How to Choose a Chinese Language School (the No Fluff Guide)
Deciding at which language school you are going to study Chinese is a big moment. You’ll most likely spend between one and six months learning Chinese, so getting the right Chinese language school is essential.
There are hundreds of language schools in China (and Taiwan), and not all of them are good as the others. Over the years, I’ve attended six Chinese schools in four destinations and spoken with dozens of other students about their experiences. In this guide, I’ll show you how to choose a Chinese language school that is completely right for you and your needs.
How to Choose the Right Chinese Language School
Here are eleven factors to consider when choosing your Chinese language school.
1. Accents and Dialects
First, accent is an important consideration when you choose a Chinese language school.
The two major accents of Mandarin are Mainland Chinese and Taiwanese. The similarities and differences between the two are a bit like those between American and British English, with distinctive differences in pronunciation, and subtle variations in tones, vocabulary, and grammar.
Here’s a video comparing Mainland Chinese Mandarin with Taiwanese Mandarin accents. Observe the difference.
While learning Chinese or Taiwanese Mandarin could be a matter of what you personally enjoy, do consider the future use of your Mandarin. Do you need Mandarin skills to communicate with a Taiwanese community? Are you planning to move there at some point? If either of those is the case, it might be helpful to learn Mandarin in Taiwan for both the accent and cultural understanding.
Otherwise, it’s best to learn Mandarin in China. The version of Mandarin spoken in the mainland is more widespread – you’ll have a much higher chance of hearing it on a global level.
Like any country, there is a wide range of accents and dialects within China. The good thing is that any Chinese language school in China will teach you the neutral, standard Mandarin (aka Putonghua) in the classroom that can be understood anywhere.
However, consider that a thick regional accent or dialect will make it difficult to communicate with locals.
The main reason you want to learn Chinese in where it’s spoken will most likely be because of the total immersion you get. If you want to be in an area where you can actually get the most out of eavesdropping on conversations in the street, you might want to choose a big city like Beijing or Shanghai. I’ve always found people in big cities speak more standard Mandarin (since it’s a must to communicate with people from all over the country that converge in the city).
People in small cities, on the other hand, generally prefer to speak local dialects. And the accent in much of southern China can be difficult to understand for beginners (but perfect practice for more advanced learners!).
If accent or dialect alone didn’t nail it down for you, then geographical location might be a better place to start. I’d suggest starting from a city, where schools are typically situated, and looking at your options there.
Think about the kind of environment you’d be happy living in. For many people thinking about studying Chinese in China, Beijing or Shanghai naturally comes to mind first. These are big and exciting metropolises and there are always endless things to see and to do, but the hectic urban environment and the high average cost of living are not for everyone. It may also be harder to feel connected with the local community.
The coastal city Qingdao has a lower cost of living compared to Beijing and Shanghai but is still a bustling and vibrant Chinese city. The stereotype is that people in Shandong (the province in which Qingdao is located) are very welcoming, so you might find it a little easier to make local friends.
If you’re looking for a more authentic and immersive Chinese experience, probably a less expat-popular, non-touristy city like Kunming will suit you better. There aren’t as many fun things to do (also not much variety in food), but without the “foreign distractions”, you might actually accelerate your Chinese skills.
Also, consider the location of the Chinese school itself in the city, since some schools are closer to public transport than others. Remember this too when you start arranging your accommodation.
3. School Size
How many students are typically enrolled for the time of year you’re considering? Bigger Chinese language schools are likely to offer more classes. It’ll be easier for you to find a start date, and change classes if your class is moving too fast, too slow, or maybe you just don’t like the teacher. They also have a larger alumni network through which you can connect with other Chinese learners.
If you want to divide your time between different locations, schools with branches in various cities offer you the option of continuing your Chinese studies without changing the curriculum.
For instance, the large chain school That’s Mandarin allows you to study for a few weeks in Beijing, continue on to Shanghai, and finish up in Suzhou. A great way to see more places while ensuring continuity in your studies.
