From high schools adding Chinese to their foreign language options to university students studying abroad in Beijing, the number of Chinese-language learners is growing rapidly worldwide. Whether you’ve just dabbled in Duolingo or have taken years of Chinese classes, there’s one great way to accelerate your language acquisition: Moving to China. Having learned Chinese exclusively while living in China, I have personally experienced the benefits of immersing oneself in a Mandarin-speaking environment. While it is obvious that moving to a country where the language is spoken is a great way to improve any language, there are some China and Chinese-specific reasons why moving to China is a great way to improve your Chinese language abilities.
- Ordering food is a daily test of your abilities.
If you’re trying to learn Mandarin Chinese outside of China, you’re probably using a mix of apps and classes. These are a great place to start, but eventually these study methods get old and you can only improve and stay motivated if you put yourself in situations where you have to use the language.
Ordering food is a great place to start. Reading the menu, speaking with the waiter, and making small talk with the owner of the restaurant are all great opportunities to practice reading, listening, and speaking Chinese.
Chinese takes English speakers a long time to learn [hyperlink: https://www.state.gov/m/fsi/sls/c78549.htm]. Small successes – like ordering a steaming bowl of rice with a side of savory 狮子头meatballs (shī zi tóu – literally translates to lion’s head –don’t worry they’re made of pork!) is a great way to stay motivated and put what you are learning into practice immediately.
One of many delicious rewards available to those who can order in Mandarin!
- People are incredibly supportive.
Non-Chinese people learning Chinese is a relatively new phenomenon. Chinese learners in China will find that everyone from taxi drivers to shopkeepers are effervescent with their praise of even fairly simple Mandarin language abilities. This is especially true in smaller cities with fewer foreigners where even a simple 你好(nĭhăo– hello) can excite locals.
While there is little expectation that non-Chinese people will speak Mandarin, your efforts to learn Mandarin will be noticed and appreciated!
- Your pronunciation is worse than you think.
Even for those who have already learned pinyin (the Romanized pronunciation guide of Mandarin Chinese), pronunciation of Chinese consonants and vowels is hard.
Living in China helps Chinese language learners to daily test whether or not they are pronouncing a word well enough to be understood. Pronouncing the word wrong also isn’t the end of the world – When I’ve run into situations where my pronunciation was too incorrect for the other person to guess my meaning, I’ve always pulled out my phone, pulled up the word in my dictionary, and learned how to say the word correctly from the experience.
Programs like duo lingo are great, but only going out into a Mandarin-speaking world will truly help you master some of the trickiest consonant and vowel combinations.
- Accents abound!
I spent much of my first two years in China in a smaller city that had its own local dialect. Although everyone could understand Mandarin, many people, especially of the older generations, spoke Mandarin as a second language.
Map of China’s regional languages
Especially in Southern China, it is incredibly common to find people who speak Mandarin that is colored with the accent of their local language. Many Chinese people abroad also have an accent different from the “standard” accent taught in your classroom.
While many people might think that surrounding oneself by “nonstandard” accents is a bad thing for language learners, the ability to understand different accents is a learnable and useful skill. Mandarin is spoken around the world by non-native speakers whose native language ranges from Hokkien to Cantonese to Sichuan dialect.
Learning to understand Mandarin how it is actually spoken by much of the population will make you a more flexible communicator.
By Rebecca Bosslet