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Teaching English AND Learning Chinese: How easy is to do both?


Mark K
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A few additional words of warning:

1) Never believe an English school that says it will arrange Chinese classes for you. What that usually means is they force one of their Chinese English teachers to tutor you for an hour a week, which the teacher doesn't really want to do because they don't get extra money for it. A bitter, over worked and under paid English teacher is not going to make a good Chinese language teacher. One program I know of which actually makes people pay to come to China and teach for free, in return for a "culturally enriching experience" of being on lock-down in a middle school in some shitty town in the middle of nowhere, has an innovative way to meet their contractual obligation of providing Chinese lessons to their teachers. Because that program offers Chinese lessons in their contract, they hand out a book to the teachers with some basic Chinese lessons, and that's it, no teachers or tutors.

2) Another aspect not mentioned about learning Chinese while being an English teacher is that you really ought to be immersing yourself as much as possible in Chinese while you're studying it. All the time spent in your school actually teaching English, as well as preparing your English lessons, talking with fellow teachers and your students (all in English) is detrimental to your Chinese. There was a large thread about this on a Taiwan ex-pat forum, and most people said to avoid teaching English while studying Chinese. But if you need a source of income, you gotta do what ya gotta do. It isn't impossible to learn Chinese while teaching English, but there is more to think about other then time constraints due to a busy teaching schedule.

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Thanks lilongyue, I think what you said is right about so-called "chinese classes offered." My intention is to try to get my Chinese learning arranged (probably separately) at the same time I find work. I also agree that I should try to focus as much as possible on studying Chinese while in China, but being that I don't have several thousands dollars sitting in my bank account, I suppose I "just gotta do, as I gotta do," to borrow your expression.

I'm not sure how much I can limit my teaching/working in China in order to focus on my Chinese language studies and still have enough to live off of. But that's the goal...which I hope I can land.

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  • 1 month later...

I have worked in China for 4 years! I work mostly weekends and evenings! This leaves loads of time during the week to study on my own. I also enrolled in Uni classes for two different semesters. It's not to difficult depending on your teaching schedule and your study time table!

I will say that dating really helps! Laugh though you will! I have been with my girl for almost 2 years (Her English was amazing when we met but has also improved alot) and my chinese has made leaps and bounds during that time. We speak mostly Chinese at home, though I will admit to using the occational English word when I don't know how to say something!

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  • 2 months later...

For what it's worth...

I signed a half year teaching contract earlier this year to see if I'd like living in China and get paid while I figured that out. My weekly teaching load was 17 hours, at the teacher's college level (really uninspired students, unfortunately), and a fair amount of lesson planning since I ended up having to lecture on American history with the worst textbooks you've ever seen. Then again, the school was pretty lax so I showed a fair number of movies, too.

Anyway, I came into the country with no useable Chinese but a familiarity with the basic rules of the language (pinyin, stroke order, tones, some grammar) that I got from a year of university level Chinese in 2001-2002. Still, six years after one year of uni Chinese is a long time and I really couldn't speak.

My intention was not to study at all but I had tons of free time and didn't like not being able to communicate. I got ahold of the New Practical Chinese Reader books and a Peace Corps textbook, found tutors I could see a few times a week (I went through several before I found a good tutor), and made myself sit down to write 400-800 characters by rote every day. Fortunately, I am a weirdo who enjoys calligraphy and spent years as a tagger... I guess my foray into deliquency actually paid off by giving me the patience to write the same word over and over, but that's another story.

By the end of my semester in July I'd say I'd picked up about 700 to 800 Hanzi I could write, more I could read, and enough Chinese to travel in Guizhou alone and get by without being asked to repeat myself too often. I know that having in-depth conversations versus buying some rice or a bus ticket require hugely different skill levels, so I have no idea how long studying in my situation would have taken before I could call myself fluent.

