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Languages for Expats in China

Submitted: September 2013

The term ‘Chinese’ encompasses a number of languages including Mandarin, Cantonese, Hakka and Wu (Shanghainese.) These are considered languages by linguists, but ‘dialects’ by the Chinese govenment. For the purposes of this article, ‘Chinese’ means Mandarin or Putonghua – the official language of China. Mandarin is spoken by more than 12% of the world’s population. Cantonese is the language spoken in Hong Kong and is quite different. It is therefore very important for anyone wishing to study the official language of the Chinese mainland to ensure the course they are enrolling on is for Mandarin.

By studying Mandarin, the learner will gain an understanding of Chinese culture and customs that are very important to many Chinese nationals. This will help you to understand the mindset of the Chinese, which may be very different from what you have previously experienced. An expat living in most major Chinese cities will soon find out that English is spoken only a little, and poorly. Hence, to get by in everyday life, you will need to learn at least a little of the local language. There is no hiding the fact – it is not going to be easy.

While there is no problem picking up a few everyday phrases – taxi Chinese, restaurant Chinese and the like, progress beyond this level is slow. Chinese words are difficult to distinguish, and there are tones to try and decipher as well. But the biggest problem is the writing. To be functionally literate in Chinese, you need to know at least 3,000 characters, and that is going to take time, dedication and patience. The characters are necessary to help you to distinguish the similar and identical-sounding words, of which Chinese has hundreds. Without doubt, you will need to enrol on a course to help you learn.

There are a great number of online Chinese language courses available, so you can start learning before you arrive in China. Websites such as https://www.bbc.co.uk/languages/chinese/real_chinese/ and https://www.chinese-tools.com/learn/chinese are a good starting point. Verbal Planet https://www.verbalplanet.com) offers online courses using Skype for conversation practice and feedback from tutors. Very basic language skills can be learnt via https://www.learnchineseez.com/lessons/mandarin/where the user can listen to and then repeat words and phrases. The learner also has the option to link up with a tutor for lessons via Skype charged at hourly rates.

Once in China, the expat can chose a Mandarin language course offered by various academic institutes. The Beijing Language and Culture University (https://www.blcu.edu.cn/blcuweb/english/index-en.asp) offers short term intensive tuition in Mandarin and Chinese culture. Mandarin House (https://mandarinhouse.cn/) has education facilities in Beijing and Shanghai. It offers full and part-time tuition for courses ranging from conversational Mandarin, business and executive tuition, and reading and writing Mandarin. Facilities also exist to enable online learning. Mandarin House also offers special summer programmes for children and teenagers which includes language tuition, cultural workshops and social events.

Once the expat has some knowledge of Mandarin, a good way of expanding on this knowledge is to speak the language as much as possible and develop listening skills. The website https://meetup.com/ provides links to the Beijing language swap (https://www.meetup.com/Beijing-Language-Swap/) and the Shanghai language exchange (https://www.meetup.com/Vorota-Language-Exchange-Business-Networking/). The meetup.com website also provides links to connect with Mandarin speakers in other countries such as the US, Europe and Australia. This can give learners of Mandarin a good grounding in the language prior to their move to the Chinese mainland.




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