SDE International - Shenzhen

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The language barrier when coming to China is a significant point of concern for foreign teachers. You, like myself and many others, may wonder: “How will I communicate with my students? My coworkers? My landlords? How will I order food at a restaurant? How will I understand road signs?” These are all natural questions, especially when you consider that many sources claim that Mandarin Chinese (considered the official standard language of the country) is the hardest language on the planet for foreigners – particularly English speakers – to learn. But do not worry! For starters, it is very possible to get by without knowing how to speak or read Chinese. However, for the dedicated linguists out there, there are several routes to pursue on your way to Mandarin fluency.

Mandarin lessons are available, whether from your company, school, or an outside service

The most obvious way to learn and practice your Mandarin skills is by taking lessons. It is likely that the company you sign a contract with will offer regular lessons for free. However, it may be difficult for them to accommodate your specific schedule considering they have to account for many other employees as well. It’s also possible, though less likely, that the school you teach at will offer lessons of some kind.

Personally, I am the only foreign language teacher at my school, so of course they won’t have lessons for just me. However, some schools employ as many as twelve to fifteen foreign teachers; a location like that may provide lessons. If you’re interested in more direct lessons that can cater to your schedule and your needs and strengths, you can hire a private tutor. Plenty of native Chinese speakers are eager to share their language with foreigners! Plus, what better way to learn than one-on-one with a local?

Speaking conversationally with locals is the best way to practice your skills

Once you develop some of the basic and fundamental conversational parts of speaking Mandarin, challenge yourself to practice with local, native Chinese speakers. This can be a nerve-racking thing to dive into because you may be afraid or embarrassed of making mistakes in front of the locals. However, those mistakes are the best way to learn! Practicing a new language – or anything, for that matter – in an authentic setting is the number one way to develop your proficiency. While taking lessons to learn the basics is a great start to learning Mandarin, you can push yourself to the next level by taking the challenge of engaging natives as often as possible. Don’t worry about the mistakes you will make – native speakers will be happy to correct you and you can use it as a learning experience going forward. Plus, natives know all of the best restaurants and foods to indulge in!

Use language-learning apps to learn Mandarin on the go

Of course there’s an app for that. In fact, there are seemingly infinite apps designed to help you learn and practice the Mandarin language. As with any app selection though, it may be difficult to narrow down which one is best for your purposes. Some well-known recommendations include “Memrise,” “ChineseSkill,” and “FluentU.” Each app has its own distinct style and purpose and can be found for free in iOs and Android app stores. There are plenty of other apps available as well, so be sure to do some research and choose which one is best-suited for your own needs. Also, keep in mind you can utilize as many apps as you want!

Pool your resources: Lessons, locals, and apps

Hopefully by now you can see that there are plenty of unique options available to help you tackle the challenge that is learning Mandarin. Whether you attend Mandarin lessons, practice with native speakers, or study using an app, there are many ways to finetune your foreign language skills. For the best overall practice, though, you are best served utilizing some combination of all of these methods.

Lessons may only be available once or twice a week, if even that often. So, bolster your development by making it a point to chat with locals every day while also using apps during your commutes and other available downtimes. Any combination of all three methods will serve your benefit and help you progress closer to Mandarin mastery by the day.


SDE International - Shenzhen

New teaching jobs in China interviewing now, apply today!

About the Author:

Brendan O'Shea
Brendan O'Shea is an EFL teacher, freelance writer, and wannabe world traveler living in Shenzhen, China. Between exploring new destinations, Brendan enjoys reading, playing chess, and following sports. Follow his teaching and traveling journey on Twitter and Instagram, or read up on his experiences on his personal blog: Teach and Travels!
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