People often ask me where the best place to study Chinese is.
After 15 years in Asia, and 10 years studying Chinese in schools all over Asia here is my feedback.
Where we should study Chinese unfortunately does not have a silver bullet answer. No matter where you choose there will be some big compromises and some of those compromises may actually get in the way of you learning the language.
So First things first What do I mean when I say Chinese? I want to clear up a misconception straight out of the gate. I have lived in Asia for 15 years and have been studying Chinese the whole time either formally or on my own. And everywhere in Asia when I say I can speak Chinese everyone knows that I am talking about Mandarin. It is only in western countries that people are confused about what Chinese is. Certainly there are a ton of dialects in China and the surrounding areas and many of these dialects can be written with regular old Chinese characters but they sound completely different. And in today's world there is really only one Chinese that matters and that of course is Mandarin. The next most popular dialect is Cantonese. Even though Cantonese is widely spoken especially in the south and around Hong Kong it is not really much use because most business people that you meet that grew up speaking Cantonese also grew up speaking English so you don't need to spend ten years learning a language that you will basically never need. If you grew up with Cantonese parents then by all means learn to speak it. But the other thing about Cantonese is that it is tonally much more complex than Mandarin so it is that much harder to learn and again you won't ever need it. Additionally for clarity in my travels around Asia and China I have met exactly one western guy that had a good grasp of both Mandarin and Cantonese, but I have met tons and tons of westerners that have learned to speak Mandarin quite well.
Your Home Country
Moving along, Should you study Chinese in your home country, Yes, of course, but please don't expect to gain much ability and expect to be misunderstood by any native speakers with even the most rudimentary words for a long time. Chinese is thick and so very different from western languages, sure everyone knows or assumes that already. So I am suggesting yes, go to college Chinese classes and learn pinyin and some rudimentary tone work as a preliminary mental investment before you go study Chinese abroad. More is certainly better and the earlier you start the better and if you find a good teacher you might even make some headway but don't expect that to be the norm. When I say a good teacher let me give you an example. If you have a teacher that regularly in your first year tells you you are doing well, you need a new teacher. You are going to be terrible in your first year and a good teacher will be sure and tell you that fact frequently while giving you praise on very small and very specific aspects of your learning. In China the teachers are very very strict and are really hard on the kids. It doesn't work otherwise. I can assure you that nicer systems of teaching have been tried. It's not the way to do it. You suck and you sound like a retard but keep trying. That is good teaching in my opinion.
Now, before I get into the actual best of the worst I want to touch on studying Mandarin in Taipei and elsewhere in Taiwan. First thing to know is that Taiwan is really nice and modern and they enjoy the full scope of the internet with almost no censorship. You can google your brains out in Taiwan and their 4G is top notch. But all of those things can also be said of lots of places. This does not mean that studying Chinese in Taiwan is a good idea. I spent some years studying in Taiwan and would call myself somewhat of an expert on the teaching systems they have available in Taiwan. The short form answer to how is studying in Taiwan, basically terrible. The system that they use to teach is antiquated, the Chinese they use is antiquated and when you spend some time studying in Taiwan and start getting a good handle on spoken Chinese then you bounce over to Mainland China you are in for a rude awakening. The spoken Chinese on the mainland is quite different, the colloquialisms, the tonality, the grammar, it's all different. You will be able to make yourself understood but most people will either openly or behind your back laugh at your silly and *girly Chinese. Further to that if you took the time as I did to study traditional characters which are the mainstay in Taiwan and then you go to China or anywhere else in the Chinese speaking world you will have to relearn and forget 35% of all the characters that you painstakingly memorized.
Which brings me to my next point. Lot's of people have said to me that they don't care about the writing and just want to focus on pinyin and the speaking. All of those people failed to learn Chinese in a meaningful or practical fashion. If you don't study the writing you won't get very far for the same reason that you won't get very far trying to learn any language without the written aspect. Your brain has been fundamentally trained from your first days on earth to associate a written system with the spoken words you use. Remove the writing and you hamstring yourself in being able to learn. All of the most successful people I have met over the years, the ones who speak the best Chinese and as a result make more success come from everything else they do in the Chinese world all learned the script. And additionally everyone that I know that started with Traditional characters eventually gave up on them because outside of Taiwan they are completely useless. Anyone in China that I ever messaged with could read Traditional but thought they were a silly waste, so you are not impressing anyone by typing in an antiquated script. Further to that everyone in Taiwan can read simplified character so if you were to go to Taiwan to study you could study simplified and use it every day and although Taiwanese people would complain about how ugly the simplified characters are no one will not be able to read them. I could actually go on at nauseam about what a horrible place Taiwan is for the study of Chinese but I will stop here. If you want to know more of my thoughts on the issue please email me.
