Mel Patching (British)
There are a variety of methods to learn when you live in China: on your own, through friends, through private institutions or through online courses (like Chinlingo business Chinese course), in my case, by taking a course at a local university. (Just to be clear: I did not study a Chinese degree at a university in China, I simply took a language course to boost my Chinese).
This was an obvious option for me, because attempts to learn on my own in the past had remained just that: attempts. A language course provided the structure and discipline my previous feeble efforts lacked.
I chose this particular university because it had the decency to hold morning classes only, i.e., we studied 8:00-11:40 Monday to Friday and that was it. Every morning we had two classes of two 45-minute sessions each. Pretty normal.
The course detailed three different classes: Speaking, Listening and Reading. In actuality, each class taught all four skills: speaking, listening, reading and writing – the teacher and textbook being the only noticeable differences. Oh, and in Listening class, instead of listening to the teacher we listened to a CD.
Our class had about 15 people, but in some universities classes can get as big as 30. If you are looking for a place to study, class size is a very important factor. The smaller the better I would say. Fifteen was ok, because the teacher was still able to distinguish mistakes in pronunciation, and guessing games and group discussions worked well. Of course, speaking in front of 15 people is much less intimidating than 30.
The students were a mixed bunch: the majority were Thai students who had come to do a year of Chinese before starting University here. They worked hard and were focussed on passing the HSK, so it was a challenge keeping up with them. There were a few westerners out on an exchange semester, and then there were people like me who had graduated years ago, but needed a language boost to facilitate life in China.
I was lucky because only 1 other of my classmates could speak English, so I was forced to communicate in Chinese the whole time – and somehow learnt a little Thai too – bonus!
It wasn't like I could rely on the next person to tell me what the hell was going on, no. Trying to explain grammar to each other in broken Chinese was so hilarious I swear we could have made a TV show of it. But as time went on, the collective "Ooooooh" that rose from our lips when we at last saw the light of understanding gradually became more frequent. As a result, we only became good friends towards the second semester – as the first one allowed for little more than "Hello," "How are you?" and "What time is it?"
Wooden stools, desks and blackboards are all you should expect from an inexpensive public institution here. The university I went to didn't bother with lifts, or smart boards or ergonomic seating. It even deemed cleaners a frivolous expense. Many others who studied at universities said the same. "Keep calm and bring a cushion," is all I have to say about that
Our teachers were very nice and approachable. Tardiness or unfinished homework was rewarded with long fable-like lectures on morals, which made us feel like very small children. Unfortunately, the old attitude "The teacher is god" is still quite prevalent here, and distanced us from the teachers, so conversations were rarely allowed to stray from textbook topics. It was certainly not the way universities work in the West, but that is a topic for another day.
Most people say one year of full-time study is all you need to gain the literacy level needed to live and work in China. I started the course at about HSK2 level and after 9 months I was ready for the HSK5. If you want to delve into ancient literature, though, be prepared to dedicate a few more years to it.
Yes, there are many things that could be improved about language programs and universities in China, but for me it was completely worth it, no question. In just nine months I went from wondering the streets like an illiterate idiot to strutting like a street-smart pro, engaging anyone in conversations about anything from laundry soap to Traditional Chinese Medicine.
Have you studied at a university in China? Tell us more in the comments section below.