Lao Tzu once said, “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” During the process of learning Chinese, it is good to keep this quote in mind. Like most languages, Chinese is not something you pick up in a day, a week, or even a month. It takes a lot of patience and discipline.
Many new teachers this year have asked me about places to study Chinese in Beijing. Since most Chinese people do not speak English, learning basic conversational Chinese is important and very helpful. Luckily, the subway system has romanticized pinyin to help foreigners get to the places they need to be; however, other forms of public transportation such as buses and taxies have not yet adopted pinyin. When studying Chinese, I recommend learning simple conversational terms and phrases using pinyin. Once you get a feel for the language, studying will get easier. If you are determined to learn the language, then you can progress into learning the characters, grammar structures, and all that jazz.
The Chinese language has many different varieties, of which Mandarin is one. Mandarin is also known as “Putonghua” (Common Language) or “Guoyu” (National Language). It is the official language of the People’s Republic of China and the Republic of China (Taiwan). Chinese is often perceived by native speakers as dialects of a single Chinese language. However, many linguists and sinologists consider this to be incorrect because most the Chinese “dialects” are mutually intelligible due to differences in pronunciation, grammar, and lexicon. Therefore, the varieties of the Chinese language can technically be defined as separate languages. For example, Cantonese – the lingua franca of Guangdong Province, Hong Kong, and Macau has nine tones and is typically written in traditional Chinese. On the contrary, Mandarin only has four tones and is written in simplified Chinese.
The following methods to studying Chinese that I am recommending will teach the standardized form of Chinese – Putonghua and its written form, Zhongwen.
If you want the full attention of your teacher, the best way to learn Chinese is to find a native Chinese speaker who is willing to tutor you. In the past, many of our Chinese teachers at school have done 1-on-1 tutoring with our foreign teachers. If you have already built a good rapport with your TA, you should ask her if she has free time to tutor you. If she does not have time, you can also check out the Classified section under The Beijinger (http://www.thebeijinger.com). Many foreigners and Chinese people create a profile and use this website as a platform to communicate. Some of our foreign staff have found their tutors and language partners using this website. Another way to find tutors is to check foreign areas for advertisements. Wudaokou’s Bridge Cafe always has fliers on their bulletin board. Compensation is dependent on your personal preferences. For example, if your tutor is meeting you in your home, it is likely she will ask for a little more. However, if you are willing to compromise regarding the location, the average rate is approximately 60 RMB per hour. This price is negotiable and is not a standard rate.
If you would like this to be a reciprocal experience, you can always try finding a language partner. While tutoring requires a fee, having a language partner is free. The exchange is your knowledge of English as a native speaker. It is reciprocal 1-on-1 tutoring. There is always someone out there who wants to learn English as much as you want to learn Chinese. Beijing is a city of about 20.7 million people; you are sure to find a language partner if you put in the effort. Again, check the Beijinger and foreign areas for posts. Chinese Teachers might also be interested in this form of cultural exchange as many of them want to continue their studies in the English language. As always, it doesn’t hurt to ask!
Global Village School, Wudaokou, Haidian District
Global Village is a popular Chinese language learning school in Wudaokou; this area has the largest population of university students in Beijing. The school is Korean-owned and is very accommodating to foreigners. Some of their office representatives can speak basic English and can help you sign up for classes. It is located just west of the Wudaokou subway stop on the south side of Chengfu Road. If you copy and paste the Chinese characters for the name of the school, a google map will pop up. Make sure the school is in Haidian District because the other one is located across town in Chaoyang District’s Wangjing. Most of their classes are around 35 RMB per drop-in class. However, if you sign up for 10 or more classes, each class is only 30 RMB. If you notify them of your absence in advance (around 24-hours), they allow their students to make-up their sessions in another class or in the same class scheduled at a different time. If you do not notify them at all, you lose the 30 RMB and cannot make it up. If you are new to the school, they also give you a free class. This way, you can observe their teacher’s methods, the class size, and get a good feel for their classes before paying for a packaged deal. They are fairly strict about these policies and abide by them carefully.
For beginners, their lessons are paced fairly fast. So, if you are looking to do only one class a week, I would not recommend taking beginners’ classes here because it would require much catching up on the side. For people who want structure, consistency, and more discipline for their studies, Global Village can provide that for you. I would recommend trying their free class and seeing it for yourself.
I personally very much enjoyed the Advanced Reading class; we read the daily newspaper and discussed the jargon, the content of the articles, and its relevance to present day Chinese society. The teacher was well-versed in media jargon and was very helpful when presented with questions. He was informative and gave profound insight into the part of Chinese society that foreigners rarely see. With a consistent group of students in class, he opened up to us and shared his raw opinion about the Chinese government. He is one of the most educated and non-PC people that I have met in Beijing. Since I have not taken the other language classes, I cannot speak for them. However, I have based these evaluations from other foreign teachers’ experiences at the school.
1on1 Mandarin, Wudaokou, Haidian District
1on1 Mandarin is a Chinese language school located in the same building as The Global Village School. I first heard about this school at one of Beijing’s expat career fairs. The school is managed by foreigners from the UK and the US. Their website is not only in English, but they also provide their contact information, directions, and all the relevant information you need to know to get started. Although their rate is quite high, they arrange everything for you. In addition, they offer four different types of classes: One on one Chinese class, Friends Chinese class, Door to Door Chinese class, and Skype Chinese class.
For more information regarding this school, check out their website at http://www.1on1mandarin.com
Culture Yard, Shique Hutong, Dongcheng District
Culture Yard is not only a language school, it is also a cultural center. They offer space “for filmmakers to present their films and engage in conversations with the audience.” They have movie nights every month with an entry fee between 30-60 RMB. Their center is unique because it is located in the heart of Beijing, in a quaint hutong off of Line 5’s Beixinqiao Station. They cater to all levels of Chinese and offer different level group courses including Intensive Courses, Evening Courses, Chinese Through Media Courses, Survival Courses, Characters Course, and Individual Chinese Classes. Please check out their foreign-friendly website for the details: http://cultureyard.net/homepage/
There are clearly numerous schools to choose from in Beijing. The list would go on forever if I had to write about all of them. Please check The Beijinger and the City Weekend magazines if you want to learn more about the variety of language schools around the big city. You can find these magazines in Sanlitun’s Element Fresh restaurant, Wudaokou’s LUSH cafe, and other places geared towards foreigners. Each school offers a different environment and caters to all levels of Chinese. What defines a good program or an effective learning method is really dependent on your personal preferences and the time you put into studying.
This is an exciting time for you as you begin your first steps in learning a new language. While you are here, why not pick up an extra skill?
Fun fact: About one-fifth of the world’s population speaks some form of Chinese as their first language.
The good news is, your days of pantomiming will soon be over!
Best of luck to you and your journey of a thousand miles,