I should say that alongside all this I still had plenty of time to take my meals at a leisurely pace, chill with my friends, practice some qigong, taiji, and meditation (though the Chinese study definitely cut into those practices), and date. I also walked everywhere, so I spent at least an hour a day in transit. For my part, I would say that dating is a mixed bag. On the one hand, the girl I was with didn't have great English so I did get a lot of practice. On the other, I think the fact that both of us didn't have a great command of the other's language--and wouldn't for a long time--meant we settled into a relationship where we didn't really have in-depth conversations. Eventually I was mostly saying the same basic stuff to her. It was nice but being with a girl cut waaaaay into my discipline and had I been with her from the beginning I would have learned far less.

At any rate, my hope now is to return to China as a full time student... But here in the US the economy sucks and I don't want to stay for long as each passing day chips away at what Chinese I managed to learn this year. I fully intend to return as a teacher if I can't get a scholarship or some amazing job that allows me to save up for a semester or two. Teaching and learning mandarin can certainly be done.

I have a question of my own. I taught in a small city in Guizhou and my school was pretty easygoing. I really never saw my bosses, never hung around the department office, and never did overtime. I kept a low profile on campus, as well, and thus spent very little time supplementing my students' education with impromptu English Corners. Would I be able to find a similar situation in Beijing, or are they gonna squeeze all the English they can get out of me up there?

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  • 6 months later...

I'm strongly considering moving to Guangzhou ,which is a Cantonese speaking city of course, so I can be with my girlfriend full-time rather than every few months.

I just wonder how feasible is it to learn Mandarin while doing TEFL in a Cantonese speaking city?

Maybe I should forget the idea and just try starting off with Cantonese, which is her second language (Mandarin third - she's from Taishan where they speak a local dialect)?

She is comfortable in all three languages and says I should learn Mandarin first and then Cantonese, but I'm a slow language learner and am finding Mandarin tough going truth be told and am thinking Mandarin alone is going to take several years just be at a decent conversational standard. I am an engineer by trade..always have been better with numbers than languages.

Everything I've read though seems to indicate that learning Cantonese first is like scaling Everest without any hill climbing experience, I'll probably not even make it to base camp.

Would appreciate any thoughts here.

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  • 7 months later...

I'm currently doing both and I think I'm doing alright.

But I didn't start teaching until after I'd been in China and studying Mandarin for several months.

Those first several months I just studied. Later I got a part-time job because I needed money to pay the rent.

I certainly agree that most English teachers' Chinese is not very good.

I'm particularly disciplined and spend most of my free time studying.

Also, I only teach 10 hours a week, so I have a lot of free time.

If you're teaching full time, I definitely think it would be hard to fulfill your learning goals.

I lived in Shanghai at first, and had several English teacher friends. They all knew a nominal amount of Chinese but most of their Chinese was pretty pathetic. The one teacher at that school who was fluent in Chinese studied Chinese for years before becoming a teacher.

Especially if your school provides housing, the environment is just not conducive to learning Chinese. You're living with a bunch of other Americans and English and Australians, and the language medium is English.

If you want to learn Chinese, live near Chinese people and find Chinese friends. And don't teach full time.

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  • 4 months later...

Teaching English and learning Chinese is exactly what I'm doing here. I work 2 days a week, get paid enough to live well, and have a LOT of free time to study or do whatever I want.

I'd recommend getting a university job with 12-16 hours of work a week. You'll probably make 5,000-6,000RMB a month which is enough to live very well on outside of the most expensive cities.

A lot of schools will also let you attend their Chinese classes and can find a good private tutor for cheap (50kuai or so an hour).

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find a good private tutor for cheap (50kuai or so an hour)

Perhaps this is the going rate in big cities like Beijing or Shanghai, but any Chinese tutor charging this much otherwise is taking you for a ride.

15 - 20 RMB/hour is more than enough for private one-to-one classes.

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I think it's quite feasible. If you are able to find a way to work one long day per week (maybe 8 paid hours), then you can pay all your bills and have 6 days a week to study. I have two jobs. One is Monday-Friday (underpaid, too much work), and the other one is just saturday (high paying, long hours for 1 day). I plan on quitting my main job and just studying full time.

The one day of work will pay for rent, all my food, transportation, etc... but will not allow for saving any money. Any extra tutoring jobs I pick up will allow me to save money (they're not hard to get)

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Depends I guess on whether they are a proper tutor, or just a native speaker giving you tutoring.