OK, onward and upward. Let's talk Beijing. In a nutshell all of the most successful students I met were in Beijing. As a place to study Beijing is in fact the most serious place to study Chinese, for a bunch of reasons. Beijing is big and has over 23 million people and has been the center of the universe for teaching Mandarin for centuries. No joke, centuries. As a result they have some really great systems for learning it and the teaching of it is built into the local culture. If you mispronounce something in Beijing it is highly likely that people around you will correct you. This will not happen in a lot of other places. Also there are tons of schools in Beijing so there is a lot of competition so the teachers are usually good and the materials used are also good. In Beijing if you go on the subway or out to a restaurant and you want to listen to the table beside you they will be speaking Mandarin because Mandarin is the local dialect in Beijing and all the surrounding area. This cannot be said for a lot of places and is a great addition to the immersion of studying Chinese. If you are in South China or in Taiwan the table next to you will likely not be speaking Mandarin and so that is another reason why those places aren't great. Additionally you will meet lots of foreigners in Beijing that speak really good Chinese and that will give you strength to continue and those people that have studied longer than you can give you lots of good study tips. Now we get to the bad part. Is Beijing a good place to study Chinese, yes, absolutely, probably the best place. But, having said that there are of course compromises. Beijing is a big city with tons of things to do and tons of places to go and so many people to meet. It's a big city and full of fun but it is also full of nasty pollution. At the best of times the sky is blue and the air is clear and fresh and you could be forgiven for thinking Beijing isn't a pit of hell. But those times are few and far between and usually only last for a few weeks in the spring and in the fall. Most of summer is eye bleedingly polluted and you will feel as if you had smoked a pack of cigarettes everyday even though you don't smoke and in the winter the air will be so choked with smoke that you will be coughing up blood and your eyes will swell up and possibly bleed and you will put on a stupid paper face mask in the hopes that it is somehow helping, it isn't.... Ventilators work and are actually coming into fashion as people in China become aware of the actual effects of the polluted air on their longevity. OK, so how bad could it be, i mean if 23 million people live there, it can’t be that bad. Well please ask everyone that has ever been there. It is in fact that bad. Eye bleedingly bad. Most people don’t have a choice because their lives are tied to the Beijing economy. Lot’s of people move to Beijing because they can make better money than in most other Chinese cities or have an idea for a business and Beijing is one of the best places to start a new business. So they just can’t leave. Now we get to the other issue, Internet. Yup, this is China. There is no google and that is no small deal. You don’t really understand how different the internet is in China until you go there. Every single thing that has ever been touched by google is banned in China. You cannot use any google services and you cannot use any services that use any google code on their website or on their server. You really can’t get an idea of how much of the internet that is until you go to China. The internet there absolutely sucks, maps suck, online file transfer, online document editing. All the stuff that you use every day basically doesn't work in China. Oh, no big deal I’ll just run a VPN and bingo bongo it’s all good. No, That was true for years but the Chinese government is past that now. I have 3 vpns and 2 of them are paid top notch services and I still can’t use google maps, or google search or or gmail….. The government's tech is better than yours. Life without the internet is a big big compromise. Life without Facebook is actually way better than having it because instead of a fragmented system of pay to play and pay to deliver information that is designed to be exclusionary, you get magazines like Shanghaiist and the Beijinger which deliver all the best information to everyone without exception which mean you are automatically included in everything and as a result the parties are bigger and better and with a more diverse crowd.
What about Shanghai? It is basically just like Beijing but the schools aren’t as good and the teaching systems aren’t as good. But it’s a great city. Also you will meet more foreigners in Shanghai that don’t speak Chinese and more Chinese that speak English and this can get in the way of learning. But Shanghai is fun! It is however also eye bleedingly polluted just for slightly less of the time than Beijing. Winter is less cold but summer is wickedly hot. Last year was the hottest year on record and I had to leave mid August. One of the best things about Shanghai is its internationalness. You will meet tons of expats from all over the world here and there is tons of cool stuff happening all the time. But these are also things that can get in the way of learning because in Shanghai most of those expats don't speak Chinese. No matter if you decide on Shanghai or somewhere else you certainly have to stop in to Shanghai at some point because it is just straight up a wicked town. Spring, and Fall being the best times. And check out the Shanghaist while you're there and you'll quickly understand why I think FB is a useless waist of time.
