Is China a good place to learn Chinese?

The short answer: it’s not great, but it’s better than a lot of other places.

Problems with learning Chinese in China

  1. A lot of people speak English. I teach English for the English department. They all speak English. My students speak English. Most of my life is in English. This also means the urgency for learning Chinese is reduced because you can usually find English-speaking people who will help you accomplish whatever it is you need to do.
  2. People want to practice their English at you. Teddi and I started calling them “yingwen bandits” because strangers would ambush us and bludgeon us in the ears with a loud “Where are you come from!?” On the other hand, a lot of times, if I know the person speaks English, I’ll feel a little guilty speaking Chinese because I know one of the main reasons they’re hanging out with me is probably to practice English.
  3. There aren’t very many resources in the common bookstores for foreigners learning Chinese. Just count how many dictionaries have pinyin in them. Almost all the text books want to teach foreigners how to write hanzi and that, in my opinion, is a good project to start after one is fluent with speaking and listening. So, unless you brought your own stuff, you’re stuck with children’s pinyin books (without English translations) and Chubby.
  4. It is also worth noting that many expats find it difficult to make Chinese friends. I haven’t found that to be the case. But then again, I live on campus at a university teeming with colleagues (there is a good side to #1). I also have some hobbies (ping pong) that give me opportunities to meet people outside the work environment.

So, you really don’t need to speak Chinese in China. I’ve met people who have traveled all over the country, lived here for years and years, even had a Chinese house-mate, and still couldn’t tell the time in Chinese. If you need something done, there is probably someone with good enough English and an eagerness to practice it that will be willing to help you do it.

The good thing about learning Chinese in China

  1. The second language (L2) environment

The L2 environment does help with motivation (e.g. “I really want to learn Chinese so I can talk to that guy right there”). But as for the “Oh I’ll just pick it up” theory: rubbish. Not with Chinese at least. I’ve known of very few adults who did that with Chinese. But it is better to learn Chinese in China than in a classroom in America because the probability that you’ll be able to apply what you’ve learned is higher (though not guaranteed).

How to stack the deck in favor of your learning Chinese in China

I always seem to have the same conversation with my English students. It goes something like this:

S: Teacher, how can I improve my spoken English?

A: Get a foreign boyfriend.

S: Hahaha. No really.

A: No really.

As cliché as it sounds, the two ways people usually learn Chinese the fastest are:

  1. Get a Chinese boyfriend/girlfriend
  2. Go to bars a lot

And even then, there’s no guarantee. One of the best alternatives/supplements to those two strategies is to find an informant.

Comments

  1. You’ve summed up the experience we have here in Taiwan as well, at least in Taipei. My Taiwanese friends frequently question me on this, arguing that I’m in a living classroom, but in fact I can go through most days without using any Chinese at all. Come to think of it, it’s now 6 p.m. and I haven’t spoken a word of Chinese all day! Most of the time, I lament the overuse of English here, however there are times when I’m grateful for it, such as trips to the dentist!

    You’re right, though – it’s much better than trying to learn back in the US. Just hearing the sounds on a regular basis makes it easier to learn pronunciation, and I will say I have managed to pick up phrases here and there just by hearing them so frequently and then putting in the legwork to investigate their meanings.

  2. I just don’t get it…Perhaps its an unwillingness to experience the “living classroom.” Too much of the time, I see my friends and other foreigners who are trying to learn Chinese constantly practicing with each other instead of going out and speaking with Chinese people. I guess this is assuming at least a year or so of college level Chinese in their home country, but with that and Chinese classes in China, all it takes is to go places. Instead of eating at McDonalds, go to a small local restaurant and chat with the people there (granted, this requires lowering expectations as to the cleanliness of a dining establisment as well as a bit of courage to talk with strangers). Going to a bar won’t help, because thats a place where people will be speaking English and with music too loud to hold a conversation. The friends that I see “trying” (which includes resisting the urge to speak English) improve more in a 3 month summer program in China than they do in yearlong programs in US universities.

  3. I wholeheartedly agree with b.cheng: you have to leave the comfort zone to make the most of “the living classroom.” So many foreigners are happy to study Chinese yet so few are willing to communicate with Chinese people. The security blanket of a badly pronounced 我听不懂 and a superiority complex still goes a long way in China.

