Why You Should Learn Chinese as Expat in China
As you are planning to spend some time in China, you are probably also thinking about learning Chinese, or actually Mandarin, as the most common Chinese dialect is called.
Why to learn at least some Chinese
Basic Chinese language skills make a world of a difference in everyday life and your sense of independence. While there are areas in Beijing where you can get by with English or just a few words of Mandarin and maybe a phone app, the ability to communicate with taxi drivers, sales people in stores and people on the street just makes the experience of living in China much more fun.
Therefore, I highly encourage everyone who will spend some time in China to learn at least some common characters, basics words and phrases that most Chinese will appreciate. It will make your life easier, even if you have no intention of mastering the Chinese language and will live in an expat area where you can get by without speaking Chinese.
You can start building a foundation before you come by taking classes or using language learning software like Fluenz or Rosetta Stone at home. Once you are in China it will be much easier to learn more Mandarin, because you have the opportunity – or need – to actually use the language on a regular basis.
How to learn Mandarin in China
Do you need structured learning in a class setting or does just immersion work? My take is that learning Mandarin is not easy for many Westerners because it is so different from English and other Western languages in so many ways. Therefore just picking up Mandarin from your surroundings without actually putting in the time and sweat that come with structured classes is not very realistic.
There are many different classes available in Beijing, and many schools promote their own approach to teaching the language. So which one to choose? Well, every person learns differently, so there is not one single best way that works for everyone to learn the Chinese language. Some people, like me, are very visual and need to see things written, others learn more through hearing and repeating; some need clear explanations for grammar rules, others just need to get a feel for what sounds right. I would suggest trying out different teaching approaches and seeing what best suits your personal learning style. Of course, recommendations from others are always a good starting point.
Language school and private teacher
You can take Chinese classes at a language school or with a private teacher, or both. The most committed folks I met, who wanted to gain basic fluency quickly, took morning classes at a school and additional private classes for conversational skills in the afternoon. This is quite a commitment but it seems to pay off as I witnessed with friends.
Most schools offer a free trial lesson and let you sit in on a regular class before signing up. Look for small class sizes, no more than 4 or 5 people, and opportunity for unscripted dialog to practice the new words and grammar. Ideally, the school has many different levels, so that on each level the students have similar skills. The advantages of a class are that you can also learn from other people’s mistakes, get challenged by their progress, meet new people and maybe find a study buddy.
Private teachers also usually give a free trial lesson. They offer more flexibility and can come to your house or office, saving you the time to commute. My own experience with private teachers is very good and I can only recommend finding one, even if you also plan to take classes at a language school. Look for a teacher who has a lesson plan, proven teaching material, and comes recommended. (See also my Resources for books on Chinese grammar and learning characters.)
I actually combined the advantages of class and private lesson by teaming up with a friend with similar skill level. We had 2:1 classes with a private teacher, which is less expensive than 1:1 and more fun, I think. (I’m not fluent and never will be, because I’m not putting in the time to practice, but I speak enough to get by in a Chinese neighborhood where few people speak English.)
A private teacher may also offer to help you out in the beginning in situations where you need someone who can speak Chinese, e.g. getting your mobile phone set up, or buying train tickets. Of course you should not abuse their friendliness and reimburse them for their time as you do for an actual class.
Technology can help with communication and learning
Having a good Mandarin-English dictionary app on your smartphone can be a life saver, or at least it can help you find the bleach in a supermarket. A dictionary app is a daily companion for many expats, and there are a great variety of apps to choose from.
Another useful tool is Google Translate. Even though the translations are often funny or weird, in situations where you don’t speak any Mandarin and the Chinese person you are dealing with doesn’t speak any English, it is a big help.
There are also other apps to help you with learning Chinese, like flashcard apps to review vocabulary on the go, apps to learn numbers and tones, or to write characters. With all these options and tools, learning Chinese is not that hard, and it pays off in daily life.