Where you will study Mandarin is almost as important as how you will study Mandarin. Choosing a location that is not conducive to cultivating good language learning habits means you will spend much more time (actually, much less time) studying than you would like. In this section we will discuss learning Mandarin in and outside of China.
Learners who study Mandarin in China will find that they develop much faster than those who study in their home countries. This is because those in China are immersed in the language, meaning they not only have 24/7 access to the language via TV, radio, etc., but they also have countless opportunities to use the language in their day-to-day lives. It is quite common for someone who studies six months or less in China to surpass their counterparts who spend four years or longer learning at the university level.
Before we look at choosing a location within China, let`s look at an example of how choosing one location over another will help you reach fluency much faster than choosing another. Caroline chooses to study in Harbin, Heilongjiang province at the Harbin Institution of Technology. Harbin is renowned for speaking with the most standard Mandarin in all of China. While a very large city, it has a very small native-English speaking community. Most Chinese locals in Harbin do not speak any English. James, on the other hand, chooses to study at Fudan University in Shanghai, where the Shanghaiese dialect is spoken alongside Mandarin. Both Shanghai and Fudan are known internationally. Shanghai is a very large city, with a massive native-English speaking community, and Fudan is a huge university with a large Mandarin-learning student body.
Imagine that these two students are studying the same amount of hours each week, using the same curriculum and have teachers who teach using the same teaching style. Let`s also imagine that both students have similar personalities, learning styles, and study habits. Which student do you think will reach a higher level faster?
The answer: Caroline. Why? Three reasons: immersion, standard pronunciation, and student body. Let`s examine these issues below.
Know this early on: A classroom is merely a place where you are given the tools necessary to succeed. The best classrooms at the best universities with the best teachers cannot make you put into practice what you use in the classroom outside of the classroom. The more opportunity you have to practice outside the classroom, the greater the chances that you will succeed in reaching your language learning goals.
As Caroline lives in an area with a very small English-speaking community, she will practically be forced to speak Mandarin every day. Cities such as Harbin generally have very few English-speaking locals. This means that Caroline will have to speak Mandarin when she goes grocery shopping, visits restaurants, takes cab rides, etc. in order to communicate. There will also be fewer locals pressuring her into speaking English. It is also much more likely that most of her friends will be Chinese locals who cannot speak English.
By having no other choice than to speak Mandarin day in and day out, Caroline will very quickly learn to think in Mandarin. This will quicken her response time and make her sound more natural when she speaks as she will no longer need to translate back and forth from English to Mandarin.
Dialect and L1 interference
Harbin locals only speak Mandarin. Mandarin is their mother language. They do not speak any other `dialect` of Chinese. On the other hand, Shanghaiese is the mother language in Shanghai, not Mandarin. (Review our discussion above on the how `dialects` in China are actually mutually incomprehensible languages, and do not have much in common.) This means that most Shanghai locals grow up as children speaking Shanghaiese, and begin learning Mandarin once they start school.
In language learning, the most common source of errors for any learner is L1 interference. L1 simply means `language one`, or mother language. For example, an American`s L1 is English. A Russian`s L1 is Russian. In China, a locals L1 is usually whatever local `dialect` is spoken. A local indigenous to Guangdong (the province bordering Hong Kong) will likely speak Cantonese as his or her L1. A local indigenous to Shanghai will likely speak Shanghaiese as his or her L1.
L1 interference is when a learner`s mother language causes them to make an error in L2, or his or her second language. For example, a student whose L1 is Mandarin and L2 is English is likely to pronounce the word `volleyball` as `wolleyball`, replacing the `v` with a `w`. This is because the `v` sound does not exist in Mandarin. The student`s brain and mouth makes up for the inability to produce a `v` sound by replacing it with the sound/mouth movement which most closely resembles that sound. In this case, `w` is closest to `v`.
In Shanghai, many locals do not pronounce words ending in ¨Cg correctly, often times negating to pronounce the ¨Cg sound. For example, the word for `class` or `course`, kecheng is often pronounced kechen. Many Chinese from the south also fail to correctly pronounce consonant + -h initials (e.g. sh, ch, zh).
How does this apply to you learning Mandarin in Shanghai? Well, if your teacher is a local from Shanghai, grew up speaking Shanghaiese, and learned Mandarin in school, she`s learned Mandarin as an L2, and it is very likely she speaks Mandarin with a Shanghaiese accent. As you learn from this teacher, you`ll be speaking your own foreign-accented Mandarin with a Shanghaiese accent. Essentially, you`ll be speaking Mandarin with two accents. Starting to see the problem here?
With Mandarin already being a pronunciation-sensitive language, you want to speak with as standard as an accent as possible, meaning you want to sound like a Chinese from northeast China, not like someone from southern China.
To be fair, anyone teaching Mandarin at a university or public school, or anyone offering tutoring services in Mandarin, is likely to speak standard Mandarin (though not guaranteed). It is also likely that most big cities will be comprised of people who come from all parts of China, and communicate with one another using standard Mandarin. With that said, the majority of the population will be made up of locals, and remember what we said above? It is not just about having a good teacher with standard Mandarin. It is about having an environment in which you can immerse yourself in standard pronunciation. Having a teacher who speaks flawless Mandarin can be counterproductive if none of the locals do. It would be like learning American English in Scotland.
English speaking population
Being immersed in standard Mandarin is more than half the battle. However, another issue you should seriously consider is the native-English-speaking resident population and student body of the place you are choosing. Quite simply, the more English speakers a given location has, the more English will be spoken. Beijing Language and Culture University in Beijing, for example, is comprised largely of non-Chinese. This means that should you decide to attend BLCU, you could be tempted to speak more English and make more English-speaking friends than you would elsewhere.
It all comes back to immersion and opportunities to practice. If you are immersed in and speaking the language every day, your skills will develop quickly. If you are immersed, but hang out only with other English speakers, and spend little time actually using what you are learning in the classroom, your skills will not develop quickly.
In the next section of this guide, we will look at which study medium you should choose once you arrive in China.