    Yet, there is a huge difference between living in China and being wrapped in this security blanket and living in China and speaking Chinese. You may not always make great friends but you can have great experiences far beyond anywhere English can take you China. If you really try to engage with Chinese people in their language you can make great strides.

    I also study Chinese independently and have found eating in small local restaurants, talking with taxi drivers, sitting squashed between the chickens and the 哥们儿 on train journeys that average Chinese people are unfailingly helpful to those making the effort to speak Chinese (though not always University students, who often have this deeply sinister ability to draw English from your veins). Tap into Chinese curiosity toward westerners and western culture and the opportunities for conversations are endless. I don’t promise, however, that every conversation is enlightening, but you learn to take the good with the bad.

    There are a lot of people in China who speak English, but then there a lot of people in China. Step onto a train in China or walk into any family-run restaurant and out of 100 people perhaps two or three will speak English good enough to hold a conversation, mundane though it may be. Yes, people want to speak with you to practice their English, but you soon develop a sense about those who genuinely want to speak to you and those who want to take advantage of you to improve their “just so-so” English. Either become a little defensive toward strangers approaching you English or erase all memory of the film Titanic, Celine Dion or any other embarrassing cultural artifacts from the west and most conversations will fall flat anyway. I just wish as many 老外 made similar efforts to learn Chinese.

    For those who haven’t visited China yet, you’d be amazed at how many foreigners have lived here for years yet still fumble over asking “how much is it?” Just as wealthy Chinese parents are sending their children to England or Australia to improve their English, only for them to return just as mute as when they left; so too do ex-pats in China repeat their mistake by insulating themselves from Chinese society.

    The idea that China is even being evaluated as a place to learn Chinese is warped: is there any other place but China where you can study Chinese? Taiwan, of course is a decent option but it’s a bit like studying English in Canada. You can make good progress, but what you gain in cleanliness and life quality you lose in experience. Besides, wherever China goes, the Chinese language will follow. Even in Beijing English isn’t as widespread as you’d expect. Opportunities to speak Chinese are greater than anywhere else on the planet you just need to get out there.

  4. Samahuhu

    Agreed with everything you said until I got to the last paragraph. Taiwan is not some antiseptic environment – it is a great place to live and to learn Chinese, and like anywhere else, if you approach it with the right attitude, it’s a fascinating place to live.

  5. As someone who’s spent a good deal of time living in Taiwan, and been to the mainland, too, I’d say that Taiwan is not the place to learn Chinese.

    Every week, some Taiwanese bozo insists on answering my Chinese in English. Yes, I can steer the conversation back to Chinese, and I use Chinese all the time here, but I’m already pretty fluent. Last time I was in Shanghai, the Chinese learning environment was better than I imagined possible. Despite my strong Taiwanese accent, barely anybody at all tried to use English with me, except on Nanjing dong lu. Beijing was even better.

  6. the best way is talking to the some chinese oversea students who are studying in othercountries such as your countries, people can speak chinese on MSN if you get, hotmail or other languages tools, would let you guys get chance, make friend as well, beacuse, it has always been the same way which is hard to find out friends in new countries.

  7. I speak perfect Mandarin,(no accent) because, my hometown is Tian Jin, where is not far from BeiJing, I am over 20, orginal chinese guy; and currently studying a college in North America.
    gee……hate to say which country.
    if you guys really love to learn chinese, like chinese culture,and also are studying in China, perheps, i can help little bit, you are welcomed to share your ideas, issues and interests from cultural difference. my email is –Ytong1@students.niagaracollege.ca— lol…. don’t be mean to me… …

  8. Same here where chinese overseas student’s are in western country. I know some people here who have lived in here for 5 or 6 years and still don’t speak English well. However, comparing to me, I think you are lucky in China. Because as you know loads of chinese people are crazy about learning english and not many people here want to learn chinese mandarin!

  9. In china doesn’t mean you have the enough oppertunity to use chinese. So if you want to learn Chinese well ,you’d
    better to use Chinese as frequently as possible the same as we learn English.

