If anyone is qualified to recommend the best way to learn Chinese, I am. I moved to Shanghai in late 2009 to start a course (from complete scratch) with MandarinHouse.com. I spent 3-4 months there, had a great time, met some fantastic people, but my Chinese was appalling. Now, I chose the course partly because it had a high rank on Google and partly because of the misplaced advice given by a family friend who suggested that I should choose a school which is a member of the ‘International Association of Language Centres’. As a result of the high Google ranking and the prestigious awards and associations it belongs to, it was inevitably expensive. The price of the course, combined with the price of living in Shanghai, ate up most of savings rather quickly. A clue to who the courses were intended for was given by some of my fellow students, which included a Microsoft millionaire, a Californian state attorney, a retired gynaecologist and lots of students with wealth fathers. The other students were very friendly but had a slightly different financial background! In addition to the expense of the course, the other main problem was that it was focused on learning pinyin: it was largely a course targeted at businessman who wished to learn how to converse with colleagues. My interest was to learn characters as well. Finally, another reason why my Chinese didn’t progress was because my circle of friends consisted solely of people from the course or other expats – not a single Chinese.
I decided that I needed to try something completely different if I were to make progress in the language. A friend of mine recommended that I study at a university, so I applied to Dalian University of Technology to start a Chinese Language course. [Why Dalian? Because the north of the country was meant to be good as the dialect is more standard. In addition, it was cooler than Ha’erbin, which was one of the other options available. Unfortunately, I had to take an entry level test when I got to the University. As the test was in Chinese and I had not yet had a chance to learn characters, my first 4 -5 months was wasted as I had to start from Chinese 101 again!
Fresh goat meat outside DUT
I spent a year at the University of Dalian and made some good progress. However, my downfall was that I still spent most of my time with the international students on my course. My reading and writing had improved somewhat but my oral Chinese still had a long way to go. After 1 year, my funds had dried up so I had no choice but to find some sort of work if I didn’t want to return home with my tail between my legs, having failed at my ambition. Fortunately, I managed to find a job teaching English, which was not only well paid (compared to the standard of living) but also only part-time, which give me ample time to work on my Chinese.
Whilst working part time, I studied at a private school which aimed itself at Japanese students. I haven’t posted a link, partly because the bloody website is impossible to find, partly because they ignored my numerous request for paperwork, which gets them a black mark! I chose the school largely because the price was the most competitive and the main focus for me was on conversation, as I could already speak a basic level of Chinese. All the courses were one-to-one and they were charging about 45 RMB an hour at the time.
I travelled extensively around China, including Sichuan, Yunnan, Xi’an, Shandong, Ha’erbin and others.This was a good way to practice the Chinese I had learnt. In fact, I would recommend taking local public transport as a great way to practice: I had a long conversation with a local on the 10-hour bus trip to Jiuzhaigou, who was delighted that the foreigner he sat next to could speak some Chinese!
I have recently moved to Lyon in France. Whilst perhaps not the most obvious place to practice Chinese, I have enrolled on a Master’s in translation using Chinese, French and English.
Whilst my level of Chinese is not as good as it should be considering the time I spent in China (you can see my level of Chinese on italki.com) it is passable for now. My main problem was finding Chinese friends to meet with to practice my Chinese. Had I managed to do this, my Chinese would have been a lot better.
To sum up: My best advice would be to learn Chinese at a university – ideally one where there are few foreigners. If possible, try and stay in the Chinese dormitory on campus (it won’t be as nice as the foreign block but your Chinese will benefit enormously); alternatively, think about a Chinese homestay.
For advice on practicing your language, take advice from the expert at Fluent in 3 months.