How I learned Chinese while teaching English in China

Authored By:

Ally Sobol

It is no secret that most travelers crave the ability to speak multiple languages. Being able to communicate with people outside your mother tongue is no small task. Since I started traveling abroad when I was in High School, I have always wanted to be bilingual. When I graduated college, I was ready to move abroad again and knew it was a chance for me to reach a goal I’ve been wanting to accomplish for a long time: to learn Mandarin, Chinese.

When you tell people you can speak Chinese, their first reaction is “wow, isn’t learning Chinese really hard?” – of course it is! Studying any foreign language is not easy; otherwise we would all be able to do it! It takes a lot of dedication, persistence, and hard work to reach a point where conversation comes somewhat naturally in a foreign language. So – how did I do it?

1. Find a language buddy

Teaching at the university level in China definitely gave me an extra hand in learning Chinese. I had many students who wanted to meet with me outside of class to practice their English. As their teacher, I was happy to meet with them whenever they wanted to – but I quickly realized they were just as willing and happy to teach me Chinese, as I was to teach them English. One hour per week with several students – 30 minutes was spent speaking English and 30 minutes spent learning Chinese.

2. Get a tutor/enroll in a class

This is a give-in! It is fairly inexpensive in China to enroll in a local university or get a private tutor to learn the language. You can find a tutor or class to cater to your level, and get more professional instruction. This is the way for you to learn how to read and write if you want to – that is not something that comes without practice, practice, practice.

3. Go shopping, even if you don’t need anything

This is personally my favorite way to study! While living in China, I would go to the wet market (where you buy your fresh vegetables every week), and the same fruit stand every week to practice my Chinese. The benefit of this is two-fold. I could practice my skills in an every day setting, which was incredible, but I also got to know some of the locals, and they got to know me! When you buy apples and oranges from the same woman each week (and you are a white girl speaking Chinese), she definitely remembers you every time you go!  

4. Involve your students

You have to be careful with this, but if you do it the right way, it can be really beneficial! Always remember, Teaching English is the reason you are living abroad, so that is your main priority. To make your students feel more comfortable, there is no harm in throwing in a little of their language here and there, as long as it is done properly! If they are having a hard time with a word, sentence, or topic  - ask one of your star students to translate for you. This way, the students that are struggling a little can understand, and you can learn some new vocabulary. 

5. Speak every chance you get

Taxi drivers, nail techs, waiters, baristas, or even the person standing next to you on the bus are all your teachers – they might need a little push, but there is always an opportunity to speak the native language when you are living abroad. Start a conversation with every local you can, and don’t be afraid to be wrong, as you will make mistakes. Ask people to correct you (whether they do or not is up in the air), but practice every chance you get.

After two years of studying Mandarin in China full time, I am still not fluent in the language, and I truly don’t know if I will ever be. I am very proud of how far I have come so far, and my studies have not stopped just because I am living back in the United States now. There are Chinese TV shows I watch, people I can talk to in the U.S., and books I can read to keep my skills up. Learning a language is not easy to do, but there are opportunities to learn around every corner, you just have to know where to look! Good luck, 加油!

- Ally Sobol, TEFL Manager