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Learning Chinese Abroad vs Learning at Home

Learning Chinese Abroad vs Learning at Home

Different people have different goals for learning Mandarin. Some may do it to connect with distant relatives or their family heritage. Some do it to pickup up the language for an added edge in the business world. Still others learn the language because they’re naturally drawn to Chinese culture and history. By far one of the most common reasons for learning Mandarin is the desire to travel and use the language in China.

There’s something exhilarating about the idea of wandering abroad and interacting with people in a foreign tongue. It’s certainly a noble and motivating goal, but there is a common misconception about traveling abroad to learn or use a foreign language…

People all too often assume that travel is the language learning cure-all. Somehow once you step off a plane into a foreign country, you magically enter the ideal language learning environment. While traveling to a foreign speaking country certainly isn’t a bad idea, it’s usually not the magic bullet of language learning many assume it to be, especially if you are a beginner.

Traveling in China

The challenges of learning Chinese while traveling in China

If you’re a native English speaker and are traveling in a foreign country, the first and foremost obstacle you’re likely to face is that the foreigners you encounter will speak to you in English. English is quickly becoming the lingua franca of the tourist world. Unless you happen to look or dress like the locals, just about everyone in airports, hotels, and popular tourist spots will expect you to speak English. Your fumbly Mandarin will likely be met with a polite nod and patronizing smile, while the conversation reverts back to English.

Unless you’re highly proficient in the language, the locals you encounter will prefer to defer to English. You’re desire to learn Mandarin will be overshadowed by their lack of patience for your meger speaking skills.

This unfortunate truth also carries over into the area of friend-making. A common dream of language learners is to be able to go abroad and make friends with locals using only a foreign language. It isn’t until you actually work up the courage travel to China and make friends that you begin to realize just how hard this really is for beginner and even intermediate students.

Some learners are mistaken enough to think that just being in China will help them pick up the language. It’s easy to forget that Mandarin is considered by many to be one of the more difficult languages for native English speakers to learn.

Once you’re in China you will likely gravitate toward people who you can easily communicate with in your native English. People are naturally attracted to people they can communicate with. To really practice your Mandarin you will have to fight this urge and work against the grain to find and connect with people who only speak a language you’ve just started to learn. This can be done, but it is difficult.

If by some stroke of luck you are able to engage in a Mandarin exchange, the conversation is likely to be limited to simple and predictable conversations, like ordering food or perhaps purchasing a bus ticket. This is a great way to start using the language. However if it’s the only dialogue you engage in, don’t expect any leaps or bounds in your conversational ability.

Learning At Home

Advantages of learning a language at home

One huge advantage of learning a language at home is that it is much easier to maintain a regular study schedule. Traveling to a foreign country is likely to bring a whirlwind of experiences, but that whirlwind is not conducive to the discipline necessary to learn and master Mandarin. Odds are if you’re in Beijing or Shanghai for the first time, the temptation to see the sights will be greater than the urge to practice Mandarin. Learning a language at home affords you the marvelous opportunity of making language learning a part of your everyday life.

Learning Mandarin at home also allows you to create an immersive environment at your own pace. While it is true that immersion is one of the best ways to learn a foreign language, a full on immersion experience in China can be overwhelming to a beginner. At home you can gradually ease yourself into the “Mandarin swimming pool” step by step. As a new learner you can start by listening to a Mandarin learning podcast. Later on you can begin to enjoy Chinese music, film, TV, and other media.

Also just because you’re not in China doesn’t mean you can’t connect with native Chinese speakers. If you live in or around a large metropolitan area, you’re likely to find a few Mandarin speakers. Look for a local language exchange or meetup group. Because Mandarin is such a widely spoken language, you’re likely to find whole communities of native speakers in some areas. Keep an eye out for Chinese language church services, cultural festivals, and local grocery stores. These are all good indicators that there are more than a few native speakers around.

If you’re unable to connect with one locally there are plenty to connect with on the internet. Try using a free online language exchange to find Mandarin speakers who are learning English. That way you can assist them with English while they in turn help you with your Mandarin.

Final thoughts

I’m not at all suggesting that you shouldn’t travel to China if you are learning Mandarin. If you have the means and ability to go, then by all means do it! Just don’t expect your trip to be a panacea for your language learning ills. If Mandarin is difficult to learn at home it will be just as difficult, if not more, when you’re abroad.

Unless you’re an advance student, studying the language at home holds a slew of surprising advantages. In the end this is great news. It means that every student of Mandarin, regardless of whether or not they can travel to china, has ample opportunity to learn this exquisite and exciting language!

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