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A Beginner’s Guide To Studying Chinese In China

Learning Mandarin seems to be the global craze these days. People from every corner of the world are flocking to China and many universities have entire campuses dedicated solely to the teaching of Chinese to foreigners. International students are spending thousands of dollars to live and study Mandarin in China’s top institutions, some even coming straight from high school and forgoing traditional degrees in their home countries altogether.

But what are the real benefits of learning Chinese and what might you expect should you choose to dedicate a few years of your life to the language?

As a foreign born Chinese, I felt compelled to return to my homeland to learn more about the people, the culture and the language of my ancestors. My reasons for moving to China were more cultural than anything else, so my experience might be coloured differently to yours. However, speaking as a student alone I believe my experiences could be very valuable to you should you find yourself thinking about an extended journey into China.

How long will I need?

I’ve studied a handful of languages in my time and Chinese was the most difficult by a long shot.

If you go in as a complete beginner, most university courses will require just over 2 years for you to reach a “fluent” level, assuming you are doing a full time course (around 20 hours per week).

The university I studied at had 9 levels, (A to I, with “A” being complete beginner and “I” being fluent) and in a semester you would complete two levels. Therefore to complete A to I would require 5 semesters. That works out to just over 2 years, assuming you pass every exam.

Technically you can also do summer school each year which might reduce your time to 18 months, although this means you’ll be in the classroom studying Chinese full time for 18 months with no holidays which won’t be much fun.

Here are some exceptions I’m aware of:

  1. You’re Japanese – Because Japanese people can already read and write a crapload of Chinese characters, they don’t need 2+ years. They may only need one. Probably 70% of Chinese study time relates to reading and writing, and Japanese Kanji in many cases is identical to its Chinese counterpart. The Japanese people in my beginner level class were able to read an entire Chinese menu before we’d even learned our first character.
  2. You speak Cantonese – I don’t speak Cantonese, but just from all the years listening to Cantonese chatter among my friends and family I was able to recognise the Mandarin words for quite a lot of things. I had a couple of Cantonese speakers in my beginner class and they were able to understand taxi drivers and waitresses before we’d even learned how to count to 5.

If you fall into one of these groups, you’re lucky – you’ll learn Mandarin a lot faster than the average student. To give you an idea of what I’m talking about, it’s a bit like native English speakers learning Spanish.

Imagine it’s the first day of Spanish class, and you see the words teléfono, restaurante, refrigerador, elefante, and television written on the board. You can’t speak one lick of Spanish but just by looking at the words you already know what they mean (if you’re a little dense, it’s telephone, restaurant, refrigerator, elephant and television).

However a Japanese person who has no knowledge of English would not have a clue what the words mean. To him they’re just going to look like a bunch of scribbles, or perhaps a wavy, elongated piece of art.

When you’re studying Chinese, the tables turn. You’re the one seeing scribbles, and the Japanese/Cantonese guy is the one who already knows everything.

How difficult is it?

Mandarin is a language that is both tonal and character based. This makes it unique from any other foreign language that I know of, which are often one or the other but not both. It’s for these reasons Chinese is considered one of the more difficult languages to learn for native English speakers.

Tones

Tonal languages are notoriously difficult and learning how to speak in tones is mostly a foreign concept to native English speakers. We use tones to convey feeling and emotion – it doesn’t matter whether we say the word hungry in an upward tone or a downward tone the end result is we’re still hungry.

Not true in Chinese. For example, the words shúi, shuǐ and shuì mean who, water and sleep. The words are spelt exactly the same, however they are differentiated by the tone you say it in (represented by those dashes above the word). Therefore, you might be dying of thirst and telling your Chinese friend you need water, but if you say the word water in the wrong tone he might go upstairs and make up a bed for you thinking you need a nap. Or you might ask the waitress how much a water costs and she’ll end up slapping you thinking you’re asking how much it costs to sleep with her. These scenarios are not uncommon.

