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A Guide to Learning Chinese Abroad

Are you jealous of those who speak cool languages that don’t involve our regular ol’ alphabet? We thought so. Belly up to the bar and commit to tackling 5000+ characters — go for the deep end and learn Chinese! Vast Asia awaits any eager-eyed, tongue-twirling, language-loving traveler: from sophisticated Shanghai (the tropical New York of the Far East), to the forbidden secrets of Macau, up through the Tibetan plateau and beyond. All of these glittering destinations offer students the chance to experience and learn a language spoken by ONE BILLION people — that’s 15% of the world population! Where better to start than with Chinese language schools?


With a language that is so widely spoken around the world, the next step is to choose where you want to go for your intensive Chinese language program. Luckily, these one billion people are scattered generously throughout most of the countries, so there’s a country and climate for any taste.

A good option are... Chinese schools in China! The differences between north, south, east, and west are as large as different countries in Europe. If you prefer noodles to rice, head for the south and if you love tackling the rice+chopsticks challenge, stick to the north (don’t worry — their love for dumplings remains the same throughout).

Don’t automatically assume big-name cities like Beijing or Shanghai when you’re thinking of China. The city of Suzhou hosts a population of 5.5 million people - and it’s considered a SMALL city in China. Other cities, like Guangzhou, that may be lesser known, but have just as much to offer back. These are all fascinating cities from which people back from with hilarious stories, in awe of the history and culture (and with good humor about their intensive Chinese language programs). Lesser-known means less foreign students, less likely to slip back to your mother tongue, and higher chance of being the local celebrity – who doesn’t want to be photographed as if they just won an Oscar?

Don’t stop your search at China though. As well as many cities in China, there are also boundless possibilities in Hong Kong and Vietnam for Chinese language classes! The all you can eat Sunday dim-sum in Hong Kong, intensely sweet Vietnamese coffee stalls dotted around street corners, as well as the untouched beaches in Southern Vietnam — have they enticed you yet?

Chinese Language Courses

No matter what a student is looking for, Chinese language programs undoubtedly have something that suits everyone. From intensive summer Chinese language courses in Beijing to yearlong exchange year in Xi’an (home to the Terracotta army), the list is longer than the Great Wall of China.

Start by thinking about what type of learning you are interested in. Do you want to do an intensive summer course for one to three months? Do you want to enroll in a program that takes care of you as soon as you step off the plane or do you want to take the chance and learn the hard, but rewarding, way by discovering everything yourself?

More importantly, what is your goal? Mandarin has different types of language proficiency tests – the most widely recognized is called HSK. As a beginner, it is commonly said that it takes a student around 50 hours of taught classes to achieve intermediate level of HSK3 (up to HSK6). Or perhaps the aim is to not focus on the exams, but more on the business speaking proficiency, to help employees make guānxi (relationships) with Chinese colleagues.

Tip: in China and Chinese speaking countries, guanxi is considered the make or break of a lot of deals and collaborations, and it certainly helps if you speak the language too.

Chinese language schools and universities both offer short-term and long-term Chinese language classes for all levels, as well as private tutoring and small classroom sizes – the standard of teaching is similar, but if you had to be picky, attending a university course might be more noticeable on your resume/CV. If your aim is simply to improve your language skills, then it might not be as important; it depends on your goals.

Formal method of teaching isn’t the only way to nourish one’s language skills. Why not use the once-in-a-lifetime chance of being in the country where you can practice the characters you learnt in class on the streets? Taxi drivers and street vendors are essentially free teachers. Free and informative! Or consider having a language partner, which not only encourages the student to practice Chinese in another informal setting, but unlocks the door to explore the city through local eyes. 

Want to exponentially increase your pace of learning? Consider private tutors, many of whom you can actually live with - double the intensity. Wake up to freshly made congee, bicycles lined to the T in the residential block. Not to mention, your neighbour is guaranteed to give you rice cakes when you move in as a sign of welcome. Score!

Tips for Gaining Fluency in Chinese

The beauty of Chinese characters is that each is composed of different components. So if you know the smaller parts that make up the character, combined with logic, you can almost guess. Almost. The more characters you learn, the more you're able to understand, even without being taught. It might seem hard when you start, but with perseverance, you'll be throwing out characters in your tai-chi class.  

Think about your pace of learning. Most Chinese language courses are around 40 hours a week.  So, depending on the goal, know the pace you need to keep at/keep up to get there. Keep in mind there’s no point cramming in vocabulary if it’s all forgotten the next day. Understand your ability for learning and keep it realistic.

Practice inside and outside the classroom. Imagine waking up and going to bed in the country that lives, breathes, and dreams in Chinese; students don’t have a choice but to be pleasantly brainwashed in the language! You’ll naturally immerse yourself in the culture, the history, and the people around you. Use this opportunity; practice your Chinese and marvel at everything that’s different to what you’re used to - it’ll train the memory and provide a cracking story.

Listen. You will recognize and subconsciously identify phrases and words from actively listening to those around you. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is the beauty of studying a language abroad. You learn five words in class, ten words outside of class. It’s simple math; the rate of learning is light speed!

Benefits & Challenges

Whoever tells you that Chinese is one of the hardest languages in the world... they’re right (sorry to burst your bubble). What they might have failed to tell you though, is the immense feeling of accomplishment and pride you’ll feel with every new character you learn to write.

Even the natives get it wrong sometimes. There are four tones to every character, which can mean so many different things, even Chinese people themselves have difficulty remembering. There are 26 letters in the English alphabet, compared to 50,000 characters in Chinese. But, don’t fret! You’ll only use 3,000 of these in most circumstances. Considerable drop in numbers; seems more achievable now right?

China is the “it” country (otherwise known as a superpower). It’s the country businesses all around the world want to establish a connection with. But it is also a country with an extremely different language and diverse cultures; you’re bound to have several cultures with a population of 1.2 billion. Solution? Experience everything China has to offer while attending your Chinese language classes. Knowing the language and understanding their ways and customs makes you one of them…  and in a country where guanxi is everything, the experience and the language skills will prove invaluable. 

It’s as obvious as kids reaching for their red envelopes during Chinese New Year: intensive Chinese language programs are the most effective strategy (while still allowing you to enjoy eating chuan’r at midnight). Take a leap of travel dust towards the direction of your bright future — to the Far East!

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A Guide To
Learning Chinese Abroad


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