You’re going to China?!? That’s exciting! China has one of the most unique cultures on earth, and learning the Chinese language can create new and wonderful opportunities for you. A quality Chinese language school could greatly help you achieve your goals.
But… where will you study? What factors should you consider when choosing a language school in China? We’ve listed what we think are the 5 most important factors in choosing the Chinese language school that’s right for you.
Factor #1 – Price
Yeah. We know it’s on your mind. No matter how great a school is, tuition fees can make or break what’s possible for your budget.
As we studied the prices of different Mandarin schools in China, we had two major takeaways:
- If a school’s prices aren’t listed on their website and you have to contact them to see the price, then well… let’s just say it’s not pretty.
- Prices are higher for small class sizes and lower for large class sizes.
“Large class size it is, then!” How much difference could class size make anyway? Well, let’s talk about it.
Factor #2 – Class Size
Mix of Priorities
If you think about your trip to China and imagine meeting cute boys, pretty girls, nights at the club, and …oh yeah, a little Chinese language on the side, then large classes might be great for you. After all, there will be more friends to make and the tuition is cheaper- why not?
But if you’re fairly serious about learning Chinese, a language course with a large class size could potentially be quite a thorn in your side.
There are a few reasons for this, and the first reason might be that your class could be filled with the party people we just described. They may be stopping the class to have the teacher explain concepts that you already learned and reviewed last night.
Or, that person might be you, and the other students are quickly answering questions as the teacher flies through class material that’s going right over your head.
Either way, the point is that large class sizes allow for a huge mix of people with different priorities, affecting the class progression.
Mix of Nationalities
Large class sizes can also allow for a large mix of nationalities, which can affect class progression. Let’s take language programs at Chinese universities for example:
Language programs at Chinese universities often host many Westerners, yet the most represented nationality is Korean, as well as many Japanese. Don’t get me wrong- Korean and Japanese classmates can be the coolest people to hang out with, but in the classroom they could be the mortal enemy of a Westerner’s Chinese language progression.
This is because the Korean and Japanese languages have strong ties with Chinese, and many Chinese characters are still used in their written language. Even though the characters are pronounced differently in Korean and Japanese, their meanings are generally the same, giving Koreans and Japanese a big contextual advantage. Also, the memorization skills they possess for memorizing a new character and its meaning are often more developed than most Westerners’.
If you’re Korean or Japanese, this could mean that other foreigners could be a total drag in the classroom. If you’re not… let’s just say you might find your teacher and classmates are on pg. 47 while you’re still looking up one of the characters on pg. 44.
However, these downsides might not even be as serious as the last class size factor:
Teacher-Student Talk Time
Even if you’re well-matched with other classmates, classmates are inevitably going to rob you of speaking time with your Mandarin teacher.
This is a big deal because speaking the language you’ve learned is recognized by cognitive science as a HUGE factor in remembering it. It’s also the best way to improve your grammar- as your teacher corrects the cringe-worthy mess of words you just uttered. (Joking…but seriously) And to be realistic, your teacher is almost irreplaceable in this area, as only your teacher knows the language you’ve already learned and can speak to you with graded speech.
All of this to say, when you see a nice price tag on a large-group Chinese class, we hope you’ll take a few minutes to consider before clicking your Paypal “submit” button.
All of the problems mentioned above can be greatly reduced by reducing class size to just a few students per class. In theory, 1 on 1 classes (though expensive) could be the most effective route.
It is important to keep in mind, though, that long class periods that only include one student can have problems with class momentum/energy. They won’t allow for student-student dialogues, nor moments for a mental break, as the focus is on you the whole class period.
Also, be aware that some classes labeled as “Small Group Classes” really aren’t small at all. One well-known Chinese language school lists a “Small Group Course” but when we researched further, the school caps these classes at 15 students! Yikes, I’d hate to see how many are in the normal group classes.
Factor #3 – Flexibility
The next factor to consider is a school’s ability to be flexible to accommodate your needs. Here a few areas to think about:
Want to do a language program at a Chinese university, but you can only start in April, May, October, November, December, or January?
Sorry, these Chinese language courses only start in September and March and don’t allow for latecomers.
What if you wanted to only stay in the program for 2 months? Nope, these programs require students to commit to a 4-5 month semester.
What if you want to go home for a couple weeks in the middle of the semester to attend your cousin’s wedding? Or go home for Christmas?
It’s very difficult for language programs with large class sizes to yield to these kinds of special requests, and most Chinese universities will give you a straight “No.”
If you have a year of free time and don’t mind attending large class sizes, language programs at Chinese universities might be worth your research.
However, for any study dates that don’t fit into Chinese university semesters, you’ll need to find a private Chinese language school. Private language schools are open year-round and usually can accept students at any time of year. They’ll also usually allow students to choose a course duration as long or as short as they wish. Students taking a two-week break in the middle of their study is also something common for private language schools.