The tones come easier to some people than they do to others. It’s common to find students who can recognise and reproduce each tone after a few days and some who still can’t tell the difference after several years. Whether it will prove difficult for you depends on your own ear and whether it comes naturally to you or not.

Characters

When learning English we need to learn to write 52 characters – 26 letters, upper and lower case. Remember how hard it was learning to write them all exactly how the teacher wanted?  However, armed with our 52 letters, we can now read and write every single word in the English language, even if we might not know the meaning.

Chinese on the other hand has no alphabet. It’s a character based language which means it has a unique character for every single word that exists. Therefore you’ll need to learn how to read and write around 4,000 unique characters before you can read a newspaper, maybe 6,000 to read a typical university textbook and upwards of 20,000 if you want to study medicine.

This is not difficult per se, as in you don’t need to be particularly intelligent to do it. It’s rather just very time consuming and requires a lot of dedication and study time. This can be a good or bad thing, depending on the individual learner.

While I was studying Chinese I found that 70% of class time was dedicated to reading and writing characters. When preparing for exams, my entire study time was sitting in a café writing out pages of characters trying to memorise them. If you can’t read the characters, you can’t read the exam questions and if you can’t read the exam questions, you can’t answer the exam, and if you can’t answer the exam you can’t pass and if you can’t pass you can’t advance to the next level – do not pass Go, do not collect $200. So with no other choice I memorised them, and I didn’t enjoy it very much.

I was told by my teacher that when primary school students learn a new character they are asked to write it out 100+ times every day. It kind of makes you understand why Chinese people have a reputation for studying so hard. They’ve been spending hours memorising these damn little pictures since the first day of school!

Now, in my opinion studying language should be fun, and this part of studying Chinese is rarely fun. I believe a valid alternative is to forget about the writing aspect altogether. Learning to read is manageable but learning to write is where the bulk of your time will go to. I believe you can cut your learning time in half if you forgo the writing component and just concentrate on speaking, listening and reading, in that order. This approach is becoming popular, and there are now schools in China offering courses where only speaking and listening are taught and character learning is forgotten. Because I studied at a university, I had no choice. My exams needed to be passed or I would’ve lost my scholarship, and therefore I spent the hours needed to memorise all the pictureboxes so I could pass my reading and writing exams. However, I really advise that new students consider whether it’s important to them to read and write Chinese. If you think speaking and understanding Chinese is sufficient for your needs, you may find the investment required for reading and writing simply not worth it. And remember – just my opinion.

Choosing a city

As with every language, immersion is the key to effective learning. If you’re serious about learning Chinese you absolutely must be considering spending some time studying or at least living in China. I spent hours scouring forums and blogs trying to decide which city might be the best for me. In the end I chose Shanghai, so that is the only city I can speak about from experience, but let me say that after spending time in the country I now believe the city you choose will not matter a whole lot. Here’s why:

While researching cities there were many common criticisms that were repeated over and over again – weather in Shanghai is shit. It’s too hot. It’s too cold. They don’t even speak Mandarin, they speak Shanghainese. You’ll end up learning Shanghainese instead of Mandarin. There aren’t even any Chinese people there, only foreigners. You’ll just speak English the whole time. It’s so expensive. Way more expensive than the rest of China. There’s no culture there. Just commerce. It’s not even the capital. Shanghai doesn’t even exist. It’s a magical world like Atlantis. You’re going to die. People are going to eat you.

So, naturally I chose Shanghai. Yet as developed as it is, Shanghai is still very Chinese. There are certainly a few foreign dominated areas where you’ll only see white faces but the majority of the city is still yellow faced. It’s expensive if you eat at Italian restaurants, but the noodle shack on the side street will still feed you for $2. Every local speaks Mandarin unless he’s mute or over 100. You can’t speak English the whole time because 99% of locals in Shanghai don’t speak any. The point is, Shanghai is China’s most international city and it’s still a great place for immersion learning, so I’m confident every major city in China will serve you well in this regard.