Very good point.

When I first arrived in Harbin and didn't know any better, I had a tutor at 75 RMB/90 minutes. She was well prepared and helped me a lot.

After my wife (then girlfriend) moved in and "realized" I was overpaying, she helped me find a university student for 20 RMB/hour. At that stage in my studies, I had my own course material and stuff to work from, so he just showed up and I told him what to do.

I suppose if you're new and need a lot of guidance and suggestions, paying a bit more is a good idea. However, if you're at a decent intermediate level, and have your own course books and what not to work out of, and just need someone to listen/correct errors/speak with, then hiring a uni student isn't a bad idea.

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I think this is true. As of right now, I think the best "tutor" I've ever had was actually an American (a friend of mine) who speaks fluently. Being a non-native speaker, he understands my questions very naturally (since he had to once ask the same questions) and can answer them concisely.

For native speakers, Chinese is perhaps so easy that it's difficult to explain (they sometimes give me misinformation when I ask questions as simple as "what tone is ".

(Not to criticize Chinese folks. I know I'm not so good at explaining english, either)

50 yuan an hour for someone who can concisely and clearly answer any of your questions would be quite worth it I think. But, this is China. I'd try to talk it down to 40 ;)

EDIT: The first sentence of my post was trying to agree with imron. I wrote it ambiguously.

Edited by valikor
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  • 2 months later...

I agree that it's not as hard as some people think it needs to be, but you have to spend some time with it. I taught at Wuhan University in the mornings Monday through Friday, attended one or two Chinese classes in the afternoon and then self-studied at night. I added a tutor and used Chinese pod. If you have a lot of grading for your classes then you obviously don't have that freedom. However if you are teaching oral English and the prep work is minimal then you have tons of opportunities, you just have to immerse yourself and don't look back.

It also depends on where you choose to teach. I didn't read all the answers to this forum but Beijing and Shanghai and other cities where a lot of English is spoken, and huge expat communities, will leave you at a disadvantage I believe. I chose Wuhan for that one reason...9 million Chinese, 7,000 non-Chinese. Of course it had its low points, but my Chinese is all the better for it, and I'm proud to say that even in Shanghai I get a lot of compliments and surprise Chinese who interact with a lot of non-Chinese speakers.

I also think, and work with a lot of Chinese schools, to make sure they offer free lessons to their international teachers, for it makes better classroom participation. Never hurts to ask and see what they say.

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I agree with the posters on here who have mentioned working only 2-3 days a week and devoting the rest to studying. If you want to maximize that time, teach and tutor on the weekends and enroll yourself in the best Chinese language program you can reasonably afford at the time, and in the meantime determine what you would need to do to either save more money for a better program or (always a good possibility) finding some scholarship money to attend school in China. i guess the real question is: how much Chinese do you want to learn and how long do you want it to take? In my experience, enrolling in a top-notch intensive program (research that on this forum) or studying to a point where you can enroll in a university as a student with some English and some Chinese classes (e.g. like an undergrad) is worth doing if you really want to get to the advanced level quickly.

I've said this in other posts before, so I'll say it again: in Chinese there's some kind of really big hump you need to cross over at the intermediate-ish level if you want to get to the coveted advanced level. In my experience, you either have to be a super dedicated, masochistic type who wants to sleep, breathe, eat the Chinese language for months and months (maybe with some language exchange partners) or you need to make it a full-time job to go to classes and diligently do your homework for hour everyday. I chose the latter because while I can listen to chinesepod or read Chinese online in my spare time, or even write e-mails/Skype to some friends in Chinese, no one except a teacher is going to get me to really learn new vocabulary and grammar in a timely fashion and using the correct form (e.g. forced essay writing and speeches, with corrective help and explanations).

If your schedule won't permit intense classroom study, one thing you might want to consider is locating the program and (on your own, not formally) approaching some of the teachers for tutoring. They will cost more than hiring a university student as a tutor (and they may even be masters or PhD students in Chinese language learning), but usually they're somewhat trained to teach the language, its rules, and likely more helpful than trying to just wing it on your own. These teachers will cost 50-100 kuai per hour (again, steep compared to others).

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