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gkaa

Best place to study Chinese (nr. of foreigners, climate, dialect etc)

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gkaa

Hi guys.

I have lived in Beijing and Shanghai and Im toying with the idea of going back maybe this fall. However, if I do I really wanna focus on the language. BJ and SH are both great cities, although clearly not the best to learn Chinese. Too many foreigners, polluted, etc.

What do u guys think is the overall best place to go if one is only concerned with learning Chinese, and not considering things as nightlife, restaurants, comfort, etc?

Basically Im looking for a place where:

-they speak good mandarin (ie not some place where Cantonese/local dialects are the most spoken ones. Ive travelled places where many regular people don´t even understand putonghua)

-Its not too many foreigners

-its relatively clean and not too polluted

-that has good mandarin schools, as I dont wanna go to a university and spend half my time reading and writing, preferrably I wanna get a privat tutor or be in a class with maximum 2-3 people

Ive heard good things about Qingdao, which sounds like a good fit for me. Ive been to Xiamen and wasnt too impressed. Some people also say Taiwan is the best and most underrated place to study mandarin?

Cheers

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tooironic

Pretty much every place in China has its own dialect and/or accented Mandarin, but if you're looking for places with a population that speak relatively good Mandarin AND are quite liveable I would recommend Dalian, Qingdao, Harbin, Changsha, Kunming or Nanjing.

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icebear

I think its completely possibly to attain a high level of Mandarin in Beijing (or even Shanghai), you just need to have the willpower to be an outcast among the foreigners you are studying with (refuse to spend time with them) and work hard to make Chinese friends quickly. I didn't do it before, but that's definitely a must if I end up back in Beijing specifically to study (Beijing because I like the city and have a great group of Chinese friends there who could care less about speaking English - and most foreign friends have cycled out to other areas by now).

But if those are off your map, Qingdao, Dalian and Harbin consistently come up on my radar as great alternatives with relatively less distractions. The hard winters also help in keeping your nose in the books!

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jon831

This poster is right about the motivation that comes from within you as being of the most importance. You can learn anywhere.

But that said, in my own experience - I'm a bit lazy - and I can't deny that when I moved from a small city in Hunan where the cab drivers spoke unintelligible (to an elementary learner's ear) putonghua - and then to a large city (though not a developed coastal one) - Wuhan - where I could now actually understand the drivers, and the fruit seller's, etc. this was a big boost for the practice I began to get, as well as for my confidence.

So I would keep an eye on a couple factors.

  • Local blue collar speakers, accent passable (no need to be perfect in my opinion)
  • Not super developed coastal city where you will always or very often have English speakers (here I mean Chinese speakers of English) quick to lend a hand

So the places that fits these are the large cities off the coast, that are also exciting places to be because of the quick growth and opportunities they bring.

I am in Wuhan. It's not a beautiful place and the weather is nothing to envy, but it passes those tests. There are plenty other places that also conform, but are slightly more livable. (Though I do like it here.)

In the spirit of the above poster, your own discipline is key. But if you are prone to going more with the flow, it helps to fix your environment a bit.

Good luck and let us know what you end up deciding.

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gkaa

Thanks for all the answers guys,

maybe I was a little quick on saying BJ and SH arent good places to learn Chinese. Let me rephrase and say that its so optimal. I think it takes very much disipline to avoid ending up with foreigners/chinese who speak very good english.

I travelled to Hengyang (random citi a couple of hours from Maos birthplace) where literally not a single person in the entire citi spoke English. Great opportunity to practice the language, whereas in Shanghai I could have easily called the magic number (those whove been in Sh know what i mean :) ) or having the only english speaker in town follow me around all day.

so maybe what im saying is that by taking away distractions, things might be better. one of those is too much English, which is very hard to avoid using in the major cities. Also being in a uni is not ideal for me, I went to Fudan and the "problem" is that its filled with cool people and you have 10 friends the first day...

