Teach English and Learn Mandarin

Lots of our applicants have questions about learning Mandarin during their time in China.
This article outlines some of the methods our teachers use to make the most of the opportunity to learn.

Lewis Tatt worked as an English teacher in Wuhan through Teach English in China and studied a lot of Mandarin. After a two year placement he was able to pass the HSK 6 exam and went on to study advanced Mandarin at Zhejiang University in Hangzhou. Lewis regularly contributes to our website and Facebook group with information about learning Mandarin in China and has written self study guides for speaking and reading.

Below he answers a number of frequently asked questions.

Mandarin FAQ

In many ways it is easier if you cannot speak Chinese, as students will be forced to speak to you in English. Schools all have English speaking staff who will assist you, and most schools assume their foreign teachers cannot speak Chinese. For daily life in China, however, it is useful for teachers to learn at least some basic Chinese.
Mandarin is the standard Chinese dialect and is based upon the northern dialects around Beijing. China has many different accents, dialects and languages, of which Cantonese is one. It is spoken in Guangdong Province and Hong Kong and is very different to Mandarin – so different that it’s recognised as a separate language by the United Nations. Most educated people in mainland China, particularly the younger generation, will speak Mandarin, though they will likely speak with a regional accent. 
Mandarin is a tonal language, meaning that the tone, or pitch of a word is important in conveying it’s meaning. Mandarin has 4 tones, making it simpler than many Chinese dialects, such as Cantonese which has 6. All four Mandarin tones go in different directions and take some getting used to. Don’t be put off by the tones though, foreign speakers who fail completely to differentiate the tones can still be understood by Chinese and after some practice you will soon get used to them!
There are tens of thousands of Chinese characters, however, the 1000 most common characters account for 80% of written Chinese and the 3000 most common account for 95%. Most literate Chinese people will recognise around 5000 – 6000 characters, many of which they will not be able to write. There are around 200 radicals, which are like jigsaw pieces that are re-arranged to make different characters. Chinese characters often contain a semantic radical, which indicates the meaning of the word, and a phonetic component, which indicates the pronunciation.
Traditional characters are much more complicated than simplified characters. In an attempt to increase literacy rates the communist party began simplifying the Chinese script during the 1950’s. As a result simplified characters are used in mainland China, whilst traditional characters are used in areas that were not part of the Peoples Republic of China, including Taiwan and Hong Kong. The Japanese writing system includes a combination of simplified and traditional Chinese characters, as well as characters that have been simplified differently to the Chinese simplified script. For an English teacher living and working in mainland China it is not necessary to learn traditional characters.
Wade-Giles was a system for rendering the Chinese language using the Latin alphabet. It was developed in the nineteenth century and was common throughout the West until the 1970’s. Pinyin was a new system established in mainland China as part of the attempt to increase literacy during the 1950’s. Pinyin has since become the accepted international standard, but Wade-Giles can sometimes still be seen, most commonly when writing the names of places and people. Pinyin is not used for reading or writing Chinese and cannot be used as a substitute for learning Chinese characters. It is most commonly used as a reference for how to pronounce a word, such as in dictionary entries, or for writing Chinese names in English.
Many people have learned to speak Chinese without reading or writing. However, this is actually in many ways much harder, as the best Chinese textbooks and language learning resources all assume the learner is also learning to read Chinese characters. Also, when the learner reaches intermediate and advanced levels, it is much easier to learn spoken phrases, make friends and practice Chinese by using social networking sites and being able to recognise characters. Though you can reach a higher spoken level more rapidly if you skip reading and writing, if you wish to reach a good level and use it professionally you should learn to read and write.
No. To reach a decent level you need to spend time studying. Some people are more naturally adept at learning languages than others and many people have self-taught to advanced level. However, there is no substitute for study, whether it be formal study or self-study, and there are many people who have lived in China for years without learning more than a few words.
Some people are naturally more adept at language learning than others, and if you have already learnt a second language it will be easier to learn a third or fourth. With intense study it is possible to reach basic conversation within a few months, but reaching an advanced level will take 2-3 years. When it comes to learning a language, you get out what you put in and it all depends on how much time and effort you are willing to put in. One of our teachers was able to pass the HSK 6 exam in just short of 3 years whilst working as an English teacher.
The HSK exam is the formal exam for foreign speakers of Chinese in mainland China. HSK proficiency is usually required when applying for post-graduate study in China, or for proving Chinese proficiency to an employer. There are six levels, one being the lowest and six the highest. It is based on the Eurpean Language framework with HSK 1 correlating to A1 and HSK 6 being equal to C2. The “old HSK” was based on a different system and is now no longer used, however some people who took the HSK many years ago may refer to an HSK level above six. The new HSK level six is roughly equivalent to the old HSK level 9.