Learning Chinese is challenging but…I’d like to give you a bit of inspiration and advice while you prepare for taking the same life-changing decision which in 2010 made me move to China, where I started an intensive Chinese language course at a local university.
How long does it take to be fluent in Chinese? And, why should you go to China?
When your goal is to be fluent ( I’m speaking of the HSK level 4/5 (respectively B2/C1 of the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages), 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 results typing “da” in the dictionary I use with on my smartphone. 31! It’s a lot…
Furthermore, when you start learning Chinese, chances are you will need to re-program the way you structure sentences. For instance, comparing Italian ( my mother-tongue ) 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 ( hey this is a language for which you’ll need some time only to understand how to look up words in the dictionary! )
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. If you’re not a fan of self-lerning, you’ll find out nowadays more and more language schools offer Chinese language course, and, if you have are really determined to take the HSK test for job reasons or with the purpose of taking a university course in China, you might want to check out the courses offered by the Confucius Institute in your country ( I recommend you look them up by yourself, because I’ve found their websites isn’t promptly updated about locations. )
WHY IS STUDYING CHINESE IN CHINA THE MOST EFFECTIVE WAY TO LEARN CHINESE?
Because 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 needs and 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. Looking for places, buying groceries, getting to know somebody, asking for help, and looking for a new apartment for instance, all are communication skills that you’d better live than learn from books.
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’ve already gone through this process when you were a kid!
The essential secret to accelerating the learning consists in living in a place where everybody speaks the language you want to learn plus getting some external support, like language classes.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 go further and decide to study a degree or master course in China ( many universities offer them in both Chinese and English ) to save time and, maybe, money ( if the university fees are cheaper compared to the ones in your home-country! )
You might want to choose to study for one or two semesters, to begin with.
How to choose the University
I’LL TALK ABOUT THIS DELICATE TOPIC IN A DIFFERENT POST THAT WILL HELP YOU TREMENDOUSLY TO CHOOSE YOUR COURSE!
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 look for the application procedure. Colleges usually offer to students enrolled in the Chinese language program side courses like calligraphy, Chinese folklore, Taijiquan, Qigong, and more.
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/consulate 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 that the government has an address and is able to emit a short-term residence permit. The easiest way is to get a shared room at the University’s dorms. By doing that, you won’t need to commute 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 for registration.
When I first arrived in Xiamen, I stayed in the dorms for a couple of months and later moved off-campus.
You’ll 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.
And now, finally, you’re done with the bureaucratic stuff, and ready to dive into this new, life-changing adventure!
In order to make the most out of your study trip to China, have a look at the tricks that allow you to speed up your language learning process. If you need help with your application or communicating with Chinese institutions, I invite you to get in touch with me! I’m an interpreter/translator with 10 years of experience in the field 😉