then, is an indisputably noble exercise, one that challenges the student to step beyond his or her comfort zone and dare to learn a little something about themselves. If learning a language expands the mind, then learning Chinese blows it wide open, grows it to a size it’s never been, and invites the students to wonder whether there is anything they cannot do.
Learning Chinese as a second language is more popular now than it has ever been. That’s good news for students interested in learning it because you have more options, many providers, and various locations to study Chinese than ever before. Below is an outline three of the most popular types of Chinese language study programs, and how to choose which one is right for you!
Private Tutoring: To western ears and tongues, Chinese can be a bit tricky. That’s why good instruction is perhaps more important in Chinese than in any other language. The road to fluency can be a bumpy one, but many students find the most direct route is private tutoring.
Arranging for a private Chinese tutors is easy – with Chinese tutors in demand, there are lots to choose from. One-on-one instruction is fabulous because it lets you ask the questions you need. If there is one particular section that’s giving you trouble, you have the luxury of spending more time on it. The lessons move at your pace. Further, because it is just you and the teacher, you may find yourself much more willing to ask questions when you need to; there is no fear of embarrassment in front of your peers, or worrying about slowing the class down. Also, because you are their only student, private tutors are shockingly accommodating with their schedules. You have class when you want to have class. Sensing a trend with all these italicized you's? Private Chinese tutoring is all about you.
Language Study & Culture Immersion Combination Programs: China is (literally) on the whole other side of the planet from America. Figuratively, the same is true. Perhaps more than any other language, a working cultural understanding is crucial to learning Chinese. American individualism is replaced with Chinese communalism. Creative language generation takes a backseat to correct language formation. To understand Chinese, you need to understand China.
Working with a third-party provider that offers cultural excursions and immersion programs can really augment your learning, in the same way that gasoline really augments a car. Not only do they arrange for meaningful cultural forays into the surrounding areas, but they also make all the plans and get all the permits for you. Chinese bureaucracy can be frustrating, and signing up for a language study and immersion combination program takes care of all that and lets you focus on learning.
Language Study & Volunteer Combination Programs: This is an option that appeals to students who want something more meaningful out of their language learning experience. Since areas of China are still developing, the need for volunteers is considerable.
Combining language study and volunteerism is a great way to learn Chinese while also potentially honing another craft of your own. Whatever your talents are, odds are they can be used to help someone in need. Whether you have a background in music, carpentry, farming, or whatever, there is likely a volunteer program aimed at students like you. In fact, we’ve already compiled a list of great volunteer programs in China. Even just your ability to speak English is highly sought after in China, and would benefit lots of eager Chinese students. So if you are looking for a way to study Chinese that works out your soul as much as your tongue, consider a language study and volunteer combination program.
Choosing a Chinese Learning Program
When choosing the right Chinese study program for you, there are some additional factors to take into consideration. Whether you want to focus on reading and writing or speaking, whether cost is an important factor, and level of difficulty are all things to consider, and we’ll lay out some of the basics below.
Say Hello Like the Locals: Ni hao! – Hello! Ni chi fan le ma? – This greeting literally means, “Have you eaten?” It is more casual, and used to greet a friend or family member. Like your mother saying, “Eat! Eat!”
Fancy a Joke?
Why did Ronald McDonald bite the Chinese baby?
Because he was a han baobao! (In China, the ethnic majority group is Han. The Chinese word for “hamburger” is han bao and the Chinese word for “baby” is baobao).
Wow others with an Idiom!
“Jiu niu yi mao!” Literally, “Nine cows, one hair.” It is the equivalent if the English expression, “a drop in the bucket.” When comparing something insignificant to something immense, you liken it to one hair amongst nine full cows!
Did you know...? The word “Mandarin” actually encompasses dozens of widely different dialects that were all brought under the same tent in 1932, and the standard pronunciations are based on the Beijing dialect!
Planning Your Trip
Obviously, the best places to study Chinese are Chinese speaking countries such as China, Taiwan & Singapore. That said, assuming every city in China is the same is like assuming New York is like San Francisco. You have options, and whether you’re looking for an exciting urban experience, a classically Chinese experience, or something more off-the-beaten-path, there’s a destination for you.
Beijing: Heart of the Middle Kingdom for thousands of years, Beijing is where China’s glorious past greets the twenty-first century. Studying in Beijing has several things going for it. First, there is no better tourist destination in the country. Many of China’s greatest landmarks are there, including the Forbidden City, Tiananmen Square, the Great Wall, and the Summer Palace.
