I was very much involved in Chinese language school business in China so am in good position to offer a few tips for those thinking of going to China to study Chinese.
Generally speaking, there are two main choices, either going to universities or private language schools. Universities such as BCLU (Beijing Culture and Language University) are among the earliest universities in China to run Chinese language courses for foreign students. The university (BCLU) is famous but does not guarantee that its course suits every one’s needs. For one thing, the course is run on a semester basis, to peg with the university timetable. So is the course design. So if you want to join a short-term course, say for two weeks or two months, the course is just not right for you. You can of course still join it, but since the course is designed for longer term, your study result cannot be too promising.
Also this type of university course is more focused on comprehensive training in speaking, listening, reading and writing. That means if you are for short-term study, how can you achieve anything given that Mandarin Chinese is such a difficult language to learn and to master all these capabilities is an impossible task in a short period of time. Many foreign students just want to train their speaking and listening abilities when they stay a while in China. This kind of university course cannot satisfy their needs.
So if you look to study mandarin Chinese in China for a few weeks or months, consider going to private language schools, which are springing up in China, especially in Beijing and Shanghai. It is a new business so the government is yet to issue license to these schools which are not officially certified. They cannot give you government-approved certificate when you finish study with them.
There are many such schools in Beijing and Shanghai, and some in Xiamen, Guangzhou, Hangzhou, kunming, Qingdao, etc. When choosing the schools, it is advisable to ask two questions : are they run by local Chinese or foreigners? If it is local chinese, who are they? This is important because if they do not know much about Westen style of education, the teaching method will be very oriental style and you will be just drilled in the classroom. You will be taught a lot in the classroom, but at the end of the day, you are not getting anywhere. I know of a couple of schools in China that are run by foreingers and are very successful, welcome by foreign students.
With centuries of communist and authoritarian rule, China’s education system stifles free spirit and creativity. The Chinese language teachers, despite their professional knowledge, come from the same education system. Can you expect them to be creative and dynamic in meeting foreign students learning needs? Very hard. I don’t deny there is exception, but that is exception.
The quality of teaching is something that there is still much room to improve in China, especially in the field of teaching Chinese to foreigners. Teaching Chinese to foreigners has become a new profession in China and universities across the country are offering the course. Guess what the students have to study majoring in teaching Chinese to foreigners? Theory of Communism!
So if you want to sign up for a language school, do ask for the former students for their comments about quality of teaching.
Another question you need to ask is, how many classes do they have? This is yet another very important question to ask. The private language schools are usually run on a weekly basis, or bi-weekly basis, meaning that students can enrol in the class every week or every two weeks. If there are not enough classes catering for a whole range of levels, how can you be sure that you can find the class that is right for your level? Some schools jus want to make money so they don’t care if you fit into the right class. They put you into the class that is operating regardless of your level and you end up with people of different levels in the class. How can you learn?
In a word, when choosing a Chinese language school, ask who is running behind, ask for former students for comments on quality of teaching, and ask how many classes/levels they have at the moment.
When choosing a university for studying Mandarin, the quality of teaching is important. Do check out this. On the other hand, it is usually more established and there are more classes to choose from.