Want to only learn spoken Chinese and don’t want to learn the characters? (You really should learn the characters) Or you already learned spoken Chinese and now you want to go back and learn characters only?
If you’ve enrolled in large group classes, forget it. The teacher won’t be able to tailor the class to only one student’s needs. Language schools with private classes, however, are used to accommodating these kinds of requests.
There’s quite a difference in the school policies of Chinese universities and private language schools. This is because universities are government-run institutions. Take a look at some examples of Chinese university policies and consider whether they would be an issue for you:
- Foreign and Chinese students cannot live in the same dorm- All Chinese universities that host foreign students have international student dorms where all international students live. In most cases, Chinese students aren’t even allowed inside the dorms to visit.
- Mandatory 12:00 curfew- International student dorm bulidings are locked (from inside and outside) at 12:00, even on the weekends. If you stayed at the bar a few minutes too late, or couldn’t find a taxi home in time, you’d better find a hotel that can accept foreigners. Otherwise, we hope you wore warm clothes and can find a comfy bench nearby.
- Mandatory class attendance- If you miss class, you may have some Déjà Vu of your middle school days. You’ll need to take a signed note to the office explaining why you missed class. Miss too many and there may be a sort of penalty.
Private language schools don’t have as much reason to manage the lives of their students. They often view students as paying customers and give them freedom to live as they please, as long as their behavior doesn’t negatively affect the school.
Factor #4 – Location
We’ve included this section simply because many people hear about China’s many dialects and worry that, if they go to the wrong city, they may be communicating with Chinese people with broken Mandarin.
It’s true that each area of China has their own local dialect, but this will likely only affect you when communicating with locals over the age of 60.
For many years, standard Mandarin has been the only language used in schools, so all students must grow up using it. If Chinese people want to graduate from school or work in a business environment, standard Mandarin Chinese is a must.
Moreover, any developed city will have a mix of people from all over China, requiring them to use Mandarin to communicate.
North-East China is traditionally known for their locals having the most “standard” Mandarin, but this has become fairly irrelevant with the standardization of Mandarin language across all mainland provinces.
So will location affect your language learning? As long as you’re studying in the mainland provinces and aren’t living in a village, location shouldn’t be a problem.
Factor #5 – Environment
Is China smoggy?! In recent years, China has taken huge steps to clean up the pollution problem, but there’s still a long way to go. You can take a look at this article on China’s cities with the best air quality.
As for cities you may want to avoid- Beijing, Tianjin, Zhengzhou, Shijiazhuang, Xi‘an, and Changchun all have Chinese language programs available for foreigners, but are among the most polluted cities in China.
The Chinese language is infamous for making foreign learners’ brains a bit tired from time to time. Being able to escape to beautiful mountains and flowing rivers can be hugely effective in maintaining a balanced study experience. Let your mind refresh! Besides, it’d be a shame if you came all the way to China and didn’t get to enjoy the beautiful scenery.
If you’re someone who loves hiking the outdoors, the provinces known for the most stunning landscapes are Hunan, Guangxi, and Yunnan. These provinces also generally have great air quality.
In these provinces, you can find Chinese language programs in Changsha (Hunan), Yangshuo Guilin (Guangxi), and Kunming (Yunnan). Changsha and Kunming, however, are fairly large cities and won’t have immediate access to the landscapes their provinces are famous for.
Enjoy the occasional night out on the town? No worries, most developed towns/cities now have a fairly developed bar/night life culture. If it’s a place that many foreigners travel to, there’s a 100% chance you can find a lively night scene there.
Check out our guide for choosing the best city in China for you.
Well, that’s about all the insight we have to give!
“WAIT! What about teacher quality and curriculum?!”
We’ve left out the topic of teacher quality because it can be difficult to research the quality of a school’s teachers before arriving. However, there may be some places you can look for a language school’s reviews from past students. Here’s a few places to look that may have review sections for the school you’re researching:
- The school’s Facebook profile
Most Chinese teachers have a degree in Teaching Chinese as a Foreign Language. Ideally, this will be a standard at all Chinese language schools.
As for curriculum, the world headquarters for Chinese language education research is Beijing Language and Culture University. The standard curriculum for Mandarin language programs across China is published by them. You most likely won’t find much variation from school to school.
To recap, here are the factors to consider:
What’s your budget?
Do you prefer a large class size or small class size?
What will be your arrival date and course length?
Do you have unique language needs you need the school to accommodate?
Do you prefer a more strict or relaxed school environment?
Is good air quality important to you?
Do you prefer to have immediate access to outdoors/landscape/scenic spots?
What do reviews from past students say about the school?
Whichever Chinese Language School you choose, we wish you wonderful adventures and a happy learning experience in China!