Despite the advantages of larger schools, however, personally, I prefer the friendly, welcoming environment and highly individualized attention of a small school. In general, small Chinese language schools have a more student-centered approach to teaching, and students who attend small schools often outperform those in large schools on linguistic measures like HSK levels and scores.
Small schools also build tight-knit communities. It can be easier to develop long-lasting friendships with teachers and other students seeing familiar faces everywhere you go. These opportunities exist at large schools as well, but not as easily.
4. Course Options
To solve the “how to choose Chinese language school” dilemma, you also need to determine why exactly you’re learning Chinese.
All of the schools will have a “general” course, typically divided into 6 proficiency levels (HSK 1 to HSK 6), proposed by the Chinese Language Council International (also known as Hanban), so if you only care about learning academic Chinese then you’ll be fine almost anywhere.
Some schools may also offer specific preparation courses for the HSK exam, a compulsory exam for those who want to apply for a Mandarin-based program in Chinese universities.
If you only want to speak Chinese, you can look for those schools that offer conversation courses based on Pinyin where you can skip all the Chinese characters and focus solely on communication. This type of course is especially popular among busy expats working in China.
Or, you can opt for a specialized course, usually available once you reach an intermediate level of Chinese (around HSK 3 to HSK 4). For example, business Chinese, which might involve help with job-hunting.
Identify your goal, and then find a school that can offer you the type of course you desire.
5. Teaching Methodology
The next thing to look for when choosing a Chinese language school is the school’s teaching methodology. Let me break down the specifics.
Once you settle on the type of Chinese course you want, try and find a school that employs the best teachers in that field.
What are the minimum teacher qualifications? Do the teachers have certifications and formal training? Cheaper schools in China sometimes hire “teachers” with few or no professional qualifications. So, ask around.
Some schools adopt a fairly immersive approach, conducting all classes in Chinese from day one, with pictures, signs, and gestures to help you learn. While this system works pretty well for more advanced students to raise their level, it can become very frustrating for beginners.
Personally, I learn best and most efficiently with teachers capable of explaining concepts and grammar stuff in English. Well, every Chinese learner has a preference and you don’t have to be me, but it’d be nice for a school, even with a more immersive technique to have some competent English-speaking teachers onboard for the sake of communication.
Is the instruction formal and focused on grammar, or more casual and conversational? What course materials are used?
In some schools, there will be more of a priority on reading, writing, and listening, with a bit of speaking practice. If your goal is to learn Chinese characters or pass the HSK test, these will be great options.
Other schools may focus more on speaking ability, with lots of conversation practice in class at the expense of the other skills. Some may try a “Pinyin” only method to make it easier to follow for western students.
Think about what you hope to get out of the class, and make sure the school’s instructional style meets your needs.
6. Class Size
Most Chinese language schools offer both private and group classes. There are advantages to both.
As a beginner, you will find plenty of start dates for group classes throughout the year, with the benefit of reduced cost. Group classes are a wonderful way to meet other China enthusiasts. They are also less intense than 1-on-1 lessons, which can be pretty tiring over long class periods.
If you choose group classes, make sure to check the maximum number of students in a class. More students in a class means less attention paid to each individual student (especially when there are students with a tendency to dominate the discussion). So, the smaller the better.
Private instruction can be pricey but accelerates your learning. Your teacher doesn’t have to accommodate students at differing levels and can entirely focus on you. But do get ready for the increased homework, self-study, and prep and planning on a daily basis.
Tip: If you’re interested in private Chinese classes, a cheaper option would be to book a private tutor via ShanghaiTutors. This Shanghai-based company offers extremely affordable 1-on-1 instructions in major cities of China.
7. Student Demographics
The whole world is learning Chinese. Some schools are stronger in, say, the western market; others may be strong in the Asian market. Though schools may claim the linguistic make-up of your class doesn’t matter, it does.