  10. I would amend your statement that “it’s difficult to make Chinese friends” into “it’s difficult to make CLOSE Chinese friends.” For most foreigners in China it is not difficult to rack up an entourage of Chinese acquaintances who want everything from English practice to the simple knowledge that of them being seen with a foreigner. What is difficult is making real friends who are interested in you as a person not as a laowai. This is not to say anything against Chinese people. Afterall, most of them are just being opportunistic. As you mention, if they want to improve their English, there is no better way than making friends who speak English.

  11. I’m learning Mandarin right now myself. I live in America but my wife and I went to Taiwan and China in May. I enjoyed visiting the two countries and that’s what sparked my interest in learning Mandarin. My wife is from Guangzhou, China. I feel that learning Mandarin isn’t very hard. It’s a lot of work just like learning any other language but I don’t feel like it’s very hard though. People make it harder than it really is. If you want to talk, my email is: marquette26@yahoo.com.

  12. I agree that it is difficult for foreigners to make close chinese friends in china.
    And another thing to consider is the city you live in in China. Beijing is probably the best option because people there don’t have a strong dialect. However when you are in Shanghaior Guangzhou it is probably hard to communicate with some chinese, since they speak with a strong dialect.

  13. I studied in Taiwan for a semester a couple years ago. I have not yet been to Mainland China but plan to once I graduate in a few months. Though I haven’t been to the mainland, I have to say that my experience in Taiwan greatly helped my Mandarin studies. When I came back to the US I was surprised by how bad my classmates’ pronunciation was. When I started having private lessons with a tutor from Beijing, her pronunciation was not so different from what I had studied in Taiwan.

  14. Hey very interesting… I wanna visit China some day but my Mandarin is not very good.
    Anyone care to be an email pal w me so can exchange interesting info abt China n other related topics pls email me at bestlife008-quest@yahoo.com.sg
    Looking for sincere friends from China n any English speaking ppl in China too right now can also email me if care to be a friend… 🙂

  15. yup, I agree with you, you can learn chinese from other people and from other country.
    Who are in Singapore and Malaysia, can meet up with me. I try my best to share with you, my email ercompany@hotmail.com

  16. Ha ha, yingwen bandits. When I lived in Taiwan my laowai friends and I called them “English Pirates”: they try to jump on board and steal free English lessons. There are only a few ways to make sure you create a real L2 learning environment while living in China or Taiwan – and, by the way, I had exactly the same problem living in Spain, so it is not particular to China:
    * Improve your Chinese so that it is better than most people’s English.
    * Avoid the pirates. Be polite but keep those conversations short.
    * Foster relationships with non-pirates. Those are the people you should get their number and invite them out to dinner.
    * Return to establishments where the wait staff responded to you in Chinese.
    * Hang out with other laowai who know Chinese; even having one non-speaker along means the whole outing will turn into an English one.
    * Go to parks and talk to old people. They are inevitably non-pirates, who have lots of time and patience, and likely really appreciate the attention. They also have the breadth of knowledge on Chinese history etc. to make for great Mandarin conversations.

    This is a problem Americans experience everywhere learning a foreign language abroad. I used the same techniques in Spain and while in France.

  17. 其实,我也感觉老外在中国学中文太难了,满大街都是说 英文的,留给他们讲中文的机会太少。不过,我有一个好主意,去和出租车司机聊天练中文,呵呵,他们不会英文,而且平时上班很枯燥,所以当你乘坐出租的时候,和他们练英文是再好不过的了。

    qíshí wǒ yě gǎnjué lǎowài zài Zhōngguó xué zhōngwén tài nán le, mǎn dàjiē dōu shì shuō yīngwén de, liúgěi tāmen jiǎng zhōngwén de jīhuì tài shǎo. búguò wǒ yǒu yī gè hǎo zhǔyì, qù hé chūzū chē sījī liáotiān liàn zhōngwén, hēhē, tāmen búhuì yīngwén, érqiě píngshí shàngbān hěn kūzào, suǒyǐ dāng nǐ chéngzuò chūzū de shíhòu, hé tāmen liàn yīngwén shì “zài hǎo búguò” de le.

  18. Dayu,

    I think you’re absolutely right! Some of my best chats have been with taxi drivers. I’ll often take a taxi over a bus just because I enjoy chatting with the drivers. It’s more expensive, but it’s like paying for a tennis teacher to just hit the ball around for a while (which people do).

