One of the most common questions that returning teachers from China get asked is whether mastery of the Chinese language is necessary to get by while living in the country. Think of it this way: can you imagine going to a pharmacy and not being able to ask for over-the-counter paracetamol? Phoning up your workplace to call in sick but not being able to say why? Or calling a plumber but being unable to articulate just what is wrong with the kitchen sink? These are extreme examples; easily overcome with the help of colleagues and friends, but if you’re going to teach in China it’s wise to think about how you’ll handle the language barrier.
There were many stories around the time of the 2008 Beijing Olympics about the number of English learners in China (thought to be around 300 million). Supposedly, taxi drivers in Beijing were all speaking like Stephen Fry in order to meet the demand of foreign tourists and every university was packed with eager students. But to say such things is akin to suggesting that every person who owns a smartphone camera is a professional photographer.
You can make it without language skills. Even in relatively rural areas you are almost guaranteed to find someone with some level of English who may be friendly enough to trade their aid navigating an alien culture for the chance to practise their language skills. However, do not expect every one of your colleagues to be able to communicate and remember that accepting a position at a small-town university as the sole foreign teacher could turn out to be an isolating experience that may make or break you.
Finding a tutor
Professional Chinese language tutors are a common occurrence in big cities, but procuring the services of such a tutor can be fraught with perils. Expat magazines such as The Beijinger or City Weekend frequently feature a classified section with pages of adverts for individuals seeking a language exchange. These are usually people without an academic background who are looking to benefit from free English lessons. You may pick up some basic everyday interactions if you’re lucky, but you are unlikely to get good grasp of the fundamentals.
If you really want to find a teacher outside of university, it can be a lot more profitable to work by word of mouth. Speak to your main contact at the university or institution you are working for and ask their advice. Given the number of affiliations between Chinese universities and schools, it’s entirely possible that you’ll be put in touch with a primary, secondary or university teacher who will be able to impart the language at a pace you’re comfortable with and adapt the lessons accordingly. Similarly, in larger cities, get in touch with fellow foreign teachers and expat groups/coffee mornings who may be able to recommend a trusted tutor used by the group. If nothing else, they may help you weed out the genuine adverts from magazine classifieds. Prices will depend on the area and the commitment you’re looking for. In smaller towns and cities in Western China you may get away with RMB 50–150 for an hour lesson or more. In the Eastern coastal areas, this may increase to RMB 100–300 for the same. Be warned that anonymous adverts may attempt to charge much more.
Working with the universities
The influx of foreign students into China has meant that many of the larger cities now cater to foreign students with Chinese language courses. If you have been accepted as an academic at one of these institutions, you may be able to piggyback on lessons at exceptionally low cost or even for free. The level of teaching will vary greatly, with many students flocking each year to practice for the HSK (the Chinese equivalent of a TOEFL or IELTS qualification). Avoid high-level HSK lessons until you are truly comfortable with the language and always ask if you can attend a lesson before you agree to a full academic year of study.
If your university or institution is not providing such lessons for you, it is entirely possible to enrol as a casual language student on one or two-semester courses. It is best to contact the international departments of various institutions that accept foreign students in advance and check universities’ websites, which usually provide the required information in English.
Do note that any language learning at university in China is a big commitment. You will be expected to attend lessons and they may not be at convenient times during the day. You may be set homework, will take tough exams and may have to endure a teaching methodology that is extremely “traditional”. Despite the large number of foreign students entering the country and steps forward in the field of foreign language pedagogy, in many universities, the teaching approach has remained stalwartly fond of the ‘repeat after me’ method. At the end of these lessons though, you will most likely have a respectable grasp of the language and an ornate certificate, stamped by the ministry of education, to take away.
Private language schools
It is worth mentioning that over the last few years there has been a rise in private language schools opening in the larger cities such as Beijing and Shanghai. Culture Yard, the Hutong School and Global Village are just some of the offerings in Beijing, but new operations seem to spring up every week. Prices are steep (2500 RMB to 4000 depending on the type of the course),but the teaching methods are much closer to what you would be used to back home. Do your research and factor in money, location and how much time you have to spare to find the best fit for you. As the expat population grows, more of these schools have begun to spread outwards into the provinces, so check online before you leave.
How will I speak with my students?!
The teacher-student relationship in China is much more formal than in the West. At major or well-respected universities you will very likely come across an acceptable level of conversational English even from first-year students. This is unlikely to move beyond the level of everyday greetings but, assuming you are the language teacher for the class, it will be up to you to determine how this linguistic skill grows and to what extent you want to socialise. Even at higher educational institutions, as a non-Chinese speaker you will find yourself resorting to hand gestures, cultural props and charades in order to get some of the intermediate or advanced concepts across. Explaining grammar will be difficult if your students have had no prior education in the language, however, the Chinese education system relies heavily on semi-bilingual textbooks, which you will almost certainly be directed to use. These books may be a little unusual, but will help you as much as they do your class.