Are you scared coming to China and not speaking a word of Chinese?
While it is possible to get by with just English in some areas of Beijing, learning at least basic Mandarin makes a huge difference in every day life. Of course, you can put off learning the Chinese language until you actually are in China. After all, a language is easier to learn when you are exposed to it every day. But you can prepare and build a foundation before you come.
Let’s have a look at 3 ways to learn Mandarin before you come to China.
Learning a new language is often associated with a classroom setting with a teacher and other students. This is not necessarily the best way to become fluent in a language but it will do to build a basic foundation.
In the US (I can’t speak for other countries) some colleges and universities offer language classes for the public, e.g. in so-called extension programs. Community colleges may also offer classes, usually at more affordable rates. Just be realistic that in a class with 20 or more people, you will not get more than an initial taste of the language. I also wanted to point out that many Mandarin teachers in the US are originally from Taiwan and may use different phrases and pronunciation than what you will hear in Beijing.
Depending on where you live, finding a beginner’s Mandarin class may not be easy. Good thing is that you have other options.
Software and audio programs
You can get a head start at home with software and audio programs like Fluenz, Rosetta Stone, Pimsleur, and a variety of podcasts. I tried Pimsleur and Fluenz and liked both for different reasons.
Fluenz is a bit pricey but it gave me a good foundation for tones and basic vocabulary and word order in Chinese sentences. It will not teach you many words or fancy grammar but focuses on fewer useful words and phrases and essential Mandarin for daily life. It teaches basic Mandarin really well, and in my first few weeks in Beijing I have used many times what I had learned with Fluenz.
Rosetta Stone is a well-known language software. It is roughly the same price as Fluenz but takes a very different approach. While Rosetta Stone uses immersion with as little English as possible, Fluenz leverages what you know about language to help you understand how Mandarin works. I have not used Rosetta Stone myself. After comparing its approach and reviews with those of Fluenz, I came to the conclusion that Fluenz fits my learning style better. (I need explanations that link back to a language that I already know.)
Pimsleur helped me with listening comprehension and intonation of spoken Chinese. It was perfect for use at the gym – each audio lesson is about 20 minutes, which made a cardio workout go by much faster. (You just have to ignore the funny stares of the person next to you as you repeat and reply in Chinese along with the audio.) Unfortunately, the Pimsleur course does not have a great variety of topics but it covers some common situations.
Podcasts are a convenient way to learn some basic Mandarin on the go. Popup Chinese provides popular free Chinese learning podcasts although many are targeted at the intermediate to advanced speaker. You will find many more Mandarin learning podcasts online. Same as for other classes, you should try out a few and see which style and pace works best for you.
Finding a private tutor in your home town can be difficult, even if there is a big Chinese population. Native Mandarin speakers without training or experience teaching their language are great later on when you need a language buddy to practice your new skills. But they are not the best option to learn the basics. Luckily, there are experienced Mandarin teachers in China who also give Skype classes. You can even find some of them on LinkedIn.
This gives you a couple of options to get a head start on learning Mandarin, whether it is just listening to some free podcast on the go or diving into more comprehensive and expensive classes and programs. It will give you more confidence when you arrive here and is a good foundation to advance your Chinese language skills while in China.