Mandarin Chinese is the most widely spoken language in the world, and one that language learners are choosing to learn more and more often. However, sitting in a language class within your home country won't do you any justice -- which is why you've decided to learn Chinese in China.
China is one of the oldest civilizations in the world, and being able to be surrounded by such a traditional but modern, fast-paced but consistent, and diverse but welcoming atmosphere will be a mind-opening experience for anyone interested in becoming a part of the global community. Consider going to such a place, where you will see and experience a much different side of the world.
Learning Mandarin Chinese in China is an unparalleled experience. Not only will you be able to immerse yourself in the language and improve on your abilities, but you’ll also open your mind to a world rarely seen in your home country. China has such a rich history and culture that can truly only be felt by going. You will not regret it.
Everyone learns differently; some need to be more interactive with the subject in order to grasp it, some like to look at pictures to understand the material, and some can just work off of a textbook. Nonetheless, this same feel can be applied to language: which is why just going to the home of the language is a great way to improve: you can choose whatever works best for you!
A homestay is the ultimate way to immerse yourself in the Chinese language. This allows you to learn the language while living with a host family and while taking courses at the same time; usually the program provides the courses for you. Some programs also offer a combination of living and teaching homestays to keep the costs low, as well.
Taking language courses at a university happens to work best for learners currently enrolled in a college or university, since many universities can place their students in institutions overseas. Universities that are popular amongst students are Tsinghua University, Peking University, and Beijing Normal University in Beijing; Fudan University and Shanghai Jiao Tong University in Shanghai; Nanjing University in Nanjing; and Zhejiang University in Hangzhou.
These programs are easy for university students because students are able to transfer credits gained abroad in their respective home universities. They also have options to study other classes offered abroad rather than just language, and thus are able to learn Chinese as well as learning the Chinese perspective on a chosen topic.
Private Tutoring / Group Courses
Private tutoring tends to be pricier than group courses, although both have a few people learning together. Private tutoring is more flexible than group courses as well; you can choose the length, choose your own schedule, and even choose your way of learning. These programs are better in China because once they’re done for the day; you get to directly experience what you’ve been talking in class!
Not only will you get direct Chinese learning in a classroom or small group setting, you get to apply it immediately. This is something you simply cannot get back at home.
Language & Internship Combination Programs
Many programs offer a combination of language study and internships, while also scheduling hangouts with other program attendees. These activities can be cultural, ranging from visits to temples, the Great Wall (if nearby), watching a traditional performance, going to festivals, etc. These programs are a great way to practice your Chinese into many different areas: not only in a classroom setting or workplace, but a combination of both and more.
When choosing a course, keep in mind that Mandarin Chinese is not actually spoken locally throughout all of China. While it is the national language, many dialects (or regionalects, as some researchers say) are spoken throughout the country, and sometimes they will be more common than Mandarin.
There are seven (or eight, this is still being debated) different language families: Mandarin, Wu (includes Shanghainese), Yue (includes Cantonese), Min (includes Taiwanese), Xiang, Hakka, and Gan; all which are mutually unintelligible from each other and are only connected by way of writing (barely), similar use of vocabulary, and historical roots. Thus, your focus (hey, maybe you want to learn one of these dialects) will help you narrow down the cities you want to learn Chinese in.
You'll also have to decide on what size city you want to live in. Should you go for a major city like Beijing or Shanghai? Or do you want a smaller, more peaceful city? (Yes, they do exist in China!) Also consider the regionalect, politics, history, and economic situation of each location. Truly, China offers something for everyone.
We have a few of the most popular destinations below, but you might also want to take a look at our list of budget destinations for learning Chinese abroad, and our list of the best cities to teach in China (yes, it's focused on teachers, but it gives a great overview of what life in those cities are like!)
Beijing is one of the most popular places to learn Chinese abroad (if not the most popular), due to its status as the political and administrative capital of China. There is also much history and tradition behind this great city, including the entrance to the Great Wall of China.
One of the advantages of learning Chinese in Beijing is the fact that Mandarin Chinese is spoken locally, meaning it will be heard everywhere, which cannot be said for a lot of places in China. Mandarin also takes its standard from the Chinese spoken in Beijing, and thus you will be able to perfect the “natural” Mandarin Chinese accent in this way. However, other cities have their plusses too.