Therefore, the city you choose should depend on your other preferences – big city, small city, hot weather, cold weather etc. For this you’ll need to do your own research. But certainly don’t be put off by people saying you can only learn Chinese in Beijing because Shanghai people have shit accents and Guangzhou people can’t even speak Mandarin. It’s bad advice from silly people.

Choosing a school

Once you’ve chosen a city you need to choose a school. You may have already decided that you want to study at the famous Beijing Language and Culture University because everyone talks about it, or at Peking University because it’s the top ranked school in the country.

At first I was basing my decision on which school had the best teachers and the most effective course. After having studied there for a year, I’m of the belief that it doesn’t really matter which course you’re in as the language is so systematic and cannot really be taught in too many different ways. How well you learn will mostly depend on how much time you spend practising and revising, which is obviously irrelevant to who your teacher is and which textbook you have. It’s not going to matter whether you’re writing out characters in a Beijing classroom or a Chengdu classroom. Of course not every course will be identical, but most universities model their courses around the HSK program (kind of a like a Chinese version of IELTS), which means they will all take a somewhat similar direction anyway.

Rather than basing your decision on course quality or teaching quality, try choosing your school based on cost, facilities and location. What’s important to you? I studied at Fudan University, which had an amazing campus complete with gym, massive cafeterias, and a decent quality international students dormitory. It also had good classrooms, free wifi, fast internet in the dorms, and a large foreign student community. However, it’s obviously more expensive than some boutique schools and smaller universities.

Fudan University Dorm Room
Foreign student’s dorm room at Fudan

Fudan classroomTypical Fudan University classroom

If you want to live closer to the city centre in Shanghai, you might choose Jiaotong University, or a cheaper option might be Donghua University. For a smaller and probably cheaper school you might choose East China Normal University (ECNU) or SISU (Shanghai Intl Studies University), which both have good reputations and are a little less “cliché”.

Scholarships

I was lucky enough to be awarded a scholarship for my one year of study. This included:

  • All tuition fees paid
  • All accommodation paid
  • A monthly allowance of around $300 for food, transport etc.
  • A small allowance for textbooks
  • Health insurance
  • Your choice of (almost) any university in the country

I chose to study at Fudan University in Shanghai, and all up I estimate the scholarship was worth around $10,000.

Needless to say, my advice is to apply for this scholarship! My particular scholarship was the New Zealand – China scholarship from the Confucius Institute of the University of Auckland (link here)

For more information, you can check out my post on how to get a Study in China scholarship here.

What to expect

If you’re in a university or school environment, expect to meet a lot of people from everywhere. It’s not like language schools in Spain where people are mostly from Western Europe, or down in South America where people are mostly American. China draws people from every corner of the world. My first class had one Korean, one Japanese, three French, one American, two Mexicans, one Spanish, two Brazilians, one Hungarian, one Australian, one girl from Hong Kong and one girl from the Bahamas. In comparison, my first Spanish class in Spain had ten students, and every single one of them was from Europe except for a lone Japanese guy (and me, of course).

In class Fudan Morning class at Fudan

As for living, China is a unique place. I won’t go into the details of living in China, but just know you won’t starve and you won’t go broke and it’s very safe. You’ll get used to it.

In terms of class time, you’ll be mostly learning tones and basic phrases for the first couple of weeks. The speed is manageable and there is bound to be someone in your class who is having a harder time than you…hopefully. The first two weeks will start with pinyin which means using English letters to write Chinese words. For example, the word for water, can be written in pinyin as shuǐ , or in Chinese as 水. Obviously pinyin is easier, which is why you start with it, but characters will probably start being introduced within a couple of weeks.

There is not a lot of grammar in Chinese, at least in comparison to English, so you’ll find a lot of your study will revolve around learning new vocabulary and phrases with the odd grammar point here and there. Typically you can expect to learn around 30 new characters a week on average.

