PWD Register

This section provides some basic advice on two issues likely to be of pressing interest to the expat resident: finding a school for your children, and learning Chinese as an adult.

Schools in China
Coming to China with school-age children presents parents with some dilemmas, and how hard those dilemmas are to resolve depends on two things: (a) the resources you have at your disposal, and (b) the kind of education you want for your children and what you want them to take away from the experience of living in China.

Taking the second of these issues first, if your priority for your children is an education that blends as seamlessly as possible with their previous schooling and prepares them well for further studies back home, then you need to go shopping in the booming international schools market in China. Most of the significant cities in China have at least one international school, and the larger metropolises offer a wide range of choices. lists schools for each of the 41 cities on our site. Just go to the ’’Expat Life’’ section of your city and click on ’’Education and Training.’’ International schools are listed as a subset of ’’Schools and Universities.’’

International schools are not cheap. In Beijing, USD 15,000 per year is a ballpark figure, with higher costs for older children and posher schools. And that’s before uniforms, materials, extra tuition, meals etc. If you are fortunate enough for money not to be a significant consideration, then other issues will drive your choice of school:

Curriculum / methodology: In the larger cities, you can expect a good range of curriculum options. In Beijing and Shanghai, you will find international schools that mirror British, American, Australian, French and German curricula, as well as a slew of institutions offering the respected International Baccalaureate (IB). And if you’re a devotee of the Montessori approach, you’ll love China, where it’s hard to find an international school that doesn’t at least nod to the Method.
Entry requirements: Competition is fierce for the more selective schools, and possible hurdles include an entry exam plus personal interview.
Location: Not an issue in smaller cities, but it most definitely is in Beijing, where distance can be the decisive factor because of the capital’s sprawling topography.

Some parents take a slightly different approach in choosing a school. They want to expose their child to the challenge of acquiring fluency in Chinese, and are realistic enough to know that this won’t happen in an international school where the curriculum is in English, and Chinese is an academic option of a few hours a week. For these families (and for cash-strapped parents who can’t afford an international school), the option of enrolment in a Chinese school arises.

Chinese public schools are permitted by law to accept the children of resident foreigners, but not all of them will be thrilled at the prospect. There are quite a few, though, with a track record in international enrolments, and you should be able to find at least one in your city. Generally, a Chinese school is a more affordable option than an international school, although some of the schools that take in foreign students make a tidy profit out of it: two years ago, Fangcaodi in Beijing boosted their annual fees for international students from RMB 14,000 to RMB 48,000.

Putting a child into a Chinese school isn’t a step to take lightly. If the child has no facility in Chinese but is very young when (s)he enters the school, (s)he should adapt successfully, but the path gets steeper with each year of age. You will need to support the child through a stressful period of adjustment, and be aware that Chinese schools are much more demanding than their international counterparts in terms of exams and homework. In addition, class sizes are big, so individualized instruction is pretty limited. Because of the peculiar difficulties of the Chinese language, acquiring literacy chews up a bigger part of the curriculum than it does in the West, and if your child’s Chinese is behind the rest of the student body, (s)he may be put in an age-inappropriate class to catch up. If there is someone at home who can provide language support, the child will probably be able to make the leap, especially if (s)he is resourceful, adaptable and makes friends easily. Only you can judge whether your family offers the right environment for this kind of educational experience - and the rewards that can go with it.

Chinese Language Learning
If you’re considering studying Chinese full-time in a university or language institute, you should probably budget around RMB 40-50,000 all up (tuition plus accommodation and the rest). The figure will come in a bit lower in smaller cities, while you won’t get much change out of RMB 50,000 in Beijing.

If you’re trying to narrow your choice of cities, it may make some sense to plump for northeast China, where the language on the street is closer to the putonghua (standard Mandarin) you’ll be learning in the classroom. But don’t get too hung up on the issue: these days, with mass communication and high levels of education, you’ll find plenty of conversation partners wherever you go.

