Why not to study Chinese at university

As some of you may know, I’m enrolled at Suzhou University (or Soochow University, SuDa) studying Mandarin. Having just completed my mid-terms, I want to give a bit of a summary on the problems I see studying in this way.

First, the title of this post is a bit of a misnomer, as overall I really like studying Chinese, think my teachers are great, and I really like SuDa’s environment. However…

Having lived in China now for a few years, I have a rather messy Chinese “level” in that my speaking and listing are pretty good, but my reading and writing are a bit crap (“bit” being an understatement). As it were, I was placed in the second level class (which I’ve recently been told may in fact be what used to be Level 2 and Level 3 merged).

At this level each chapter in our texts consist of about 30-35 new words or phrases, which can easily add up to 50-60 individual characters – all of which I’ve never seen before. Now multiply this by three classes and you’ve got about 100-120 characters (there’s some overlap) per week to stuff into your head.

Generally speaking, I find it hard to remember any character I don’t write (while actively paying attention – as opposed to just mindlessly repeating) at least 20-30 times. Taking the lower of those two numbers (100 new characters * 20 times), that’s 2,000 characters of writing.

The Kickers

You may be sitting there thinking that’s not all that much, or you may have survived this carpal-tunnel-to-be and are laughing at me, however the real problem comes when you factor in that despite studying a chapter a week, you don’t get seven days to commit this iconic vocab to memory.

Nope, after reviewing the pronunciation of the vocabulary on day one, the rest of the week it is expected they’re in your mushy mass already (day two generally being quiz day).

The reason for this brings me to my final point, and the point that is really at the core of why I would even suggest studying Chinese at university as being a bad idea. If you are, like me, of the non-Asian persuasion, you’re going to have the cards stacked against you learning in a Chinese university for the simple reason that you’re going to be in a class where the majority of students are East Asian (Korean and/or Japanese).

This difference quickly becomes apparent, as both the Koreans and Japanese have solid foundations in Chinese characters, or Hanzi (known in Japan as Kanji and in Korea as Hanja).

The pronunciations are, of course, different, making that first pronunciation run-through uber-valuable to the E. Asian folks in the room. And as the E. Asians make up the bulk of the class, the teacher has little chance to spend the time needed for us Westerners to get the writing/reading down.

Exchange Students Be Warned

I’ve befriended a couple exchange students who study Chinese back in the US, and are doing a semester in China as a credited course. The differences between Level 2 Chinese in an American university and a Chinese one is drastic, and unlike myself, who could care less exams are passed or not as long as something is learned, these students’ marks count towards their degree back home – and, in one case at least, towards their scholarship.

The fact that these students were just plugged into “the next level” says a lot for the dimwittedness of the administrations involved. They are essentially saying that studying a year of Chinese a couple times a week in a non-Chinese environment in the US is equal to a year of studying Chinese everyday surrounded by things Chinese. Talk about stupid and unbalanced.

The Result

I’m now faced with a difficult decision on whether or not to stay in university next term, or to explore some of the private language schools in town, where I’m more likely to be classed with other Westerners, and in turn be able to focus on the areas that are hardest for me.

The benefits I see of switching to a private school are, A) as mentioned, being paired with other folks that have the same lack of foundations in writing and reading Chinese, and B) having the more complicated grammar points explained to me in English, as opposed to having to double my needed vocabulary just so I understand the teacher’s instructions.

However, I haven’t ruled out the university yet. It’s hard, sometimes impossibly hard, and some days I just sit and wonder why the hell I’m bothering when so much of what is being taught is just slipping by me. Despite this, it still puts me in the seat. It forces me to study hard or feel the fool in class. And it guarantees that 3-5 hours a day I’ll be studying, writing, reading, speaking and thinking Chinese. That, more than anything else is extremely valuable and I fear leaving uni I might lose that.

Private classes, and particularly tutors or self-study, are so incredibly easy to skip out on. Chinese university, whether because I so quickly fall behind, or because I have some ingrained fear of truancy, forces me to attend and has caused me to learn more Chinese in a month and a half than I have in near the entire three years I’ve been in China.

45 Responses

  1. Interesting post, as there are lots of parallels with my situation. I taught in China for two years before moving to Kunming to study in March. My spoken Chinese wasn’t bad and I could understand a little but I couldn’t read or write to save my life. At Yunnan University, where I enrolled for the first semester, most of my classmates were college students majoring in Chinese, so they had the opposite problem: they could read and write but couldn’t speak well. Obviously, this didn’t mesh well. I also found the program and the office to be lacking; being a state-run institution, they seemed to have less motivation to provide their students with a better service.

