Learning basic Mandarin: How It Changed My China Experience

Many new teachers come to China with the hopes of learning Mandarin. Others simply don’t try because they believe it’s too difficult. Many more, I’ve found, begin to learn Chinese but find it too difficult, too time consuming, too confusing, too insert-lame-excuse-here. For my first six months in China, I kept putting off learning Mandarin because I too believed it was time consuming and difficult, but once I began to truly study and push myself to learn, my entire experience in China changed for the better.


Where to Begin

I began learning Mandarin by taking classes at EF Headquarters in Shanghai. These classes were free of cost, and offered by a fellow EF employee. My classmates were other teachers in the city who were just as busy as I was, but for one hour once a week, we dedicated our time to coming to class and practicing our Mandarin with each other. Week by week, I slowly began to understand more and more of what was happening around me. Whether I was ordering a drink (冰的!), talking to my students’ parents, taking public transportation, or answering a phone call, I began to understand more of what was being said to me and respond with basic words and sentences. By making this simple effort, I was already feeling more comfortable and confident in China.


Real-World Problem Solving

Another indispensable skill I gained while learning basic Mandarin was being able to solve problems using the native language around me. I know for a fact, it’s very much possible to get by in Shanghai by only speaking English. I did it for 6 months. Once I began learning the basics of the language and using it regularly though, I could not only solve problems on my own, but even help my friends in sticky situations. Ever been in a taxi and the driver isn’t sure how to make it to your apartment? Being able to tell them in Mandarin really helps. Ever leave your belongings in public transportation and need to call someone to have it returned? Speaking Mandarin is the only way you’re going to get it back!


The Teacher Becomes The Student

Above all else, one moment that transformed me while learning basic Mandarin was when I finally became conscious of what my students feel like in the classroom. After taking beginner classes at HQ, I enrolled in more intensive classes with a private tutor to enhance my learning. Obviously, these classes were much more difficult. That’s when I became even more confused, maybe even lost at times, and I got a sinking feeling in my stomach- this is how my students must feel. For the first time, I could feel what they were feeling, and ever since then, I believe I’ve become a more understanding, patient, and creative teacher to make sure my students can understand me.


Enhancing Your China Experience

Learning Chinese while living in Shanghai may not be essential for survival, but it definitely transformed my entire experience for the better. Learning the basics of Mandarin has enabled me to gain a greater cultural understanding and become more compassionate to the needs of my students. As I learn more, I hope to further improve these two aspects of my Chinese and professional experience. I encourage you to take the leap of faith and learn Mandarin! 加油!


Are you ready to learn Mandarin in China?

Teach, travel and train with EF English First

By: Alexis Selby

Alexis is a Kids and Teens teacher from the U.S. who spends her free time exploring any nearby destination she can make it to, trying out any and all new foods, making new friends, and studying Mandarin.