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icebear
I still think that this is due to your own approach... Unless you go to a place with absolutely zero foreigners, I don't think just being in a smaller "town" will help.

Another important point - with the internet and downloadable media its very easy to insulate yourself in a English-only bubble nearly anywhere. Most foreigners in China continue to follow series and movies from their home country, read newspapers in their mother tongue, etc because it is so convenient to do so in English. This is definitely not optimal from a language learning perspective and if you do exile yourself to a area foreigners typically would deem "unworthy" or "uninhabitable" you'll want to make sure you don't just end up in your room watching more non-Chinese TV instead of out socializing with foreigners or English speaking Chinese. The point it is you'll still have to be relatively disciplined.

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gkaa

anonymoose: youve been in SH for 6 yrs and dont know the magic number! its the shanghai hotline... super super useful, fantastic invention. kudos to the shanghai politicians

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knickherboots

@gkaa If you can cut it, I suggest trying someplace off the beaten path. How about someplace like Baoding or Shijiazhuang? Both within striking distance of Beijing, but, I imagine, relatively devoid of foreigners.

The usefulness of heading to an area devoid of foreigners is that you do not stay stuck to foreign media sources--i.e., the internet.

I've been traveling to China and studying Chinese since the late 1980s and have noticed a strange paradox. Two decades ago, there was a much more limited range of language learning resources outside of Chinese-speaking countries (e.g., university courses, many poorly taught, that used a limited range of printed material and cassette tapes). When you did make it to a Chinese-speaking country, English-language media sources were limited and difficult to access. As a result, Chinese-learners had conditions that helped them to progress quickly when they made it to China or Taiwan. Now, the situation has reversed. Online resources and improved pedagogy have made it easier to learn Chinese outside of China and Taiwan. But, once you get to China (or, less so now, Taiwan), many students will be tempted by the omnipresent internet, and will also be faced by a larger group of competent non-native English speakers as well as a larger number of other English-speaking foreigners.

So, in a way, you have to be even more motivated than before to make progress in Chinese while "in country."

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gkaa

Yeah thats a good advice. Places like Kunming etc is so popular, id rather try somewhere else. Even though of course it is possible to avoid foreingners, for most people i think it comes down more foreigners around you, the more you spend time with them. ecpecially as my chinese isnt that great, its easy to either hang with chinese that speak good english, or foreigners. one thing is saying "im not gonna spend that much time with foreigners" prior to your arrivial in china. its a whole different matter to actually do so... also, timewise i guess moste not ultra-dedicated people get more out of 6 months in randomville than 1 yr in SH or BJ. so less time needed for the same amount of learning. A place like Hengyang with limited internet acces, no foreigners and no english speakers would improve my chinese so much. but i guess thats a little too hard core, somewhere in between that and the big cities would be good.

Cheers

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wushijiao
@gkaa If you can cut it, I suggest trying someplace off the beaten path. How about someplace like Baoding or Shijiazhuang? Both within striking distance of Beijing, but, I imagine, relatively devoid of foreigners.

Not a bad idea. I lived in Yanjiao, Hebei (near Tongzhou, and about 45 minutes from Beijing) for about a year. I found that in was very easy to get into conversations in Yanjiao, and it was nice to go into Beijing on the weekends.

I would say that although other people are 100% correct in saying that it all comes down to motivation and study habits, regardless of where you live, there are still advantages in going to small towns. In these places, what may be more significant than "having a lot of foreigners and being distracted by hanging out with them" problem, is the relative unfamiliarity with foreigners on the part of locals, and how this relates to the ease of starting conversations. In my experience, basically people in Beijing, Shanghai and other first or even second tier cities are no longer shocked by foreigners speaking Mandarin, and some even expect it. Thus, the encouragement and (ridiculous) flattery levels are fairly low in major cities. In many ways, this is good. But for people who are on the verge of becoming conversational (ie. beginners or intermediates) I think it's better to find a place where many people still see foreigners speaking Chinese as a novelty, and are thus more likely to chat and get into random discussions.