If your class is dominated by Japanese and Korean speakers, or people of Chinese ancestry that already speak Cantonese or Hakka, it will move at a very fast speed as your classmates are already familiar with many of the concepts: characters, numbers, measure words…
Ask the school about their typical student nationalities, and ages as well. Don’t get me wrong, but if you’re a forty-something like me, you probably don’t want to be placed in a class full of teenagers coming to attend summer programs and party.
8. Extracurricular Activities
You probably want to learn Chinese because you want to get close to the Chinese culture than you can without the language. Some sort of cultural activities that go in tandem with your studies can be a great way to achieve your goals.
What cultural activities does the school offer after class and on weekends?
Some schools allow you to combine your Chinese classes with cultural workshops in Kung Fu, Tai Chi, Chinese calligraphy, cooking, or other elements of Chinese culture. Others may offer language exchanges, visits to museums, or tours to local attractions. If you’re on your own, these are great opportunities to bond with your fellow schoolmates.
For schools that only offer classroom teaching, students are encouraged to explore the city after classes end for the day. If you wish to structure your own itinerary, this option may be preferable.
9. Housing Options
Most Chinese language schools offer housing as an add-on option. Typical choices include student residence, apartment, and homestay accommodation which will also provide you with food.
Homestays can be an excellent way to immerse yourself in the local culture and improve your Chinese. I’ve been lucky to have lived with a host family that has resulted in long-term friendships.
However, I did struggle a bit to adjust to eating home-style Chinese food every day, especially the high-carb breakfast (deep-fried dough sticks, steamed buns…). Homestay meal arrangements can vary greatly depending on the school, so ask for details.
If you decide not to go the homestay route or just do it for the first week or two of your visit, ask your school to recommend a hotel or hostel. I’ve also done my own research once to find a great Airbnb close to my school, and that worked out really well.
A quick note on the housing location:
Some schools are right in the center of the city, while others may be located in more suburban areas. If you want to live somewhat close to your school, be aware that the central business districts (particularly in Beijing and Shanghai) will be significantly more expensive to live in. Going to a school in a more residential area or university town will thus give you better options for your budget.
Nothing can substitute the first-hand experience, except, perhaps, honest experiences from other people who’ve already attended the Chinese language school you’re considering going to. Their opinions can greatly help you choose a school.
As testimonials on school websites can easily be moderated by the school, try to look for independent sources of reviews. Google My Business or Trustpilot can be a good place to start. But keep in mind that some schools may give students an incentive, such as free lessons, or discounts in return for writing a positive review. So, always take it with a grain of salt.
You can also use social media to look the school up and get some feedback and students’ experiences.
Our Honest Review of the Best Chinese Language Schools in China
You probably thought that the price would be near the top of the list! In all honesty, most of the Chinese language schools are pretty similarly priced to compete against each other, although in big cities they are usually more expensive.
Don’t let tuition be the deciding factor in choosing your school. Your priority should be the things above. Find the right school for your goals rather than just picking the cheapest one.
Build the bigger picture of how much money it will cost you to travel to and live in China overall. Ask your school to provide a complete estimate of the cost of your stay, including visa, tuition, housing, activities, meals, and other daily expenses. And if you’re planning to stay for more than a couple of weeks, ask the school if they can offer a discount for long-term study.
Recommended Chinese Language Schools
In this post, you learned the eleven most important factors to consider when choosing a Chinese language school, but with hundreds of language schools across China, it can still feel pretty frustrating to narrow down the schools that are the best fit for you. Don’t worry, we’ve got your back.
We’ve compared and ranked the 7 best Chinese language schools in China. All these schools offer numerous courses for different age groups and various extracurricular activities to help you immerse yourself in Chinese culture. Read our recommendations, and you’ll be on your way.
Bonus: Has COVID Affected Your Chinese Learning?
Borders to China remain closed to international students, but don’t let travel restrictions prevent you from learning Chinese. We’ve reviewed the best online Chinese classes so that you can learn from the comfort of your home! Read this.