Also, the Chinese food that millions of Americans have gone ga-ga for is actually the food of Beijing. The dishes we have come to love, like orange chicken and sweet-and-sour pork, are the local regional dishes of the Beijing area. One thing to be mindful of, however, is the pollution. Blue skies are rare in Beijing, and most days will be hazy, gray, and smoggy. Those with serious respiratory problems should talk to their doctor before studying in Beijing, and should perhaps consider one of the many other options.
Shanghai: The glittering gem of mainland China, Shanghai is the most populous city in the world and the financial hub of the fastest growing economy on earth. Home to nearly thirty million residents, Shanghai attracts bankers, traders, businesses and investors from all over the world. As a result, Shanghai has far and away the most “Western” feel of any Chinese city. The ethnic homogeny that dominates the rest of China is broken up in Shanghai by people of all different colors and creeds doing business in the city. This makes Shanghai an exciting, dazzling place to be.
Shanghai also has restaurants and music par excellence, great food on every street corner, and just a generally warmer feel. Also, you cannot beat that glittering skyline at night.
Guilin: For students interested in a less frenetic pace, consider the southern region of China, and the city of Guilin. Nestled among jaw-dropping karst mountains that seem to jut straight out of the earth, this city offers travelers a glimpse of the ancient land they envision in their mind’s eye.
Much smaller than Beijing or Shanghai, Guilin offers students a relaxed city that has not had much exposure to westerners. As a result, locals are curious and generous, happy to help you practice your Chinese if you don’t mind helping them with their English. This slower pace of life, combined with the open-heartedness of its residents, makes Guilin a language-learning Eden for Chinese beginners.
Taiwan: This island off the coast of China is in the same gray-area category of ownership as Hong Kong. Taiwan is a democracy, and claims independence. China claims historical ownership of the island. Whatever flag is flying, Taiwan is a great place to learn Chinese.
Beautiful, picturesque beaches and some of the best food in the world stoke the soul of the student learner, while the democratic government and its ideological schism with mainland China may help calm the concerns of parents who have reservations about letting their child study in China. Old distrusts are hard to shake, and proposing Taiwan as a destination may help those who need convincing
As with any language, choosing to take university language courses will require a proficiency exam. Keep in mind that reading and writing Chinese is a completely different animal than speaking it. The westernized characters we use to write ni hao are called Pinyin, and will not help you much in China. Be sure to decide if you want to simply be able to speak Chinese, or if you’re ready to go whole-hog and learn the lot.
Level of Difficulty
Mandarin Chinese is listed by the CIA as one of the hardest languages for English-speakers to learn, along with Arabic, Japanese, Korean and Cantonese. Because of the tonal nature of Chinese, a word can have four different meanings depending on which tone is applied. Use the wrong tone, and Chinese listeners genuinely hear a different word. Context can usually clear things up, but this added layer of difficulty – having to memorize vocabulary and tonality – can frustrate some learners.
Which is to say nothing of reading and writing Chinese characters, which requires hours and hours of focused memorization. We say this not to discourage you – it can be done! – but to help you keep in mind the separate nature of speaking, and reading and writing.
As one of the “hot,” in-demand language right now, there are more Chinese language students than ever. As more and more international companies seek to do business in China – companies with headquarters in Stockholm, New York, Rome, Johannesburg, Cairo, Tokyo, etc. – more of their employees are learning the language. This means that at any given Chinese language school, you are likely to encounter students from all over the world, of all ages, in all different walks of life. This makes for one of the most diverse and exciting student demographics of any language.
Costs & Funding
Yeah, about getting to China…it will cost some coin. You have to move your body thousands of miles across the largest ocean on earth – and remember to stow your tray table. Flight deals are common though, so keep an eye peeled. Cost of living will vary: in Beijing and Shanghai especially, drinks, food staples, and rent will be high, just as in New York or Paris. Outside of those few cities, though, prices drop dramatically. The average Chinese citizen does not make a lot of money, and prices reflect that. Current exchange rates put one dollar worth roughly seven Chinese yuan, so students can order big hearty meals for the equivalent of roughly thirty American cents. Cha-ching!
There are also lots of opportunities for Americans to make money on the side. English-speaking westerners are a hot commodity in smaller Chinese cities, so do not be surprised if you are approached about tutoring the children of wealthy business people, doing voice-over work for cartoons and textbooks, or even doing fashion modeling. Seriously!
- Boren Scholarships: This scholarship, good for up to $20,000, is for language students looking to study in a region deemed critical to US national security. Specifically mentioned on this list are students looking to study Chinese in China.
- Benjamin A. Gilman International Scholarship Program: This scholarship, intended specifically for students with a financial need, offers $5,000 to any student already receiving a Pell Grant, and already accepted into a Chinese study abroad program for college credit.