Although many road signs are in English as well as Chinese, the vast majority of the local population speaks only Chinese. In order to have a good experience in Beijing, it is best to learn some Chinese. Even a few key phrases and words will go a long way in making life more bearable. English will not be enough unless you intend on always having a translator with you or not leaving your international complex.
Many expats take at least part-time Chinese classes or have Chinese-language tutors who come to their workplace or to their homes a few times a week. Chinese is not easy to learn, but it is definitely doable! It may take just a few weeks to learn a few standard phrases for directions and locations, which will help immensely when traveling in a taxi. After a couple of months, you will have built upon your vocabulary and will be more comfortable using memorized phrases and words to get around. Learning to read and write is usually not priority unless you are in a dedicated language program. Most expats are happy to learn enough spoken Chinese to get around.
There are three main options for learning Chinese: Studying Chinese at a university (more structured, intense, and expensive), studying Chinese with a foreign-run language program in a university setting (also reserved for serious learners), and studying Chinese at a private learning center.
Studying at a Chinese university is reserved for the true Chinese-language student. This means first applying for the program and then receiving a student visa to enter the country as a full-time student. The course load of 16-20 hours per week would likely be broken out into listening, speaking, writing, and reading sessions. The price tag can be up to 50,000 RMB per year including accommodation, food, and sundries.
Another university-related option is joining a language program run by a foreign university. These programs may be a semester long and could be hosted at one of the major universities in Beijing. For example, Harvard and Princeton hosts intensive Mandarin programs each summer. This option is also for more serious language students.
The most popular and practical option for expats living and working in Beijing is to take classes at private learning centers. There are many learning centers all over the city that are very flexible. For those working full-time, they can opt to have instructors meet them at work, sign up for tutoring at home, or go during their lunch hour for one-on-one lessons. Individual classes cost about 120 RMB per hour, group classes will cost less.
Pick up any expat magazine and you’ll find advertisements for language schools in the classifieds section. Here are a few popular language schools in the city:
- Beijing Mandarin School: http://www.beijingmandarinschool.com. Beijing Mandarin School has more than 60 teachers. They also offer traditional Chinese culture class, such as cooking classes, paper-cutting classes etc. Free Chinese Corner takes place every Thursday from 2-3pm for language practice.
- Berlitz: One of the biggest international language and culture training schools. Founded in 1878, Berlitz is a privately held company based in Princeton, New Jersey but with centers around the world. Their Beijing location offers English or Mandarin training in total immersion programs, group classes or semi-private instruction.
- Mandarin House: http://www.mandarinhouse.cn. This Chinese language school features intensive and executive language courses, in addition to language summer camps and long-term classes.