Do English teachers in China need to learn Chinese?

Many teachers decide they want to learn Mandarin whilst they teach. There are many reasons for this: it is the most widely spoken language in the world, and the rise of China’s economy means an ability to speak Mandarin is highly sought after in international companies and will be even more so in the future. In the last few years, the number of people learning Mandarin throughout the world has soared to record levels and the trend looks set to continue.

For an English teacher in China, a knowledge of Mandarin (however great or small) will be highly useful. Chinese people are generally flattered to hear a foreigner speaking their language and it enables you to connect with Chinese people, inside and outside the classroom, in a way that would not otherwise be possible. From shopping to banking it will greatly enhance your experience and give you the confidence to venture deeper into China and meet a greater amount of people than otherwise. The Chinese language is also an essential part of Chinese culture, and so learning the language will not just enable you to establish contact with Chinese people, but also to understand Chinese culture and customs better.

There should be no shying away from the fact that Mandarin is a notoriously difficult language to learn for an English-speaker. There are four aspects of the language which make it so difficult: 

  1. it is tonal (each word can be one of 5 tones)
  2. it uses characters (rather than an alphabet)
  3. many words sound the same 
  4. people of different areas in China speak different, mutually incomprehensible dialects.

You will learn more about this when you start learning. It isn’t all difficult though, there are also some simplicities in the language such as the grammar, tenses and numerical system which are relatively easy to learn. With Characters, once you start learning, you can begin to see understand the pattern and learn them faster.

It is inevitable that you will pick up some Mandarin whilst in China, and so it is definitely worth putting in some effort to learn Mandarin in order to pick it up more quickly and enhance the experience. The next article will give advice on how to learn Mandarin. Once you have developed an effective way of learning Mandarin you have overcome half the battle!

How to learn Mandarin

You may want to invest in some Mandarin lessons in order to give yourself an advantage settling in before you arrive in China and start teaching. Often Schools will provide you with weekly Mandarin lessons for no charge (or a small charge) whilst you teach, and you should enquire about that. Another popular option is to find a Chinese friend and engage in a language exchange, in exchange for teaching them English they will teach you Mandarin, just ask the local teachers or chinese friends or post an ad on a local forum. There are plenty of Chinese who will jump at the opportunity!

Another option is to undertake an intensive mandarin course in China before you start teaching. Two of the most popular courses are: Beijing University, and BLCU, both situated relatively close to each other in Beijing. Just check out (for Beijing University) and  for BLCU here . They offer accommodation on campus, or you can find your own in the student district of Wudaokou. These courses are quite intensive, and prices are generally very reasonable. Different people get varying results from this. You will also find a wide range of language schools throughout China.

You can also download free podcasts which are convenient to put on your ipod and listen to in free time. Some of the more popular ones are:

www.chinesepod.com -Popular free podcasts with native Chinese teacher and Mandarin learner

www.melnyks.com – Free Podcasts from Serge Melnyk

Pimsleur also offer some great lessons that are available to buy

A good Chinese dictionary can be found online at www.nciku.com. or pleco. 

Once you are in China you will have countless opportunities to learn Mandarin. Just from everyday life, from taking a bus, eating at a cafe or by turning on the TV or radio you will pick up. There are bilingual programs available in big cities like Beijing and Shanghai. Usually there would be two hosts in a program, one Chinese, one English speaker. 

You can search Chinese programs in China here.

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