Beijing is the epicenter, of course, as putonghua is the formalized version of the Beijing dialect, and the capital is home to the most respected university language courses in the country. Check out Beijing Language and Culture University, Beijing Normal University, Peking University, Renmin University of China and Tsinghua University.

Among the disadvantages of Beijing are (a) its enormous size (which is a plus if urban funk is what you like) and (b) the many, many temptations and opportunities to lapse into English.

If you want to take a more monastic approach to learning Chinese, consider one of the smaller cities, where you can board with a Chinese family and the opportunities for English after hours are fewer. Some popular cities in the ’’putonghua zone’’ include Dalian, Xi’an and Tianjin. The people of Hangzhou speak a southern dialect, but life there is extremely pleasant, and you won’t lack language partners. Chengdu is another delightful city with excellent learning environments, even though the Sichuan dialect can be a challenge!

If you’re not here to study full-time but are determined to work on your Chinese while getting on with the business of work and life, you can make good progress, but it takes focus and dedication.

Let’s start with a hard truth. Your Chinese will get as good as it needs to, then slow down dramatically. Getting beyond this dreaded plateau takes concentrated, daily effort. If you’re not in a situation where you have to speak Chinese for hours a day (as you would be if you’re in a relationship with a Chinese person, or boarding with a Chinese family), you need to create a language-learning environment for yourself. Don’t kid yourself you’ll absorb Chinese by osmosis: that’s a one-way ticket to the plateau. This is true of any language, although Chinese offers special degrees of difficulty (see ’’The Challenges of Chinese’’ in our Learning Chinese section).

If you’re serious about improving your Chinese, you need a plan. For a breezy, inspiring approach to the problem, try It’s not a course, but a set of powerful common-sense strategies for turning your everyday life into a tool for learning Chinese.

Here’s a fundamental question: should you enroll in a school? The Chinese language-teaching scene has exploded in recent years (along with everything else) and there is a bewildering array of choices out there. There’s no simple answer to the school/no school question, because what works for you is the right solution. So first let’s look at the no-school option, and why it makes sense for some people.

With the no-school route, you become the teacher, and you hire an assistant. Choose a native Chinese speaker (naturally) who has excellent putonghua and good English. The latter is important because time is precious: you want to minimize the amount of time you spend explaining distinctions. If at all possible, you need someone who isn’t a professional language teacher and doesn’t want to impose a method on you. (S)he’s your guide and informant: the teacher is you, and you decide what you learn and when and how you learn it. You plan the lessons, drawing on everyday life for material. Carry a notebook on the street and jot down each situation that stumps you. Or anticipate scenes you know you’re heading into, and gather the language you’re going to need to get through it. Life is the curriculum! In your sessions with your assistant, take careful notes, then transcribe them into a lesson book.

Advantages of the method:
• No more irrelevant dialogues and vocab. Everything you learn is, by definition, something you need to know.
• You move at the right pace - your pace!
• Your lesson book becomes your most valuable textbook.

• You don’t have the camaraderie and mutual support of the classroom
• You don’t get the ready-made review and reinforcement of a school textbook. If you don’t use one, you need to build review into your own study plans.

Of course, the school/no-school approaches aren’t mutually exclusive: if you have the time and the money, you can use both approaches in parallel very effectively.

If you go out to choose a private (non-university) school, be aware that language trainers are operating in a seller’s market in China, so a depressing number of them offer a poor product and get away with it. Here are a few tips about choosing a school:

Shop around: Personal recommendation is the best advertisement. If your own networks don’t deliver, have a look at , which has a wide range of forums on learning Chinese, including one devoted to schools and universities in China
Take a test drive: Any decent school should allow you to audit a class before you sign up. If they don’t, walk away.
Can I talk now?: A good language teacher is resourceful in the way (s)he gets students talking in the classroom. If you’re looking for a class that improves your spoken Chinese, and the lesson consists of 2 hours of teacher ’’chalk and talk,’’ this may not be the school for you.
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