There’s a perception that Mandarin is an impossibly difficult language, something that can only be mastered by intensive study and the kind of immersion that most people don’t have the time or energy for. (Click here to read our blog about expats learning Mandarin in Beijing.) This perception is bolstered by the fact that it’s a point of Chinese national pride that their language is nigh-on impossible for the non-genius laowai (thus the wild praise offered to anyone who can say ni hao). But it just isn’t the case. Yes, the characters and the tones make it a lot harder than most languages for Westerners; and yes, this does mean it takes a longer time to develop a facility than you might hope. But it’s still a language with verbs and nouns like any other (and very straightforward grammar), and a good combination of teacher and textbook, as well as putting some time into it, will see you communicating in no time.
Decide what why you’re studying. If you don’t think you’ll be here for long, or your interest is purely functional, concentrate on pinyin – which uses the English alphabet to transcribe Chinese characters – and learning the most important words, phrases and basic structures. If your aim is to reach some proficiency, we highly recommend you work with characters alongside pinyin from the very start. Once you get to intermediate level textbooks everything will be in characters anyway, and there’s a limit to how far you can go without them. Plus it’s fun to be able to read signs and figure out ads. Many people find studying the characters the most interesting part of the language.
The international nature of many parts of Beijing means that it’s possible to get by here without learning Chinese, and certainly without having many Chinese conversations. If you’re serious about learning, put yourself in situations where you’re speaking Chinese. When you go to a coffee shop or restaurant, order in Chinese. The staff will probably talk English back to you if it’s an international-minded chain like Starbucks, but you should be able to stare them down if needed. (Lamentably, staff in Beijing are often trained to speak English to foreign-looking people, even if said foreigner speaks understandable Chinese to them. It’s their managers’ fault, not theirs, so make a joke out of it instead of getting annoyed.)
One advantage of studying in Beijing is that Mandarin is strongly based on the Beijing dialect, meaning that from the point of view of a Chinese learner, the Chinese spoken in Beijing is Mandarin and you’ll hear it all around you. (The main area in which it differs from standard Mandarin is in the distinctive piratical ‘arr’ sound added to many syllables.) In many places in China, the local dialect is completely different from Mandarin and they are mutually incomprehensible – Beijing offers an immersive environment.
For doing business here, it’s a great asset to speak enough Chinese to even make initial small talk before meetings. You’re showing at the very least that you appreciate that you’re the foreigner and are aware that they’re helping you out by communicating with you in English for the most part. As you become more fluent, the benefits are exponential, as is the cultural savvy and awareness of nuance that come along with linguistic fluency. And if nothing else, people back home are going to be impressed that you speak Chinese.
So how should you study? Beijing has a huge range of language schools, from small operations to international chains. It’s a competitive business and companies come and go, so look for established operators and pay them a visit. You can study at lunch, in the evening, on weekends – there’s infinite flexibility. There are also more structured full-time courses at universities. And there are plenty of one-on-one tutors looking for students. (Be careful with private lessons: don’t go for ‘language exchange’, and do your best to find a tutor by recommendation. There are lots of great teachers looking for work, but also plenty who aren’t qualified and won’t help you as much as you hope.) Try mixing and matching and find what works for you. There are also podcasts and websites that can make a huge difference.
If you’re serious about the language, after a while look into taking the HSK, the standard government-administered test of Mandarin proficiency. There are tests at different levels of ability and it’s a great study goal.
Here are some prominent language schools, but there are plenty more and your best bet will be to ask friends and start by looking at places near your home or office.
1 on 1 Mandarin
Specializes in semester-long courses, but part-time and private tutoring also available, as well as a range of nifty specialized courses such as newspaper Chinese and cultural Chinese.
Room 506, Building 7, Huaqing Shangwu Huiguan Building, Wudaokou, Haidian
1on1 Mandarin on Facebook
Beijing Chinese Language School
Friendly and relaxed language center with the usual general courses at different levels, plus specialized speaking, listening and reading classes and a range of survival, business and HSK options. Also offers TCM courses.
2103B, Building A, 26 Chaoyangmenwai, Chaoyang District
The Bridge School
Good value and good quality teaching at this well-thought-of school that offers both group classes and individual classes, with all levels catered for and specialized sessions for business Chinese, HSK prep and more. Check website for other locations.
Room 503, Guangming Hotel, Liangmaqiao Lu, Chaoyang
Room 903, E-Tower, 12C Guanghua Lu, Chaoyang
Capital Mandarin School
This modern facility offers a full range of courses for all ages, from full-time study to once-a-week classes. Courses are customizable with one-on-one training also available.
Mon-Fri 8:30am-9pm, Sat 10am-4pm
Room 1006, Van Palace Center West Tower, Jintong Dong Lu, Chaoyang
The Hutong School
Known for its attractive hutong setting, this small school has now expanded to a Sanlitun branch. Intensive beginner courses as well as a range of other levels, volunteer programs and tailor-made courses.
8 Shuangsi Hutong, Jiugulou Dajie, Xicheng
Room 1501, Zhongyu Plaza, A6 Gongti Beilu, Chaoyang
Popular school with a wide range of courses of different lengths and plenty of social activities and cultural classes, with 20 classrooms in Chaoyang.
Mon-Thu 8:30am-9pm, Fri 8:30am-6pm, Sat-Sun 9am-4pm
Suite 317, Tower 16, 89 Jianguo Lu, Chaoyang
This groundbreaking Chinese teaching company operates through podcast subscriptions, with support from online teachers and materials offering Chinese lessons to people around the world. They’ve now expanded to other languages.
Skritter is invaluable for learning characters, using massive databases of textbooks as well as student-provided material supporting them – write characters with your mouse or on your iPad, with spaced repetition algorithms making sure you get tested when you need to be.