How to Study in China in English

by Julia Kitlinski Hong

Rumor has it that you are thinking about studying in China, you, my friend, have made a wise decision. As a major influence in international affairs and global economics, this country is an invaluable place to study in. On top of that, there is a diverse culinary scene, a complex historical background, endless natural beauty, and a deep appreciation for performance and visual arts. It’s quite possible that you may never want to leave!

Although China tempts with its many highlights, the one thing that students are often unsure of is the language. A completely understandable concern, since Mandarin is seen as one of  the hardest languages to learn for those who are not familiar with it. Fortunately, in major cities like Beijing, Shanghai, or Guangzhou, there are classes taught in English that cater to the growing international student population.

Girls walking in Shanghai Park, China

Are you convinced enough now to buy your plane ticket? You should be.

Now comes the monumental task of deciding where you will feel most comfortable studying and living language-wise. Let’s get started! Here are some essential questions for international students to ask themselves before they decide to study in China, without any Chinese language skills, to make sure you will have the best experience possible:

What Chinese city will be the easiest to navigate in English?

English-based educational exchange is more likely to be found in China’s larger cities, where there are well-established opportunities to study in China for international students and a greater number of Chinese universities; hence, also plenty of international students that you will be able to communicate in English with. Here are three major cities that have plenty of English taught courses for international students:

Are you fascinated by Chinese history? Beijing, the ancient capital of China could be an ideal home living among relics of the past, while at the same time having the advantages of the present. Follow in the footsteps of great scholars by choosing to study in China in English at Peking University, which is the oldest university in the country (but has some of the most progressive courses) and Tsinghua University, which has one of the top-ranked business schools in the world.

For those craving something more modern, Shanghai is the heart of modern China and the country’s largest city. If you are pursuing a degree in finance, business, or economics, this city should be a strong contender for your heart and home base when you study in China. This city does not skimp on schools, which include Shanghai Jiao Tong University, one of the most prestigious research universities in the country, with a huge international student population to boot. Another option is Fudan University, a renown Chinese university that is known for being one of the first schools to accept international students in the country, since the 1950’s, and has top-notch intensive Mandarin programs for those wanting to take the language leap.

Dragon statue in Hong Kong, China

Hong Kong is another major modern metropolis that is a popular draw for international students who want to study in China, with an incredible food landscape, a wide variety of different cultural influences, and plenty of English taught courses. Contrary to popular belief, it is not just a concrete jungle, but has plenty of intriguing places waiting to be discovered in its back alleyways and side streets. The University of Hong Kong is the region’s oldest institution and is known for its excellence in research. Something to keep in mind is that if you are interested in enrolling in beginner Mandarin classes, Hong Kong’s official language is Cantonese instead.

What are the benefits of studying in China through a program provider?

The opportunities to study in China for international students can be an exhilarating, but also an overwhelming experience, even before you board your plane. Signing up through a program provider, such as CISabroad, USAC, or CEA Study Abroad can help alleviate some of the sleepless nights, since they take care of housing, other logistics of settling in and best of all provide you with a strong support system to help you through anything from culture shock to translating situations where language barriers are an issue. More importantly, program providers are a good safety net if you have some language-barrier concerns before or while you study in China.

The majority of programs will have a residential director who lives locally in your city and is the on-ground support for you throughout the duration of your stay. Study abroad program providers also help enroll their students in smaller English-based classes within a school, that are tailored more specifically to their needs.

Signing up to study in China through a program provider that is based in an English-speaking country will also help guarantee that the other participants will likewise be English speakers. There are plenty of study abroad programs in China that offer housing in the form of dormitories or apartments, as opposed to a more intimidating homestay, where communication can be tricky. Often program providers will even make sure that your roommates or flatmates are fellow English speakers that will make the transition much easier.

Birdcages in a park in Shanghai, China

When is the best time for me to study in China and for how long?

After you have zeroed in on where exactly you want to study in the Middle Kingdom, there is the equally important question of when you should go and for how long. Do you have an aversion to cold weather or begin to melt when the thermometer reads above 80 degrees Fahrenheit and the air is heavy with humidity? Consideration for the weather is a very real thing, where in Beijing it can get mind-numbingly cold during the winter and in Hong Kong it can be unbearably humid and hot in the summer months.

Speaking to duration of stay, China is a country that especially takes time to begin to understand its complexities to those not familiar with its culture and language. You may think a semester might seem like a long time, but it is not! If you can, stay for two semesters or better yet if you have the resources and time, a whole year will allow you to truly immerse yourself in the cultural intricacies of China. Though you will be taking English taught courses in China, the longer you stay, the better chance you will have at learning the basics of the local language if you wish to do so. Understanding even a few simple sentences will allow you to have a deeper understanding and appreciation for your adopted country.

How should I mentally prepare before to study in China?

China is the very definition of culture shock, especially if you are coming from a Western country. Studies are taken very seriously, and there is often little room for error. Within the classroom, teachers are shown the utmost respect and classes are usually in the format of lectures, instead of discussions where students are encouraged to participate. There is also a high level of expected social obedience infused into the cultural fabric, as China is a country where individualism is not always encouraged.

The National Palace Museum, Beijing, China
Truth be told, the magic of a study abroad experiences lies deeply within the varying degrees of differences you are bound to experience.

While trying to communicate in broken Chinese, flailing your arms about, or seeking the help of others isn’t necessarily a pleasant experience, but it’s not a bad one, either. Just because you don’t speak Mandarin doesn’t mean you can’t have a meaningful, cultural exchange as an international student in China. It just means you will have to get a little better at charades (only kidding).

Adjusting to life in China without knowing the language can take extra effort, but the transition can be made easier by doing some individual preparation beforehand. Reading literature about China, speaking to other students who studied in China in English about their experiences, and most importantly, keeping an open mind will help you have a successful time both inside and outside of the classroom.