    (I added pinyin to your comment, but I can’t promise I’ll do that every time)

  19. Albert, I think the best way to reply all you guys should be in Chinese. I hope I was that Tennise teacher or Cabbie.

    我还以为那些拼音是自动加上的,呵呵,全部写成拼音还是很费事儿的。所以,这次还是让我自己来加拼音注释吧。

    wǒ hái yǐ wéi nà xiē pīn yīn shì zì dòng jiā shàng de, hè hè, quán bù xiě chéng pīn yīn hǎi shī hěn fèi shì(er)de. suǒ yǐ, zhè cì hái shì ràng wǒ zì jǐ jiā pīn yīn zhù shì ba.

  20. I don’t dare to write in english,cause you guys are all native english speakers.sorry.
    maybe I can try to write more in english,hope someone can point out my mistakes when you read in my post,thanks in advance.

  21. Bamboo,First of all, your English is great! Don’t worry about mistakes here. We are all language learners so everyone should be very tolerant. Secondly, you’ve got a good point. It’s kind of a catch 22. If we go to a small town or village to learn Chinese there won’t be many people speaking English. But, as you pointed out, there also won’t be as many people speaking Mandarin (which is what most foreigners want to learn). The other problem with avoiding universities and big cities is we need some way to 1) get a visa, 2) make money. Teaching at a university or working in a big city is generally better for those two things.

  22. As for taiwan,I think maybe it is a good place to pracitse your listening and speaking,but I don’t think it is a good place to learn your writing,as I know taiwanese use more 繁体字(I don’t know how to say that in english)than the ppl from mainland.(Maybe I am wrong,by now,I haven’t been to taiwan,I know that just from TV and some movies which were producted by taiwanese).

    I think shanghai,nanjing and hangzhou are good choice to work and live,and there are lots of universities in this three place.To the very south of China,just as guangzhou and guangxi,I don’t agree those places are good choices,as you may know,those people speak with a special accent.

    Albert,may I ask what’s the mean of this sentence “It’s kind of a catch 22.”in your reply,can’t follow you.thx.

  23. Bamboo,

    I’m sorry I had to remove the first part of your comment about “the island” because my website started showing “this page cannot be displayed” and “connection interrupted.” A coincidence? I don’t know.

    Dear Everyone,

    For the record, Laowai Chinese is strictly about language learning. Please avoid discussions of other issues. I paid good money to get my IP address unbanned and I don’t want to go through all that again.

    Oh and “Catch 22” = a no-win situation (see here).

  24. I just happened on to this site, re another page, and followed the link to this page because the title question seemed downright strange to me. I’ve lived in Beijing for five years and have had nearly the opposite experience. I can’t get anyone to use English with me (though people shout “hello” when we pass). In my early days, I struggled through many conversations in Chinese (try to request or plan something) only to find later that the person I was speaking with was fluent in English. (I even paid a translator one time to find out the person was completely fluent! What a waste of time for him to spend a half hour listening to himself being translated!) Maybe because you are on a campus, it is different, but I’ve never found a situation where someone wanted to use English with me over Chinese, even in Starbucks. While it’s true that many long term expats cannot hold a conversation, I don’t know any foreigners who can’t get around in a taxi or restaurant or tell time; it’s imperative for survival (unless they drive themselves around all day, but I don’t know anyone who does this). I have two small children and they are the gateway to talking with Chinese on the street and making friends with parents at their school. So, come visit Beijing to practice your Mandarin or be prepared to have your hotel concierge write your entire itinerary in characters, or you’ll be going nowhere. (Taxi drivers here don’t even understand the English names for monuments or hotels. Not saying that they should, but that I don’t understand this thread at all as I’m reading it from downtown BJ.)

  25. I think the best way to learn chinese is to have more chinese friends. Talk to them more and you will be able to learn easily.

    By the way, I’m in the midst of building a website to connect China and the world. I hope people from all over the world get to know China people better and make friends with each other.

    As i am still at early stage and the website is not entirely finished, I would like to invite you to take a look and let me know what you think.

    The website is http://www.ecpod.com

    At the moment you can sign up, upload your photo, right something about yourself and make friends with each other. You can browse the current members on the site.

