The Chinese language, specifically Mandarin, is known to be the hardest language for English native speakers to master. Not only does it have multiple tones but the writing system, with its thousands of characters, is something speakers of English may not have come across before.
Despite the tricky pronunciation and character writing, however, if you find the right teacher and are committed to practice, you should be on the path to success in no time.
The first thing to do when you want to find the best Chinese lessons for you, is to make a list of your goals and expectations.
- Why do I want to start learning Chinese?
Are you aiming to become bilingual? Do you need to get a grasp of Mandarin at a basic level for travel? Are you fascinated by the writing system and keen to learn the Chinese characters for reading and writing? Perhaps you want to start a language exchange with Chinese native speakers who also want English speaking practice?
- What level or type of Cantonese or Mandarin lessons do you want?
Do you want lessons during the day or in the evening? Have you already started learning Chinese or are you a complete beginner? Are you more interested in Chinese cultural courses or would you prefer to learn Pinyin or focus on pronunciation practice? Do you want to start learning Mandarin or Cantonese? Would you prefer lessons with other learners or private classes?
- Is your goal academic or recreational?
Are you sitting the HSK test? Do you need Chinese language proficiency for work? Are you planning a trip and need a few phrases? Do you want to become a languages teacher?
What Should You Look for in a Teacher of Chinese?
Regardless of your reasons for learning Chinese, you will want to find a tutor who is proficient in both the language and teaching practice.
Once you start looking, you will find there is a great range of different teachers offering Mandarin lessons for every level — and a great variation in experience and language skill level. This is not to say that the tutors without teaching qualifications, or with a lower language level, or minimal in-country experience in China, are not going to be good at what they do — some people are born educators. However, you do need to weigh up your goals with your potential tutor's expertise before you make a decision.
The types of teachers you might find include:
- university exchange students from China
- current learners of Chinese language
- professional Chinese language teachers (who may or may not be Chinese nationals)
- tutors employed by specialised language institutes (for example, the Confucius Institute)
- husbands or wives of Chinese diplomats who are looking for part time work
- private tutors (for example, Superprof tutors).
For people who are learning Chinese at an academic level, it is highly recommended you find a tutor who is either a native speaker of Mandarin or Cantonese or a non-native speaker who has passed the Hanyu Shuiping Kaoshi (HSK) — the Chinese language proficiency exam.
Tutors who don't have the HSK qualifications may still have a sound level of Chinese — proficient in essential vocabulary, grammar and able to read and write up to 6,000 Chinese characters.
In addition, in all cases, students will probably want to find a tutor who:
- has a minimum of 3 years more practical language experience
- has lived in China or has exceptional knowledge of Chinese culture
- demonstrates flexibility when it comes to the structure and content of lessons.
Don't be afraid to ask potential tutors about their qualifications, learning and teaching experience or their language proficiency. Some tutors will have a CV or references they can show you. One of the great things about Superprof is that all this information is online, on the tutor's personal profile. You can look through this for free, and then contact a shortlist of suitable tutors until you find one you click with.
Also, don't be shy about requesting the type of lessons you want and the location — at your home, your tutor's home, a coffee shop or even online.
How Much Does Learning Mandarin or Cantonese Cost?
Language courses can be quite expensive, particularly at specialised institutes or tutoring agencies. A cheaper option is often a private tutor who works as a freelancer, however, as these people set their own fees, there can be a great variation in hourly rates there too.
Private tutoring, either in your home or online, can set you back anywhere between $20 and $100 an hour. The more academic the subject, the higher the cost.
If you're keen on learning Mandarin with a private tutor, how much should you budget for? Using Superprof as an example, there are well over 3,000 tutors of Mandarin listed across Australia. The average cost is calculated at $32 an hour. A quick scan reveals the cheapest rate is just $10/hr (a Chinese speaking student with no teaching experience), and the most expensive is $80/hr (a qualified teacher and PhD graduate).
Prices also vary according to the tutor's:
- level of Mandarin
- teaching experience and other qualifications
- level of students they teach (beginning to advanced)
Are there alternative options?
