Learning Mandarin in China – Finding a School That Fits

20 May

Learning Mandarin is ever more popular. What should students look for in a good school?

As China begins to ascend to a prominent position in the world, politically, economically and culturally, language students are taking notice. The ranks of people coming to China to learn Mandarin is swelling by each passing year. It used to be mostly other Asian nations, notably Korea, that took a major interest in Mandarin language studies but today a language school in China is as multicultural as Spanish language school in Spain is. People from all over the world are coming and this has changed the landscape of language studies in The Middle Kingdom in many ways.

For one, schools have started the process of adapting to western educational principles. This process is mostly about toning down the focus on mass memorization requirements inherent in older curricula and instead emphasizing understanding as the most viable tool in teaching. To put this statement in terms of examples; in the past it was common that students were simply handed a list of vocabulary for homework. Today that homework is much more practical in nature: it involves exercises directly aimed at getting people speaking quickly. Textbooks are concerned with events that students will take part in; public transport, lending books at a library or talking to a teacher.

A second way that “the landscape of language studies in The Middle Kingdom” has changed is that there are now a much larger number of private language schools around. Many, however, are not really up to the task of teaching western students in way that most of them will find conducive. So what can one look for in a school when it comes to modernization? Because that is really what this is about. Instead of using a hammer to stuff the brain with as much new content as possible, a more sensible way forward is to focus on students’ understanding of both syntax and vocabulary.

The first property, and the most important property, of a good language school, is luckily also the one that is relatively easy to clearly identify. Class size matter beyond all other factors. It is easy to hand out a sheet of words that you expect people to learn by themselves at home. It is hard to help them do this in a constructive way. A teacher will very quickly find himself or herself overpowered as class size reach beyond six or seven people. Because western languages are different from Mandarin in a way that Korean, for example, is not, this aspect of curriculum is one that is lagging behind. A German or American needs much more time to get used to vocabulary that is both tonal in its pronunciation and formed by characters in its written form, than a Korean or Japanese person does. The optimal class size for western student is therefore much smaller than was common only 5 years ago and still prevalent today. It is easy to check this out when browsing for schools around the web.

A more complicated factor to get an objective assessment on is the level of customization that there is room for in a curriculum. Firstly, it is hard because few schools offer this kind of system at all and that makes comparisons between many institutions impractical. Secondly, it is hard because you cannot see what the content is like from home. But before I offer a little bit of advice on how you can identify this type of schools from the others I would like to quickly say something about why I think it is so important. Ultimately you learn a language to use it, a general curriculum is never going to be a perfect fit but a personal curriculum is, almost per definition just that. Learning by speaking requires basic knowledge of the terminology of the topics that you are interested in. The first basic point of advice is this: if a school offers personal content they will only be able to do so in a constructive way if class sizes are small. Secondly, there is a need for scheduled private sessions within the teaching week, without this, the quality should definitely be called into question.

I hope these few words have provided some information that you’ll find useful when researching where to study!

Rui Ming works for a Chinese language school in China that is a great option for those that want to learn Mandarin. See the program overview page for more information about learning Mandarin.

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