    Appreciate your feedback. Thank you.

    Shanghai Baby

  26. Hello, I am planning to study abroad in China my Junior year in College – I just finished my first year. I have studied at Beijing Language and Culture University during my high school years. I am currently taking private Mandarin lessons from a man who was born and raised in Beijing. He said going to Nanjing University would be great. I want to explore different areas in China, so I wouldn’t like to return to Beijing to study abroad again. I do not really want to go to a main city like Beijing or Shanghai…

    My goal is to learn the Chinese culture, language, customs etc… I literally want to be dreaming in Chinese (that is how fluent I want to be)

    Does anyone have any suggestions as to which city/school I should go to?

    Also, would a homestay option instead of a dorm option help me tremendously in my goals?

  27. kiss,
    I would recommend you to go to Xi’an or nanjing,both of these cities have a long history and they were capitals in the past,there are still lots of historical sites,after you visit these,maybe you can know much more about China,since your chinese is not good enough,go to visit those with some chinese college students will be a good choice.

    And in these two cities,there are also lots of top universities.As for nanjing university,it is one of the top universities in China,maybe there is some difficuilties for you to apply for your acceptation.

    What about Nanjing university of sicence and technology….haha

  28. I know i am three years late in replying to this post, but i thought it was interesting. Since i have come to Beijing i can’t help but feel that China is a great place to learn Chinese.

    I mean, what is the alternative?

  29. In Shanghai getting a chinese boyfriend / girlfriend in a Bar is a terrible, horrible idea.

    The boyfriend / girlfriend learning move only works for one person in a relationship.

    What happens is you communicate in the strongest language. At the start you might use both language but then you will switch over to only one language.
    I mean if your in a relationship who has the energy to teach all the time.

    In a bar most of the chinese are young and educated which means most of them know English.If your looking for a boy friend/girl friend to just help your Mandarin language then their language will be better than yours and so you will only be improving their english.

    I think traveling is the best way to learn, taxi drivers or people on trains are great people to talk to.

    Keep Learning and speaking Mandarin

  30. I’ve been in Dalian now for the last two years learning Chinese at a uni. I’ve got to say that learning Chinese in China doesn’t really mean anything if you don’t go out there an point blank refuse to speak English. As you all know people want to improve they’re English and it’s so easy to accomodate them cause then it’s comfortable and we’re the ones with the upper hand but it’s just gonna drag out the painfull process that is getting to a stage where you can at least speak something close to fluent Chinese.

  31. I agree that going to a country that speaks the target language can be overrated. It’s easy to be complacent and assume that because you’re there, it must be doing you good.

    The only thing that’s really hard to get when you’re in a different country is language in real context. Skype’s great but you have to put a lot of effort in just thinking of topics to discuss before you can even start practising your language.

  32. I guess hang out with a group of Chinese people will be very helpful. they might speak English with you, but they will speak Chinese to each other for sure. hah~ I am Chinese, this is my way to practice my English in American.

  33. My grandfather always said that when he was traveling in China, and the people came up to speak English knowing he was a foreigner, he would simply tell them he spoke no English. Even if the people didn’t believe him (which they often didn’t due to the fact that he is white and would of course have an accent when speaking), he would simply repeat “I speak no English” and they would eventually get the hint and leave. I think one day I will try this and see if it works.

  34. Happy to have stumbled on your website, but I don’t really agree with this post.

    Of course you are surrounded by English speakers because you work for the English department! This isn’t the case for every foreigner in China. When I first came to China, I actually did work as an English teacher at a high school and most of my colleagues were so embarrassed by their English that they refused to speak to me! A lot depends on your job and where you live.

    Where I live, a fairly small Chinese city near Beijing, most people do not (or are at least not willing to) speak English. I rarely have people coerce me into speaking English. They prefer I speak Chinese.

    If you want to be in a Chinese-speaking environment, obviously it helps to not hang out in the English department, although it can be a good jumping off point for meeting people if you aren’t sure how to make Chinese friends.

  35. I think location is just one determinant in the overall scheme of things. More than where you are based, having the right mind set, effective learning materials, and a good teacher trumps where you are physically. In today’s world, people can study anywhere. The difficulty is there is too much information, and disinformation that one may get lost in the pile and never see the sun.

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