What's great about XiAn is the accent. It is not as harsh as Beijing and not as soft and *girly as in the south. Also, Mandarin is the language on the street and there are some good schools here and it is cheaper than Beijing or Shanghai. Xian is not at all a bad choice and is in fact one of my favorite cities because although it is big it still has a somewhat towny vibe and the people are super friendly. Of coarse it is a super historic place bla bla bla if you're into that. But we're he to study and as a study town Xian is top notch but it still suffers the same issues as most places in China, no internet and plenty of pollution. It is a good place. As well, in Spring and Fall the weather is amazing and the air is clean and the nightlife is really good and diverse. The girls are also very friendly. But winter and summer have extremes of weather and pollution that are outside of my ability to be able to tolerate. Great people, great food, and great people and a very robust economy while at the same time being way more chill than BJ or Shanghai.
Singapore and Malaysia
Singapore is a great place to live and you will learn a little Chinese there but if you want to learn Chinese properly you need to be surrounded by it all day every day for 10 years. Singapore is fun and you can make lots of money there but not the best place to learn Chinese. Everyone in Singapore speaks English or "Singlish", as they like to say. Most everyone also speaks and reads Mandarin but you won't hear it on a daily basis and if you want immersion this is not the place.
Malaysia Has its pros and cons as well but their Chinese is a bit of a disaster. You will have to muddle through a pretty weird grammar set as well as a mix of Traditional and Simplified Characters. The accent in wide use in Malaysia is also super weird and Chinese people in China don't have much nice to say about it. It sounds like Americanized Chinese and lacks the tonality you will experience in the rest of the Chinese speaking world. As a result it sounds flat and if you go study there you might find it easier being as it lacks the hardest aspect of Chinese but if you walk into the rest of China after studying there no one is going to understand you because tonality is the most important thing in Chinese once you get past year 3. Yes, that last statement implies that Malaysian Chinese speakers sound like 3 year olds..... Sorry, it is what they say about it in China. Malaysia is beautiful and has tons of upside but I'm not a big fan as when faced with the many many many options for travel available in Asia, Malaysia only gets a 5.5.
The Fragrant Harbor as it directly translates from Chinese is not all that fragrant but certainly has it's charms. There is actually very little Chinese in Hong Kong. You will hear Tagalog on the street more frequently than Mandarin. Things are changing in HK as the education system switched back in 97 to teaching Mandarin and so now all the kids that have grown up in HK since then can all speak Mandarin, English and Cantonese. The first time I went to HK was in 2003 and all I heard was English and Cantonese. By 2010 it had changed to mostly English and Tagalog. Taxi drivers are mostly older so don't often speak a lot of Mandarin but when I walk into a bar or a coffee shop and start speaking to the service staff in Mandarin they are usually super surprised to hear a whitey speaking Mandarin because in Hong Kong you only need English. Nothing else is required so people that have come from broad to HK don't need to spend time learning Chinese of any kind and so don't. One of my best friends has lived in Hong Kong for 20 years and he can barely say NiHao. So as a place to study it just isn't rich enough in the immersive experience that is required to be able to make real headway with Chinese. The photo that I chose to represent this section is a picture from the door of a taxi in Hong Kong. In Chinese it says Dee Shir (的士 DiShi), which obviously means taxi but it only means taxi in Hong Kong. I chose this image because it to me demonstrates the difference between HK Chinese from the rest of Asia. They have a huge amount of colloquialisms in Hong Kong that may or may not be recognized in the rest of Asia and so it is again not a great place for foreigners to get introduced to Chinese because you're going to learn a bunch of things that are of no use outside of HK. I tried saying 的士 a bunch of times when I was in Shanghai and only people from that area of China had any idea what I was trying to say. In some cases I showed my Shanghai buddy the characters I was saying "的士" and he would say oh, "taxi", I thought that said "duh shir" as apposed to Dee Shir because he'd never been to HK and never heard the term but had seen an image with the characters on the side of a taxi on TV or whatever. same thing happens in the Airport in HK when you try to read the Chinese signs. They are all gibberish compared to everywhere else in China but the Hongers get it. Not super useful in my opinion.
So in the end there isn’t any one place that you can go to and study Chinese and be happy for 12 months and learn a shit ton. It’s a unicorn unfortunately. But that doesn’t mean you can’t make a good plan. Being equipped with the above information can help a lot in making a plan of attack. I really think the best coarse of action is to do 2 semesters of Pinyin in your home country and then go abroad to a bunch of different places and see what suits you best. China is big and has tons of great places.
By the end of 2 years bouncing between cities you will probably have found a couple places you like or a good job to spend the next 8 years of study. Make no mistake, Chinese is a ten year endeavor at minimum. But it is also a lot of fun and a really awesome language for a ton of reasons.
Enjoy the experience and I hope this is helpful.
* Girly Chinese of the south. This is not my description but in fact what northern Chinese people describe the southern accent as. Beijingers and Xian people especially love to call the Taiwan accent "Girly". Not my word. Totally theirs. The word in Chinese is niang "娘".