I'm tempted to say that for real beginners (or people with minimal listening skills), finding a place with very standard Mandarin (say, Harbin) might be best. But then once you reach an intermediate level, there's an argument to be made that living in a place with slightly un-standard Mandarin (say, other places in Dongbei, Yunnan, Henan...etc) might be best, since you can expose yourself to those accents, while at the same time exposing yourself to Standard (via...educated locals, CDs, tapes, Chinesepod, Popup Chinese, CCTV, radio...etc). Then at higher levels, I think factors such as accent or the familiarity with foreigners really make little difference in the ability to progress.

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icebear
In my experience, basically people in Beijing, Shanghai and other first or even second tier cities are no longer shocked by foreigners speaking Mandarin, and some even expect it. Thus, the encouragement and (ridiculous) flattery levels are fairly low in major cities. In many ways, this is good. But for people who are on the verge of becoming conversational (ie. beginners or intermediates) I think it's better to find a place where many people still see foreigners speaking Chinese as a novelty, and are thus more likely to chat and get into random discussions.

Seconded, but emphasizing that in fact people in those cities may even expect you to be able to speak good Chinese, based on so many past experiences with foreigners there. While some fawning early on is encouraging, its nice to occasionally hear people say "Your Chinese could be better", despite having a reasonably long conversation with them. Another nice thing about Beijing is you will have endless examples of lazy foreigners that get nothing done in a year and less, but still many, examples of foreigners that have amazing Chinese after relatively short time spans. And I mean direct examples that you can relate to, not the Dashans etc on TV.

In 2007 when I moved to BJ I had been studying somewhat earnestly for around half a year elsewhere in country, and felt fairly satisfied with how I was coming along because I was constantly showered with praise and never had any examples of truly dedicated learners ("Oh, Chinese is so hard that any progress is great!"). Only when I arrived at my new office in Beijing and was surrounded by foreigners that were working full time and taking morning classes and comfortably speaking "great" Chinese after as much time in country as me did I feel like I had really wasted a lot of time by spending so much time around the relatively few foreigners in my community. That kind of example can really light a fire under your ass.

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gkaa

Thanks for all the good advice guys. I agree with the two above posters, and I gotta be honest enough to admit that when I was in BJ and SH, I spent most of my time with americans/mexicans/europeans etc. Its always easy to take the easy path, and not trying to make Chinese friends.

As I see it, theres plenty of good things about a small village/town:

-as stated, easy to get into conversations, becoming the foreign mystic man in town

-cheap

-you simply have to speak a lot of chinese

-you can get a tutor cheap

-you can probably get paid a lot (300 Y + an hour) teaching English as there is not many English speakers around, but a huge demand

Ecpecially the tutor part is kinda interesting. In SH i paid a friend of mine 25 Y for helping me, but a "real" tutor charges western prizes, like 100Y + an hour. Imagine in small towns, with a lower price level.. One could probably get a full time tutor, a couple of hours a day, at the same price as paying tuition to Fudan og Bei da. Ive taken a few months of 1 on 2 classes, and Id say one day there is the equivialent of 1 week or more in university.

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wushijiao

Icebear: all very good points. Sometimes having good models to follow (and competition, for those who are competitively wired), can be a blessing. I am also in no way trying to put down Beijing -- it's probably my favorite city in China (although the pollution would make it unthinkable for me to live there again).

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jkhsu

That kind of example can really light a fire under your ass.

Yeah, I totally agree. I remember going to a Shanghai expat mixer at the Shangri-La Hotel a while back and seeing many of the foreigners speaking great Chinese. Being an expat event and in Shanghai, I thought it was going to be mostly English speaking but it turned out to be around 50/50. In groups consisting of both foreigners and locals, the conversations were usually always in Chinese.

I think once you are at a basic conversational level, all you have to do is continue speaking Chinese regardless of how many responses you get in English and most locals will eventually just speak Chinese with you. Before then (assuming that you're not going to school), you'll just have to hit the books (self-study) and hire tutors to help you. Just tell the tutors that you won't pay them unless they speak to you in 99% Chinese.