    This semester, I’ve been studying at a private language school nearby. They guarantee smaller class sizes, more opportunities for extra help, and plus their clientele (as you noted about Suzhou) seem to be similar to me in experience. In addition, tuition is about 1200 RMB per semester cheaper.

    I’d say…private language schools, in small classes is the way to go. But every city is different. You’re right though…my Chinese more than doubled after a month of studying.

  2. That sounds a little too difficult for me. I still haven’t had much of a formal class–my first 8 months had a survival Pinyin class that really didn’t help much. I’ve wanted to take a real class. Unfortunately, the university I’m working at doesn’t have enough student interest to hire a Chinese teacher. Maybe I’ll get a class next year after I save some money (shouldn’t be too difficult).

    • Anyone wants to learn chinese in Suzhou please you may contact me at 139 1313 2052 or [email protected]. I graduated from Chinese Language and Literrature Department at Soochaw University. Looking forward to haring from you.

  3. Hi Ryan,

    As someone who has been through six semesters in the US and an intensive two month (“two semester”) 4 hour (plus 6-8 hours of homework per day to really get your work done and characters memorized) per day class in a Chinese University that drove the two highest achieving students to the edge of madness (I’m not kidding), I understand where you’re coming from.

    I’d say a three month intensive course in a Chinese University is about equal to two semesters (of a real Chinese course) back in the states – so you are expected to cover twice as much in the same amount of time.

    Let me put it another way – for three years in college I spent much more time on Chinese than homework for my other four classes combined (except that one crazy semester I tried to take Japanese and Chinese at the same time…) – or several hours a day on average.

    So since you are taking an intensive course, if you were really to master all of it (and Chinese is a kind of master or don’t master it language – in some ways you fall behind greatly without learning most of the characters along the way) you’d need to put in about 3-6 hours a day of study time in addition to classes, the vast bulk of that just working on characters.

    Do you have a good note card process & system? It seems to be the only way to learn to read and write well and really get the suckers to stick in your head for more than a day or two at a time.

    Realize, too, I’ve forgotten how to write the vast majority of characters I once knew how to write =), 3 1/2 years after moving here.

    PS – The expectation is you have all of the vocabulary memorized before you even do the initial pronunciation exercises / definitions – even if no one has come out and said this to your class =)

  4. Hey I’d stay stick with the university. Characters are a bitch and a half but they will come. University provides the competition and the push that a small private school won’t. Do you really want to be with more westerners? I purposely try not to make friends with them (though it’s usually invetiable) ’cause being friends with the asians gives you the chance to use Mandarin exclusively and really pick up more than otherwise.

    The three biggest things that are helping me learn characters:
    1) SMS with korean and japanese friends
    2) MSN with them
    3) Flashcards on computer (boring)

  5. Characters definitely will come…but in my experience the private language schools teach them as well. I wouldn’t trust any institution that didn’t emphasize learning characters.In addition, my language school has just as many 东方人 as the public universities do.

    But every place is different, of course.

  6. @Matt:
    Which language school are you studying at? I’m gonna be in Kunming for a month and would like to study while I’m there. Thanks!

  7. Canrun,

    I study at Dongfang Language School, which is on Wenlin Jie. They’re pretty good about cutting deals with short-term students. Another alternative would be to hire a tutor, which the school could help you do as well. If you have any other questions just shoot me an e-mail at matthew(dot)schiavenza[-at~]gmail.com.

    Editor’s Note: Hey Matt, I edited your e-mail, as I get blasted with spam attacks and don’t want to be inadvertently responsible for a huge increase in the amount of penis enlargement e-mails you get. Founded or not 😉

  8. I’m still trying to decide if I even want to enter university at all.
    You seem to be expressing the realization of some of my fears about studying that way.
    Hmm…we’ll see. (And damn…that’s a lot of money! At least for my broke self)

  9. Ah thanks Ryan for catching that.


    I just read Elizabeth’s post and, well, she’s right- people don’t speak Chinese to each other in the corridors outside class if it isn’t their best mutual language. I personally don’t mind, as I find pretentious for two English-speakers to converse in Mandarin outside of class. In class is another story.