If you would prefer group lessons, where you will have more speaking and listening practice opportunities with other learners, a language school may be better. At first glance, an 8-week course may seem expensive, but if you break down the total course cost into hourly chunks, you might find you're only paying half the hourly rate quoted for private tuition. Paying upfront also means you're more likely to commit to the lessons, at least for that period. On the downside, you won't receive much one-on-one help.
If budget is a major concern, try to find native Chinese speakers who are interested in language exchange. For example, you meet in a cafe and spend half your time speaking Chinese, and half your time speaking English. This is great for listening and conversation practice and is also free apart from the price of your coffee.
There are also plenty of free online courses or apps which are great for intermediate learners who are looking for grammar, vocabulary, listening, writing or reading practice.
Preparing for Cantonese or Mandarin Lessons
Difficult things aren't easy, but they're worth it.
~ Mia Love ~
One glance at Chinese characters and you know that if you're going to learn to read them, let alone start writing them, you'll require commitment and practice. If you're going to learn Chinese successfully, preparation is key.
A few hints:
- Listening carefully is going to help you remember the correct pronunciation.
- Take notes and read through them — particularly grammar rules, Pinyin transcription, vocabulary and character stroke order.
- Revise regularly.
- Keep distractions to a minimum.
- Use flashcards — these are great for character recognition, remembering a tricky grammar example, vocabulary and phrases.
- Make use of mnemonics to help you memorise grammar rules and characters.
Be patient. Learning Mandarin is going to introduce you to sounds that are completely unfamiliar to English speakers. When it comes to listening and pronunciation, you'll need to train your ear and your tongue.
I've heard immersion is the best way to learn. How can I do this in Australia?
Don't feel you have to be living in China to immerse yourself in the Chinese language.
In Australia, we are fortunate to have large multicultural communities who organise cultural events throughout the year. Go along to some of these — join the Chinese New Year celebrations or attend a dragon boating festival.
Visit your local China Town and have a meal in a Chinese restaurant.
Start listening to radio broadcasts from China, check out some movies on SBS, or purchase a newspaper from China every so often. You might not understand much at first, but the more you read and focus on listening to the language, the more you'll understand.
The best way to learn languages is to dive in headfirst and experience everything you can. Read about the history of China and its culture. Find out about how Chinese people think and react.
Give yourself a goal — start planning that future trip to China or Hong Kong or Taiwan. Think about a language exchange program or apply to teach English in China.
Supplementing Your Chinese Lessons
The pronunciation and tones of Mandarin or Cantonese are so different from English, it can feel like it's impossible you'll ever attain proficiency in a few hours of classes a week.
If you want to learn fast, you'll need to put a practice system in place. Here are a few ideas to help you make a start on improving your speaking and writing proficiency.
A good app or website can go a long way
If we listed every online app or website designed to help you with your spoken or written Chinese, you'd be reading all night. Here's a small free or cheap app selection as a start point:
- Duolingo (word by word or sentences)
- Hello Chinese (learn to read Pinyin)
- LingoDeer (reading and writing)
- Memrise (vocabulary)
- Skritter Chinese (writing characters)
- Anki Flashcards (vocabulary)
- HSK Online (test preparation)
- Pleco (Chinese dictionary)
- FluentU (immersion through videos)
- The Chairman's Bao (reading and news)
- ChinesePod (lessons via videos)
Find a Chinese conversation buddy
The only way you'll get valuable speaking practice is by ... speaking!
There are a number of sites that help you find people who want to participate in language exchanges. These include forums like Language.Exchange and matching websites such as Tandem. Many online platforms also have great resources or blog posts you can read on a range of topics.
On these online forums and platforms, you might connect with other language learners, or with speakers of Chinese who want to learn English.
The connections bring classroom learning into a social context. You're not restricted to having to speak about given topics or needing to complete your conversation in a set time. And, being in a social setting, you're more relaxed and less likely to worry about your pronunciation or grammar errors.
The best thing is you can start putting all the theory, for example, the grammar rules and vocabulary, into practice and you'll probably also learn colloquial expressions and local spoken phrases.
Isn't it a pleasure to study and practise what you have learned?
~ Confucius ~