As with Beijing, Shanghai is another popular destination but with a more modern twist. Shanghai, the financial capital of China, is a city constantly growing and developing, making its mark primarily within international business. Opportunities are just as plentiful in Shanghai. Unlike in Beijing, Mandarin Chinese is not as spoken natively, as Shanghainese (a part of the Wu language family, the second largest family) is the primary dialect spoken on the streets of Shanghai.
However, this is not to say that no one speaks Mandarin Chinese: everyone is taught to speak Mandarin in school and most business transactions are done in Mandarin. Just beware that unless natives talk directly to you, you may be hearing things that you don’t understand and aren’t exactly the kind of tone and the kind of speech you learned in school; that’s Shanghainese.X’ian
China’s true historical capital, and is also known as one of the Four Great Ancient Capitals of China. It is home to many archaeological and historical sites such as the Terracotta Soldiers, temples, and pagodas and was also a major point in the Silk Road and other trade routes. Xi’an is also growing as a city, and thus sometimes you can see a mixture in architecture between the traditional and the modern. Like Shanghai, Xi’an also has their own dialect, called Zhongyuan, within the Mandarin language family. However, the difference between Mandarin and Zhongyuan isn’t as severe as between Mandarin and Wu. Mandarin is spoken throughout the city.
Still part of the Mainland, Guangzhou is the third largest city in China, and the largest city in southern China. It is an important trading port and a vital site in international business. The people there mainly speak Cantonese (part of the Yue language family), and are similar to an extent to the situation in Shanghai. Other regionalects like Hakka have significant numbers within Guangzhou as well.
Need to Know
Yay! You’ve made your decision to learn Chinese in China! But wait; there is much more consider than just location and type of program:
There are types of programs for everyone: whether you’re intermediate, advanced, or have just started; there is a program for you. The most popular programs are en lieu with universities, however there are also those for younger and older learners. No matter what country you’re from, it is important to remember to get a visa to travel there. The Chinese embassy is a great resource for more details.
The possibilities are endless for those who want more than just your typical language lesson. For true cultural immersion, consider living in a homestay, where you’ll be forced to speak Mandarin Chinese not only in class, but in your downtime too! And maybe you’ll pick up some of the local dialect while you’re at it. Communicate as much as possible, get to know your family well. Living in a homestay is a great way to get a real sense for how the Chinese live and go about their daily lives.
If you're not in a homestay, going on as many trips to see the city is good too! Just walking around the streets can tell you a lot. In the mornings, you’ll experience the daily exercise routine of the middle-aged and elderly as you walk to class, during lunchtime, you’ll hear the (loud!) small talk of friendly local sellers while strolling through the park; and you’ll see the lights as you head home. Experience it for yourself. Go by yourself, go with friends; and experience all that China has to offer!
Cost & Funding
In general, cost of living in China is low / affordable. Even in bigger cities, Chinese learners on a budget can live off affordable street food and have a good quality of life. Average apartments in major cities can be pretty pricy, but are less so outside of Shanghai and Beijing. Prices for homestays and shared apartments vary by program.
Rural areas are cheaper, but facilities and living conditions also tend to be more basic.
In both urban and rural areas, public transportation is hugely relied on by locals and therefore affordable. Bus costs in Shanghai are a mere 2 RMB (30 cents), subway costs are anywhere from 4RMB-6RMB (60 cents to $1), while taxi fares start at 12 RMB ($2); and other places are even less than that.
As for course costs, private lessons are the most convenient, but are the most expensive option. Generally, the cost of a Chinese course depends on the class size and the amount of hours you want to commit to each week.
There are quite a few scholarships that can also help fund some of the costs for learning Chinese in China -- especially if you're still in university.
The United States government's 1000 Strong initiative includes several vetted resources for scholarships.
Chinese is also one of the languages that the Critical Language Scholarship supports.
While completing your TEFL course, many companies provide accommodations or assistance to find accommodations for the duration of the course. After the course, TEFL companies will assist with finding housing for either short or long-term stays. The cost of living depends entirely on where you plan on teaching. In the city center, a one-bedroom apartment per month may total roughly $550 USD per month, compared to an apartment located on the outskirts totaling around $350 USD.
However, the day-to-day expenses are relatively low, with meals only costing roughly $5-$10 USD, and a round-trip bus ride totaling $2-$3 USD. A trip to the store to buy milk and eggs may cost you approximately $3-$5 USD, and if you want to splurge on a gin and tonic at the local bar, you may be shelling out roughly $8-$11 USD. The cost of living in China allows many teachers to save money, live within a budget that isn’t reminiscent of college days, and still enjoy the occasional splurge without feeling like you’ve been robbed.