  10. Good post! I feel your pain! I’m in my fourth semester (god, has it been that long?) studying Chinese at university here. I started out in Jiaotong Daxue in Shanghai, and after a semester there, moved to Xiamen, and am in my third semester here at Xiada. Anyway, I think you are dead-on with a lot of your complaints, especially that the pace is just too goddam fast. I often think that I would do a lot better studying the material much more in-depth and slowly, then maybe the vocabulary would stick better. As it is, I have five classes now, and it’s just completely impossible to keep up with them all.
    Nevertheless, progress is being made, so I’m very happy. I never dreamed it would be so hard. I am still not nearly as fluent as I’d like to be. I still read like a goddam second-grader. But, my listening is getting pretty good — I think, if nothing else, it helps to sit in class a couple hours a day listening to the teachers talk in Chinese. Also, even though my reading is slow, I’m starting to find that I don’t have to reach for the dictionary nearly as often.
    Studying characters is the bitch. You just have to drill them into your head if you have any hope of succeeding. But, reading your post, I think maybe you worry too much about learning all the vocabulary in all your classes — that’s just impossible, so don’t worry about it. Adopting a sensible strategy to studying characters is important — that means, pay close attention to learning the most common ones first. Also, I think some kind of flashcard program is crucial. I use Supermemo, and it’s grueling, but it works. Most of my classmates don’t use any kind of software, and guess what, I know how to write more characters than just about any of them, even the Japanese and Koreans! It’s a great feeling when one of them leans over to me and asks how to write a character, and I can show them. Occasionally I get the real nerd-glory of being able to correct the teacher on a 错别字.

  11. Hey all, thanks so much for all your input on this. I’m not a whole lot closer to deciding whether I’ll continue with the uni come next term, but it’s nice to know I’m not alone in my struggles to master (or at least manage) this language.

  12. I should probably write my own post on this. It took me about a week of university study at the best college in Dalian (by reputation, anyway) to decided that I need a different approach. Granted, I’ve seen people come out of the university with amazing Chinese levels, but the seem to have pretty much done it 90% on their own, which makes me really not want to pay 8000 RMB a semester in tuition.

    I was at a decent private school last semester that, while nothing extraordinary, was also relatively unknown, and could therefore offer very small classes–three or four students–for about a third what the university charges. Might go back there in the spring.

  13. Here’s what I think would be a damn good way to study Chinese.
    Get a tutor. (A good one…and not a hot one…) With that tutor focus half of your energies following a fairly difficult text series. Use the work books, set up tests, etc.
    With the other half, do speaking and listening unrelated to the text. (taking notes and learning the appropriate characters as you go along.)

    There’s a lot of problems with this and a big one is how much it would cost to spend the necessary time with said tutor, but all in all, it’s seeming pretty ideal to me.

  14. Ryan, I am a long-time silent reader of your blog.
    I am looking into taking an intensive Mandarin course in Suzhou next summer.
    Do you happen to know if Suda has an intensive summer program? Their website is kinda messed up and isn’t really of much help.
    I’d be grateful for any pointers.

  15. Definitely an interesting post! Did you make a decision yet?

    I’m in a similar decision process right now: Soochow University or one of the local private language schools. The thing is, I haven’t found too many intensive language courses offered by private language schools in Suzhou, and that means private lessons and a higher price!

    I’ve hunted for information on Suzhou University’s Mandarin courses online, but no luck yet! Any tips on who to contact for enrollment info?


  16. Hi. I studied Chinese at SuDa last semester but sort of quit towards Chinese New Year because it drove me crazy. It just wasn’t fun. I’m looking for private schools to learn chinese for this semester. I tried looking online but can’t find anything. Could you give me some names of these private schools?

  17. Hey Vai – I dropped out long before you, but mostly because I was swamped.

    As for good private schools, I wish I knew for sure. The two I know of are Boland (find a What’s On Suzhou calendar at any bar or Western restaurant for their addy) and New Concept Mandarin.

  18. Hi Ryan

    Just stumbled across your site. I’m another Westerner who has traveled this way to learn Mandarin as far as I can. I am currently in Beijing which I’m told is the best place to learn the language. My plan is as follows: enroll in a private school (between 2-6 people in a class) for 12 weeks and then enroll in Beijing Culture and Language University. Although I’ve booked and paid for my private school tuition (that starts to tomorrow, incidentally), I’m wondering after reading your blog, whether I shouldn’t think of carrying on with private tuition for a whole year from September? How much of your “bad” experience do you think was just down to the university that you were at as opposed to any university that you could be at? And, what is the Mandarin like in Suzhou (my girlfriend is a teacher and wants to move to somewhere more beautiful than Beijing).

