Learning Chinese is challenging but
I’d like to give you a bit of inspiration and advice to carry with you while you are making the same life-changing decision which in 2010 brought me to China, where I started an intensive Chinese language course at a local university. When your goal is to be fluent, I suggest you stay in China at least two years, committing 2 to 4 hours of your daily agenda to the study of the language.
Why does it take so long?
Some features of Chinese language
Chinese grammar is simple compared to Indo-European languages like Spanish, German or French, but Chinese words mainly are made up of only one or two syllables, and you get confused easily, thinking that many of them sound too much like each other.
Word differentiation isn’t merely based on phonetic sounds, but also on the intonation of each syllable. Let’s have a look at the words which sound like “da”:
答 da (tone: high and level) means “to answer, agree.”
达 da (tone: rising) “to reach, attain.”
打 da (tone: falling and then rising again) “to beat, strike.”
大 da (tone: dropping sharply) means “big.”
I counted 31 meanings for the word “da” in the dictionary I use with the smartphone.
Furthermore, when you start speaking Chinese chances are you will need to re-program the way you structure sentences. For instance, comparing Italian and Chinese:
我(I) 跟朋友(with a friend) 一起(together) 去(go) 市场 (market)
Io (I) vado (go) al mercato (to the market) con un amico (with a friend)
Studying Chinese at home VS studying Chinese in China
I promise you that it is useful to study some Chinese in your country of origin, especially if you take the time to familiarize yourself with the writing system. You may feel discouraged when the initial enthusiasm wears off, but if you write with perseverance and manage to get the help of a native willing to show you a few tricks used in Chinese elementary schools to memorize characters, the study becomes an organized, rewarding, and fun activity.
However, if you decide to study Chinese in China, you’ll soon find out that such a move is fundamental to learning the language in the quickest way.
The most efficient way to learn a new language is to push yourself into situations where understanding and speaking (as well as reading and writing) are critical to your well-being. The more you expose yourself to situations which require new words and phrases, the more you need to communicate, the deeper your acquisition of language skills will be.
You’ve already learned at least one new language when you were a kid, which became your mother tongue. The secret to accelerating the learning consists in living in a place where everybody speaks the language you want to learn, and getting some external support, like language classes.
Learning from the situations that you face in real life in a Chinese city will stimulate your long-term memory and give you the chance to get to know so many things that you cannot find in books!
You might choose to attend a private school in China, but studying the language in a University allows you to meet with a throng of Chinese students that are beneficial to your practice and at the same time the college environment makes you feel secure.
You might want to choose to study for one or two semesters, to begin with.
How to choose the University
If you don’t have any particular campus in mind, I suggest you collect information about Chinese provinces and cities, to get an idea of the best place for you to live.
Coastal cities are the most developed and are home to thousands of foreign citizens who push you to communicate in English rather than Chinese; however, they will give you an idea of the effects of globalization in China.
Some of the most well-developed harbor cities are:
Beijing: the capital, famous for pollution! Certainly worth a visit, but are you sure you want to live there?
Tianjin: I was offered a teaching job there but I could not stand it more than two weeks; it has the same air quality issues as Beijing, and the weather gets pretty cold in winter.
Dalian: north-east of Beijing, it is said to be one of the cleanest cities in China and home to the beer festival during the summer.
Qingdao: the city which gave birth to the Chinese beer that everybody knows.
Shanghai: my favorite metropolis in China; rents are high, compared to other cities, but maybe you will be lucky enough to be able to study there.
Hangzhou: just one hour from Shanghai by train, a historical city with a balanced atmosphere, paths in nature and the West Lake.
Nanjing: considered a “southern city,” once the capital; home to history, traditions, warm weather and night life.
Xiamen: my second home, an island-city, famous holiday destination for Chinese thanks to long beaches, a subtropical climate, and night snacks; just a ferry ride from the Taiwanese island named “Jinmen”.
Shenzhen: one of the most developed commercial ports in China and also the Chinese part of Hong Kong, which is reachable by MRT.
Hainan Island: the southernmost island of China, with tropical weather, monkeys, resorts, beaches and blue waters.
If you wish to travel and see the natural beauties that the western part of China offers, or if you prefer to study in towns with fewer foreigners, you can check out:
Chengdu: the capital of Sichuan province, with hiking trails, bamboo forests and high mountains.
Kunming: in Yunnan province, which is home to many of the 56 Chinese ethnic minorities and one of the top destinations for nature-lovers and ethnologists in China (Dali, Lijiang, Tiger Leaping Gorge, Xishuangbanna).
What to do after you choose the city
Once you are clear about where you want to study, look at the websites of the Universities hosted in that province and check out their Chinese language courses. Colleges usually offer to enrolled students side courses like calligraphy, Chinese folklore, Taiji or Qigong or business Chinese.
After you have sent the application form and paid the application fee, you receive an invitation letter containing a list of the necessary documents for requesting a study Visa at the Chinese embassy in your country. The invitation letter takes from two to four weeks to get to your mailbox.
When you arrive at the University
You’ll be asked to pick a place to stay so the government will have an address for emitting your resident’s permit to emit a residence permit. The easiest way is to get a shared room at the University dorms. By doing that, you won’t need much travel time to go to class in the morning.
If you don’t want to live on campus, unless you provide the name of a hostel or pension, you need to rent an apartment and bring the original copy of the contract to the police office to register.
When I arrived in Xiamen, I stayed in the dorms for a couple of months and later moved off campus.
You also need to open a bank account connected to the University and pay the rest of your course fee. You can use your Uni ID card to pay transportation and meals at the campus canteens.
Opening a bank account in China is easy, it only costs a few dollars. Bank officers only speak Chinese, or may refuse to speak English, so good luck with one of the first real-life situations in Chinese!
Universities require you to purchase health insurance from them, usually it costs around 400 rmb.
Now you’re finally done with the bureaucratic stuff, and you are ready to dive into your new adventure.