After half a semester you’ll be expected to be able to get around on your own, for example, asking which train to catch or where the bus stop is, as well as being able to read and write those phrases in Chinese. A typical writing exam question at the end of your first semester might be “write about what you did on the weekend”. You’d be expected to write (in Chinese characters) something like I woke up at 8 o clock, I had breakfast at a cafe with my friend, I did homework, I ate at a restaurant with my classmate, we ate whatever, I rode my bike to wherever, I went to sleep at 10pm etc etc. This might seem simple for a few months work but remember, it might only take you a few days to learn to say all that but it will take you a lot longer to learn (and remember) how to write it.

You can expect to have learned the majority of basic grammar after a full semester, being able to say most basic things you would need to say (perhaps not perfectly but you’ll get your message across). After that it’s just a matter of expanding your vocab and learning the odd advanced grammar point to make your Chinese sound more ‘natural’.

Expect to be able to complete HSK3 after a semester, HSK4 during your second semester and HSK5 after a year if you’re a good student. I only know one guy from my class who even bothered to attempt HSK5 at the 1 year mark, and he passed (he was Japanese). The rest of us sort of knew we wouldn’t pass it so we didn’t try.

For those who don’t know, HSK5 is the level required to enter university in China as an undergraduate, i.e. to start doing a proper degree at a Chinese university.

Visa

China is pretty anal about visas so the visa process is basically a hoop jumping festival that lasts several months (for me anyway).

You’ll need a medical exam completed by your doctor for the entry visa application, the university application and then the residence visa application in country. Photocopies aren’t accepted, so make sure you get three, handwritten copies of your medical exam for each application, otherwise you’ll end up paying for three seperate medical exams like I did. There’s a bunch of other crap too but it’s all explained to you once you get into the country.

One Final Tip: Study To Improve Your Chinese, Not To Pass Exams

Most students structure their study around trying to pass the HSK exams. The problem with this is it requires you to learn how to read and write a lot of words that you will never use and probably don’t even use in English. Therefore, I’d advise against this approach unless there is a real reason that you need to acquire HSK, i.e. to gain university entrance, job requirements etc. If I could do my scholarship all over again I would spend far less time writing out characters in coffee shops and instead spent it listening to audios and practising my speaking. My grades would’ve definitely slipped but in hindsight that is not important at all. You’ll find yourself in situations every day where you wish you knew how to say something, but there was not a single real life situation during my year in China that required me to write Chinese. Remember that you’re learning Chinese so you can communicate with people; not to pass an exam.

Just do it

I spent countless hours researching studying Chinese in China before I finally decided to do it. Some things turned out exactly as planned and some things didn’t. I can say though it was an incredible experience and one I recommend to everyone. As we all know, China is booming and it’s an incredible place in the world to be right now. If you’ve been thinking about doing something like this – just get on the plane and go.

Questions? Feel free to get in touch or leave a comment below, I’ll be more than happy to help in any way I can!

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6 thoughts on “A Beginner’s Guide To Studying Chinese In China

  1. Hi Bren! This kind of information unfortunately is hard to find unless you dig in hard enough or if someone unselfishly shares it with you. For that, thank you for the tips and advices on this article and others. Needless to say I’m a fan of yours! I really enjoy reading your blog and find it very refreshing and funny. Good luck on your next project!

    1. Hi Bernadette – You’re welcome! I remember before my trip to China I couldn’t find any practical information on studying there, and found that quite frustrating. I suppose I’ve just written the post that I wish had existed before my trip. Hope it helps!

  2. Thanks so much for writing this post – really massively helpful! 🙂 I’m moving to Shanghai in August because my husband has been offered a job there, and I’m planning to study Chinese to improve my own job prospects. I just wondered if you get many older foreign students at university there? I’m 35 and not keen on feeling ancient every time I set foot in a classroom!

    1. I had one 38 year old in my class and quite a few in their late 20’s. It will be mostly early 20’s in the universities though. Language schools could be different but I’m not sure.

  3. Hi Bren,
    Thanks for the post, I have a question. I don’t want to get full meds done in NZ because they’ll be hella expensive. The prospective school said that’s fine, just get a letter from a Doctor stating I’m in good health. Is this correct, I don’t want to go to the consulate and they decline my entry visa just because I didn’t get my chest X-rays done.

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