OK, so you want to study Chinese. Great! But what’s the next step? There are already tons of programs out there, in the US and in China and everywhere. Sometime in the future we’ll get into some specifics, but here are are some general things you should consider when you’re looking at programs anywhere. Feel free to add on with your own thoughts in the comments.
Things to Consider: Price
Consider how much you’re willing to spend on your studies. The answer to this will depend on your personal financial situation, but also on your personal goals and your motivation for studying. How fast do you want to make progress? Is Chinese something you’re doing for work, or just a hobby on the side of more important parts of your life? If you need to make progress fast, you’ll probably also need to pay more — the reason the elite private immersion schools are so expensive is because they work. If you want to do things at a more leisurely pace, your options open up.
Whatever you choose, remember that as in any industry, you get what you pay for, and as in any school, you get out what you put in. You could pay a million dollars to hire the best teachers in the world, but if you don’t put any effort into your studies, you’re still going to come out the other end speaking very little Chinese. Similarly, you could hire the cheapest tutor in all of China and still make really rapid progress if you’re the sort of person who’s willing to put in hours and hours of their free time to reviewing vocab and the like.
Once you’ve got your price range down, it’s time to move on to the next section.
Things to Consider: Your Learning Style
Don’t like memorizing things? Too bad, it’s a language, you’re going to have to memorize words. But beyond that, how you learn can make a huge difference in what program you select as different programs cater to different learning styles. If you’re a primarily visual learner, for example, listening to podcasts probably isn’t going to help you very much, even though for others that can be a really effective study method. Similarly, if you learn best by doing, you will want to strongly consider an immersion program in China, as most of them supplement their classes with real-world practice.
Similarly, think of what kind of learning materials work best for you. Flashcards? Textbooks? Audio recordings? Video? If there’s something you know works for you, ask around and see what programs offer the best. Some schools, for example, may have great teachers but if the textbooks are lousy and reading the book is how you learn best, you’re going to want to look someplace else.
If you’re not sure how you learn best, take a second and think of your favorite classes in high school and college. What was it about those classes that caused you to get a lot out of them? If you were enthralled by your prof’s fascinating lectures, you might be an auditory learner. If you excelled most in the biology lab, you’re probably more of a hands-on learner. It’s not an exact science, but spending some time reflecting on how you learn best before you choose a program can save you months of banging your head against the wall at a program that doesn’t fit you well.
Things to Consider: Old School or New Media?
These days, high-tech Chinese study options are popping up by the minute. Podcasting services like ChinesePod now offer full fledged classes, complete with one-on-one Skype tutorials. There are many advantages to this approach, but there are disadvantages too. Interacting with other students and physically being in a community of learners can be very helpful to some people, for others, convenience is much more important.
If you’re busy and convenience is what you need, internet services like the aforementioned ChinesePod or Popup Chinese offer incredible value, tons of content, and the freedom to do your learning from basically anywhere you can bring your laptop or MP3 player. Just remember what you’re giving up too; only you can be sure what style of program fits your personality best.
Things to Consider: Reputation
OK, so you’ve budgeted for your study, and you’ve picked some places that cater best to your own learning style and taste. But which one do you choose?
The best way to make this decision is to ask around. Talk to people from the school, yes, but also talk to their students and people who have already graduated from the program. The way a school runs in real life is often a bit different from the way it’s presented in promotional literature.
For example, many immersion programs have a “language pledge.” But students at some of these programs traditionally ignore this pledge whenever teachers aren’t around. At other programs, the pledge is widely respected. This is an aspect of “program culture” that you can’t really learn about from the school itself; you need to talk to the students.
If you don’t have any personal connections, Chinese-forums.com is a great resource because it’s full of thousands of Chinese language students. Whatever programs you might be curious about, someone on there has already done them, and will be happy to share their thoughts with you.
Similarly, if you’re hiring a tutor, talk to their previous students (if they’ve had any) and see how they feel. The most experienced tutor in the world probably isn’t going to help you much if 90% of their students say they “loved” their sessions with him but can’t tell you anything they learned.
These are, of course, just general tips. No matter where you end up, you’ll have plenty of opportunity to learn the language. If you apply yourself you’ll get a lot out of even the worst situations, and if you don’t apply yourself, throwing money at the problem isn’t going to help anything. So get out there and crack open those books — or podcasts, or educational video games. Whatever works best for you.
Is Chinese actually hard to learn? Find out.
Image courtesy of Ivan Welsh on flickr.com