Teaching abroad can be a great learning experience for those new to a country and culture. As an English teacher in China, while of course doing great work helping local people gain English language skills, it's important to remember that the learning process works both ways. You too can learn a great deal during your stay! Making the effort to learn Mandarin while living and working in China will make daily life much easier, encourage students to take you more seriously, and is a real boost to the overall cultural experience. But what are the secrets to practicing your language skills? And if you can't speak a word of Mandarin, where do you start?
Homework? But I'm the Teacher!
Yes, it may not sound fun but unfortunately people don't learn by osmosis. Mandarin is a notoriously difficult language for Westerners to master. So actively speak, read, and write it as much as possible. While in China, you will be surrounded with opportunities. Even reading the back of a shampoo bottle can be a useful exercise! Mandarin, like many Asian languages, is tonal meaning pronunciation needs to be perfect in order to be understood.
Practice Makes Perfect
What's the best path to perfection? Practice, practice, practice! You will meet a lot of local people while teaching, so use the opportunity to learn from them. Interacting with local people is the best possible way to hear and adapt to actual speech and will do wonders for your abilities. Even when not speaking to students, try to use Mandarin in everyday situations and go to places where you will be forced to speak it. Order food, buy bus tickets, answer the phone, watch television, and speak to the little old man in the local shop, all in Mandarin.
It may be completely wrong at first, but the effort will be appreciated and rewarded with friendly responses - which is ideal when living and working in an area for quite some time. If you're stuck, try applying some of the same techniques and exercises which you advise to the Chinese students. For example, seek out other Mandarin learners to practice with. You will receive support and encouragement plus make some new friends.
Pick Up A Pen
There's more to language than just speaking and listening. Reading and writing, especially in China, is an integral part of practicing Mandarin. So much in fact, that calligraphy is considered to be a highly respectable art form. So write shopping lists, take notes, send letters, and write online. At a less aesthetic and more practical level, being able to recognize and write at least basic words and numbers will be endlessly helpful in less westernised areas. Many areas outside of major cities in China are still quite rural. Public transportation signs will likely be only in Mandarin. There's nothing more daunting than being on a train with an incomprehensible destination.
Knowledge Is Free
Remember that you don't need to spend a lot to receive a profitable language experience. Be resourceful and use everything around you. Use old newspapers, signs, and packaging to practice reading. Get online to find language guides, advice forums, and exercise examples. The web can even be a good resource to find practice partners. Skype or chat rooms will be helpful if your neighbors don't speak Mandarin (they may speak Cantonese - find out before you attempt a conversation).
Walk Before You Run
Lastly but perhaps most importantly, it is vital to start small. You may want to learn as much as possible as quickly as possible, but to make real long-term progress it's important not to overwhelm yourself. Start out with a word a day, or even a week if it is a struggle. And remember, there's no shame in taking it slow. You will get there eventually. Many people complain of hitting a language wall. If this happens perhaps a class or tutor group will be helpful. Language classes can be great motivation and provide the necessary clarity to really master a difficult language.