Where should I learn Mandarin?
Once you have decided on a location, you need to decide what your main medium of instruction is going to be. In general, you have three choices: university, private school or hiring a tutor. In this section, we will examine the pros and cons to each of these mediums.
The main advantage to choosing a university is that it is very likely you will have experienced teachers, an organized curriculum, and the option of studying either language classes or for a degree. You may also have the option of getting credit for the language classes you take. For example, if you study one year at BLCU, you may be able to have these credits transferred to a degree program at a different university later on.
It is worth noting here that the teaching methodology of most Chinese teachers varies greatly from that of their western counterparts. In the West, our teaching largely revolves around communicative teaching, where the teacher makes students the center of the classroom. Teachers adhering to a communicative curriculum are likely to emphasize student involvement via class discussions, role plays, and other such student-centered activities.
Chinese teachers on the other hand tend to take a “pour-the-water-in-the-jug” approach. In other words, the instruction is likely to be lecture-based, with minimal teacher-student and student-student interaction. Regardless of where you choose to study, this is likely the type of instruction you are going to receive. This makes it even more imperative that you practice as much as possible outside of the classroom.
Another potential issue regarding this topic we have not discussed is that of motivation. University students who choose to study abroad for a semester or two in order to fulfill the language requirement for their university degree may not have the same motivation to study as you do. While you may be very serious about showing up on time, listening to the teacher, taking notes, and practicing what you are learning, study abroaders may only be interested in developing a social life. This can really drag down not only the overall performance of the class, but also your teacher’s motivation. How would you feel as a teacher if half or more of your class seemed more interested in socializing than learning?
A second disadvantage to studying at a university is that a large class with many students may mean that your curriculum is inflexible. In other words, your teacher must teach to the masses, or overall mean level, instead of teaching to individuals. Those who are ahead of the average students may get bored as they do not feel challenged, while those who are behind may fall further behind as the teacher may not have an opportunity to work with them one-on-one in order to catch them up.
Lastly, universities generally carry a high price tag, with tuition being quite expensive. As you are browsing different universities, you may gawk at “how cheap” the tuition is in comparison to universities in the West. However, the typical private school (see below) is generally much, much less expensive than the average university.
Private schools offer more advantages than universities. In addition to also having experienced teachers, classes are smaller, and tuition is much less expensive. Most private school classes cap classes at around eight to ten students, and charge between US$100 – 200/month tuition.
One main disadvantage of studying at a private school would be working around the school’s schedule. For example, private schools are likely to have many classes at beginner and low-intermediate levels, but may not have many classes for intermediate or advanced students. Joining in an existing class would be cheaper than having the school open a new one just for you. With that said, the later would likely still be cheaper than most universities.
Hiring a Tutor
It is highly recommended that regardless of which study medium you choose that you also hire a tutor. Universities will rarely be able to give you the individual attention that you need, particularly in the beginning when you need immediate feedback on developing proper pronunciation habits. Even private schools with their smaller class sizes still have many students to teach. Hiring a tutor is a great way to ensure you get individual attention, and have someone who can answer all of your questions, or spend extra time helping you break through trouble spots.
Another advantage to hiring a tutor is that you get to dictate the pace and content. Perhaps you do not want to spend thirty minutes per class working on pinyin, and instead want to focus on developing the ability to clearly express opinions, talk about your career, etc. A good tutor should be able to cater to your specific needs, and even let you develop your own curriculum. Tutors will also work around your schedule, and should be able to meet whenever you want to meet.
The most inexpensive tutors are university students. University students will often work for 15 – 30 RMB/hour outside of major cities like Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou. These tutors are looking to make a little extra cash with their spare time, while also gaining valuable work experience to put on their resumes. Of course, many university students also like the opportunity to converse with non-Chinese and learn about their cultures.
The major downside to hiring a tutor, especially a university student, is that they may not be experienced, nor may they even be training to be a teacher. As such, they will not know how to teach. (Note that just because someone speaks a language natively does not mean that they can teach that language.) As such, tutors are most effective when they have a curriculum to follow. As mentioned above, tutors may a great supplement to your university or private school course.
Of course, you do not need to be enrolled in a formal institution to study. In this case, however, it is strongly recommended that you browse various textbooks and choose one which appeals to you. We strongly recommend the New Practical Chinese Reader, a six-volume series published by Beijing Language and Culture University Press.
The minor downside to hiring a tutor as your primary medium for study is the lack of commitment. Many people find having a structured schedule and environment pressures them into studying. Those who are not self-disciplined may find it too easy to cancel classes, skip homework assignments, and just stop studying.
A final note about tutors: do not settle for average instruction. Do not be afraid to be direct with your tutor if his or her teaching style is not appealing to your learning style. Be up front with your needs and expectations. If a tutor is not working out, do not be afraid to let them go and hire someone different.
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