  19. Hey Tom, I should reiterate that there’s lots about studying at the university that I really enjoyed. The teacher’s were great, and my fellow classmates were a blast.

    However, I do think that the issues I have with studying at a Chinese uni are pretty much right across the board and I’d be surprised to hear that the demographic makeup of the classes (mostly East Asians) and the writing/reading intensive curriculum weren’t the norm.

    As for Mandarin in Suzhou – at the uni it’s bang-on. Two of my teachers were 东北人 (North Easterners) and one, though a Suzhou native, had fantastic Mandarin.

    Out in the street though, you’ll not understand a word being spoken while eavesdropping. However, when you speak to someone in Mandarin 80-90% of the time they’ve no problem replying in it.

    Suzhou’s an awesome city, and easily more beautiful than Beijing (IMHO), but the weather sux.

  20. Glad to read your statement, I sent this out to my daughter, and I hope we can come out something, I wonder I can lend some help because I was a junior high Chinese language teacher, I don’t know how the system go, but there are 540 main character to start with, all the rest of Chinese character were evolved from these 540 characters

  21. Pingback: Why to learn Chinese at a University | Junjie's China blog

  22. “Private classes, and particularly tutors or self-study, are so incredibly easy to skip out on. Chinese university, whether because I so quickly fall behind, or because I have some ingrained fear of truancy, forces me to attend and has caused me to learn more Chinese in a month and a half than I have in near the entire three years I’ve been in China.”

    Isn’t this what you want? I just graduated with a Chinese degree and you really have to study your ass off. If you really want to learn Chinese, learning 150 new characters is normal and is what I did for three years. Yes, some, if not many, if not most of them slip away right after those quizzes, but you will be surprised how many of them end up sticking, even if they all don’t. Chinese is a difficult language and you have to accept the reality of the study time if you want to learn it. It is completely different from English. The fact that other Asian students have the Kanji advantage should motivate you if you are serious about knowing Chinese.

  23. hi Ryan!

    i just came across your post, and i can so relate to your situation. i was enrolled at Suzhou University last spring semester and really it was hard. Being an asian didn’t help much cause i am from the southeast. although the class was rewarding as oppose to the private classes i’ve had before. i was in a class where most of my classmates are westerners and southeast asians too. we did have korean classmates which still balances the learning process.
    Like you my spoken chinese is fairly well and so as my comprehension, but then again writing and reading the characters is really such a pain. We’ve had plenty exchange students through the semester all had been learning the language for a year or more, surprisingly though they can’t read much of the characters as compared to us who just started the course. The fact that i speak, read and understand chinese after a semester, is already a big motivation for me to enroll this fall. 🙂

  24. Nice post. I also have the same dilemma. But for me, my listening is so-so but my reading comprehension is pretty good. I don’t memorize the characters but I just have the basic idea what the text is about. But I do suck at my Listening Classes because the policy of my teacher is to play the questions-tape only once. (a preparation for HSK)

    When I listen to ChinesePod, I can catch up even the Upper Intermediate Level.

    Anyway, good luck to us. I do study in the University too. I think, it just takes more patience. Don’t give up. As they say, mastering a language takes more than 5 years minimum.

  25. @Nikou – wow, only once with the tape eh? That sounds like some tough love from your teacher – but I’m sure it’ll pay off in the end.

    Lately I’ve been studying on my own – using a site called http://smart.fm that is great for memorizing characters. It’s helping my reading quite a lot. I think that a multi-pronged attack is best with Chinese. Find the best tools for each individual area – something for reading, writing, speaking and listening. And then just dive in.

    That 5-year min. stat gives me some confidence! Thanks!

  26. Oh God! I had hoped for soemthing remotely positive when I found this blog, then we Americans are known for being spoilt at home and complaining if things dont suit us when we go abroad. But yo bro. You’re the bomb. How brave , how bold, how great art thou for hanging in there like a tru trooper. This makes me proud to be American. Good luck to you man. The world needs more of ya. Dont punish youre self no longer. You done your time, get out and have some fun. How crazy are those babes for American men? Gimme five , gimme me a ni hen mei that’s all you need to say buddy. Love ya all.

