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Should you learn Mandarin in a place with a standard accent? Which Mandarin study programs are good in China?

I got the question below from reader Mark Lore. I have to say that I don’t know a great deal about the issues involved, so I’ll give my two cents and then leave it any other readers who can offer some information on these issues. In short, the questions are:

  • Where should you study in China to make sure you get a standard Mandarin accent?
  • What are some good Mandarin study programs in China?

Hi Hugh,

I recently discovered your blog via Sinosplice and have found it to be a great resource. I am a university student in Canada reading history, with a special interest in the shared histories of East Asia and the West. I am finishing my last course now and should be graduated by the end of the year.

My long term goal is an MA in Asia Pacific Policy studies, and pursuant to this I want to study Mandarin in China (also this gives me an excuse to spend some time in China; I have only been once to Hong Kong and Zhuhai about four years back and have been dreaming about returning ever since).

So far I have been looking mainly at the intensive Chinese programs offered at various Beijing universities. There seems to be a sharp divide between these programs, which are reasonably priced (at least by Canadian standards) at 8000-15000 rmb/semester (for 20-30 hrs/week of class) and the much more expensive private language schools. However, reviews seem to indicate that the Chinese universities basically stick to rote learning and memorization, relying heavily on the textbook, as opposed to some more progressive methods presumably on offer at some of the private language schools. I basically have no prior experience in Mandarin (although I do hope to pick some up before I leave for survival purposes) and am planning on staying for a period roughly equivalent to the spring semester in 2013 (Feb-Jun/July).

My question has two parts: Firstly, I have limited my research to the Beijing area as I am concerned about learning Mandarin in an area that is not (Standard) Mandarin first language, or picking up a region specific accent. Since, as far as I know, the Beijing dialect forms the phonological basis of Standard Mandarin it seems prudent to be studying the language in the capital. Am I correct in this assumption? I am not wedded to the idea of studying in Beijing, but at the same time I definitely don’t want to be studying Mandarin somewhere I can’t practice it outside of the classroom, and don’t want to burden myself with learning Mandarin plus a local dialect. Also, I am concerned about striking a balance between the cosmopolitanism of the main cities, which would have the advantage of more English language speakers should I need them, but at the same time not being somewhere where too many people speak English and I have less chances to practice Mandarin.

Secondly, can you make any recommendations with regards to Chinese language courses, in Beijing or elsewhere (depending on your thoughts regards the first question)? Money is of course an issue, but I would be willing to spend more if it is really worth it. I am not opposed to learning from a textbook, but at the same time I would prefer not to do a semester’s worth of non contextual grammar exercises. Have you yourself attended or heard anything about the Chinese language courses on offer at the universities? Any recommendations about specific universities would of course be welcome.

So, to sum up: Should I stick with Beijing to ensure a good accent? Or would a smaller city offer more opportunities for practicing Chinese; alternatively would I not be able to survive in a smaller city given I will have limited Mandarin upon arrival? Finally, what are the best options, to your knowledge, for Mandarin courses in China?

Thanks in advance for your help!


Mark Lore

I’ll give my responses to both parts of Mark’s question here, although I’ll readily admit I don’t know a lot about either. If readers and other visitors could provide some insight into these questions in the comments, it would be greatly appreciated.

The Mandarin accent issue

This sort of question comes up quite a bit around the Mandarin learning Web, but personally I think it’s pretty safe to ignore it for a couple of reasons. Firstly, pretty much anywhere offering a Mandarin study program is going to make some effort to use teachers with fairly standard accents, especially for teaching beginners. Besides that, there is a lot of migration in China, and any city is going to have all sorts of different accents mingling together, including standard Mandarin ones. So I would say you’ll get access to plenty of standard Mandarin in your course and contacts wherever you go. Besides that, you can always make extra use of recorded listening materials, which tend to have ultra-standard Mandarin accents.

Secondly, I don’t think it actually matters very much if your Mandarin is a little non-standard. To begin with it’s going to be a huge struggle just to sound Chinese at all, so I’d say you’d be very successful if you got any kind of authentic accent. And I don’t think there’s anything wrong with having a bit of flavour to your Mandarin.

The mixing with other foreigners issue

This is also a commonly asked question, and everyone considers it before they go to China to learn Mandarin. To be honest, I think that your social life is controlled far more by your attitude and approach than by your location. I suppose if you go to some far flung fourth tier city then you might have little opportunity to hang out with other foreigners, but realistically there will be an expat community wherever you go and it will be easy to get wrapped up in it.

It’s surprisingly difficult to avoid it happening, particularly because your university will most likely group you with other foreign students in your classes and accommodation, so you’re often meeting more foreigners than Chinese people from the start. It is annoying, but as with a lot of these things, if you really want to hang out with Chinese people you’ll find a way to do it, and otherwise you’ll settle into hanging out with other foreign students. Most people find it takes quite some time to get any kind of ‘Chinese social life’ going, because it’s hard to get into a network when you’re completely on the outside of it.

The courses issue

Personally I think that language learning is 95% up to the individual student and has little to do with teachers or courses; I actually think language courses can be a hindrance a lot of the time. Teachers and courses are useful as ‘enablers of learning’, but I don’t think they’re actually the main source of learning and acquisition. That comes from the student’s own efforts. Because of that, I tend to think that a course is a nice way to get some structure (read: long term visa) and it is worth it. But I would say just select a cheap university course and use the money you save to pay for cool services like podcasts, Skritter etc. Also have a look at learning Chinese for free or very cheaply with stuff that’s available online.

I’ve only ever attended two Mandarin study courses in China. The first was a four-week summer program at Heilongjiang University in Harbin, which was the standard classes with a textbook format. It was fine, I think. The second was for the third year of my degree, which I did at Ocean University of China in Qingdao. I was there from September 2011 to July 2012, and had several courses including newspaper reading, modern literature, classical literature, poetry etc. That was a little more specialised, with only two students in the class, and it was pretty cheap at 10 000元 for a year with 20 hours of classes a week. But it was arranged via my university in the UK and I doubt that it could be arranged personally by individuals.

That’s about all I have to offer on these questions. If you’ve got experience with any of these questions, please share what you know in the comments below.

Contact me: mhg@eastasiastudent.net