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imron
you can probably get paid a lot (300 Y + an hour) teaching English as there is not many English speakers around, but a huge demand

It doesn't work like this and I say this as someone who lived in a small town for 3 years - (Nandaihe in Hebei province, for those interested). Living costs and disposable incomes are far lower in small towns. For example two months rent of the place I was staying in in Beijing (I was paying 2,600 month for an older apartment) would have covered a year of rent in a much nicer place in the small town. So, there are less English speakers around, but cost factors mean you often can't earn as much as you could in a bigger city where people are both prepared and able to pay higher amounts.

Ecpecially the tutor part is kinda interesting. In SH i paid a friend of mine 25 Y for helping me, but a "real" tutor charges western prizes, like 100Y + an hour. Imagine in small towns, with a lower price level.. One could probably get a full time tutor, a couple of hours a day, at the same price as paying tuition to Fudan og Bei da. Ive taken a few months of 1 on 2 classes, and Id say one day there is the equivialent of 1 week or more in university.

The question is whether the quality of education would be comparable to going to Fudan or Beida. It may be, it may not be, but a question you should ask yourself is why would someone with a high level of skill in teaching Chinese to foreigners be living in a town where there are no foreigners? (which is not to say you won't be able to find someone skilled at this, just that it might not be as easy as you think to find someone you are satisfied with).

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gkaa

thing is tho, do they have to be high educated teachers? my friend in SH, normal university student, taught me so much more in say an hour than 3-4 days at Fudan, where everyone speak 20 seconds, and you spend the rest learning characters in the most outdated, 1950s way (ref the guy who learnt 1000 characters in a month - "remebering the hanzi" is something nobody has ever thought of trying). im not fluent, and I believe someone young, with perfect, standard mandarin and a minimum of learning experience (which they have since they speak English) would be enough for me.... Im not a language teacher, but I believe I could teach someone decent English, not to mention my native tongue. my theory is that small town+no foreigners+random dude/girl teaching me Chinese 4 hours = better learning experience than Fudan. I might be wrong, but I was not very impressed with Fudan. And thats the 3rd best school in China. Even if the teachers were great, it doesnt matter when the amount of actual speaking is so little.

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imron

They don't have to be highly educated teachers, but many native speakers (regardless of language) have a tendency to answer "that‘s just the way we say things" when you ask specific language questions. Which may be an entirely valid answer, but it can also be quite frustrating when the tutor can't provide a deeper explanation on the nuance between different words other than "just because". Another problem is that they may be able to tell you some aspect of your pronunciation is wrong but may have difficulty expressing how to correct things beyond saying "just say it like this" and then repeating the word.

Obviously results differ greatly depending on the native speaker, and also depending on your level and the level you want to achieve. Random dudes are not so great at helping you get to higher levels of the language (although they'll be great for teaching you slang and other things).

Anyway, I'm not saying that Fudan or Beida are great places for learning Chinese, you'll almost certainly get more bang for your buck from a private school. There's a reason that private schools charge higher rates though, and it's not just that they're charging western prices. It simply costs more to hire qualified teachers, and the ones that are skilled at it will tend to live in places where there are enough foreigners to provide them with an income.

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gkaa

Of course, those are all valid points. my main point is just that a "worse" teacher 4 hours a day might be better than a good teacher in a good school with a less effecitve learning environment. Thats my main problem with the big schools, to many people and way to little focus on speaking.

Thats why im thinking of studying more on my own, with a tutor. It was mainly what I did on my own that I learned from in both Fudan and Er Wai anyways, so Im thinking it might be good to just do it mostly on my own, combined with a private teacher and lots of speaking with the locals...

In SH my plan was to avoid the foreigners, but thats easier said than done. Maybe it might go for more a semester of just intense learning, and less partying and fun stuff.

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