  27. Hey – just catchin up 3 years later… after the post i mean. I’m in the process of applying to Xian Jiaotong-Liverpool University, Hoping to start in March. I’m thinking of doing 4 extra hours private tuition a week, have any idea the going rate per hour? Just a years worth of studying for me and then slow but steady, self learn to improve. Cant wait to go to Suzhou. So its nice to come across your site for a peek and an insight into the soon to be home for the entirety of 2010. By the way, howz your level of Chinese after all these years?

  28. wow..its been three years..anyway.hey..guys.i am in suzhou now..and i’d like to help you learn chinese..i have a lot experience…cuz i have many foreign friends right here..and if you feel free you can contact me..i am in suzhou university..oh.btw.i am a chinese girl..of cuz.

  29. OH MY GOSH!! i was just planning on enrolling in a chinese language class at a university as i thought it might be more relevant. I just moved to Suzhou and am finding it very hard to do anything as not alot of people speak english, so i though maybe i could enroll in Soochow and study the language. I studied Japanese in High School and we pretty much did everything you just described for Chinese, which means that i know afew of the characters already (as Kanji in Japanese are Chinese characters) but that was a while back. I would have to start from scratch.

    Does anyone know how i can meet more people in Suzhou around my age? i am currently limited to my mums workmates and my younger (13 year old) sisters friends. Not much of a stay in Suzhou for a 22 year old.

  30. Hello Westerner… I am a American-Chinese learning and living the life in California.
    Quick question/comment: McLaughlin? Is that [i]really[/i] ur real name? -raise eyebrow-
    anywayz… I found this blog through another website… forgot what it’s called.
    Hi Ryan, I’m in 8th grade, apparently studying Chinese at a college level. (That’s what I get for have ASIAN parents and being Chinese. xP But I’m proud. To be yello!) It’s easy, considering I have been speaking Chinese ever since I can talk. It’s getting harder though. High school is starting next year, and my Chinese teacher is spewing out essays and midterms test. -sigh-
    I would agree. DON’T study Chinese in China. Take a class in the states (ack! it feels weird saying that…) preferably in California. It’s like invaded with Chinese here!
    Yet, we are too comfortable with each other. If you’re looking for hardcore Chinese learning, stay with China. There’s more competition and-
    OMG! You’re a DAD?!?!?! O.o I shall read ur other blogs later!!! After I get like 2 hours of sleep. (4:14am… damn, I’m such a bad girl.)
    Yeah… there’s more competition. (Did you post this like 8/9 years ago? If so, I’m too late.)
    nightie night!

  31. Hey all, thanks so much for all your input on this. I’m not a whole lot
    closer to deciding whether I’ll continue with the Learn Chinese
    come next term,
    but it’s nice to know I’m not alone in my struggles to master (or at
    least manage) this language. 

    Learn Chinese

  32. This is my two-cents for what it’s worth. I took of semester of Chinese in an American University. It was a complete waste of time. So,I decided to take classes at Nanjing University. The school was great, but I do not feel I got the attention I needed. The teachers continually moved forward, even though many students did not understand.They also never seemed to have the time to help students that were struggling; even though, we asked for help.  In any case, I decided to try a small language school (Fearless Panda) in Xuzhou (not much use to those whom don’t live in Xuzhou). The classes are small and the teachers continually move students around to ensure they are at the appropriate level. I feel that I am finally making progress. I have a long way to go, but I am very pleased with the choice I made. In short, I think all of the above choices (foreign university, Chinese University, and private school) are good opportunities to learn Chinese; however, the better choice will vary. We all have different needs, abilities, and goals.    

  33. I think here different factors should be taken into consideration: 1. if you work somewhere then it will be hard for you to go to the universuty to study, 2. if you have children, then you again can not go to the university everyday to study that much (like 3-4 hours a day). So in this case you’d better go to the classes at a private school.

  34. If you can dedicate enough time and energy, learning Chinese in the University, either inside or outside of China might be a good choice. The pressure from the environment and workload you get as Ryan laid out might frustrate you at a certain time. However, once you go over that tough period, you might realize how much you’ve gained.

    Again, this is just my perspective. To be honest, most learners that I’ve come to contact with don’t have the luxury to go down that path. For them, building up a more flexible learning agenda is the only possible way. In that case, I’d recommend them to learn through online or offline resources for the majority of their language skills and fine tune their pronouciations in private classes.

    It really depends on the situation the learner is in.


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