6 things you need to know before going to China for study

I can only speak from my experience at SHISU back in 2017.

  1. Your teacher will not necessarily speak English

If your university told you that your classes will be in English, they are probably lying to you because they do not know any better! If you start mandarin from scratch in China your teacher will speak English but if you start a level up your teacher will teach the whole class in Mando!

Is this totally annoying and inconvenient? Yep. Now that I have warned you, you will be prepared to have everything explained to you in Mandarin while using a blackboard. But do know this, the textbooks are translated to English!

Why don’t the teachers speak English? I went to SHISU which attracts many international students. I started in 初二 – beginner two level where I had an amazing diverse class but unfortunately, we did segregate into our nationalities or cultures. One third of the class was non-asian so we had Italian, kazakstan, morocco, and myself, an aussie on one side of the class. The rest of the class was Thai, Japanese, Korean, and Vietnamese. We did mix and talk during and outside of class but the desk mates were generally of a similar culture. I was the only native English speaker in the class, however quite a few people spoke fluent English in the class so I was relieved I could make some friends as English was the only language I could hold a conversation in, although the Italian, Marta (I love this name!) in my class was very impressed I could list many animals and colours in Italian. It was quite funny.

A few people in the class didn’t speak any or very little English so of course they need to teach it in Chinese, it helps with your understanding anyway. We had two people from kazakstan, one of which spoke fluent English and the other not a single word. By the end of the semester he could say hello, how are you, etc. which was nice but we tried to communicate in Chinese instead. During class there were times that he didn’t understand what was being said in class so the teacher would stop and the woman from kazakstan would explain it in their language.

Non-english speakers had to work twice as hard because they would translate the whole two chapters into their own language before each week.

I was very fortunate to have a lovely desk mate from Morocco who was able to translate things to me in English when I did not understand. Sometimes the teacher would also tell me things in English because I was too stupid to understand! But, just because my teachers knew English, doesn’t mean yours will!

I would strongly recommend learning the grammar before each lesson because you may struggle to understand if it is told to you in mandarin. I would also suggest previewing the new words which brings me to my next point.

My point is, don’t worry if your teacher doesn’t speak English, they need to cater to everyone and it will just push you to be better at mandarin. You will have nice people in your class that will help you, and if not, you need to knuckle down and study.

2. Placement tests are important!

I didn’t research university starting dates well enough, so I arrived too late to take the written test. Also, I didn’t even know we had to do the placement test that day! I thought there were two days you could do it but the first day was written, and the second was speaking. Look my home university wasn’t really helpful so they never told us these important dates and I did not research enough. I would recommend arriving 14 – 9 days before the start of the semester. Note you cannot arrive two weeks before the semester if you plan to convert your VISA into a temporary residency permit.

If you want an accurate placement I suggest that you receive a HSK level, however keep in mind that HSK is a standardised test so you should be learning vocab outside of what is required for the test to make sure you have a smooth transition into the classroom.

3. Class in China moves hella fast

In Australia we did half a book a semester. We are learning new chapters over two weeks and we are learning for 15 hours a week. In China it was very different. We learned for three hours each day, so still 15 hours, but we covered off two books in the one semester! We learned two chapters per week!

In order to retain the vocab you are learning I recommend purchasing graded readers – I just purchased my first one from kindle/ mandarin companion. Reading is the quickest way to revise previous vocab. It was only $8.

Link to a beginners’ book: https://mandarincompanion.com/products/emma/

4. Just because you did a heap more work in China, does not mean your home university will appreciate it.

And just an FYI to the people who think that this equates to more credit points, you may be wrong! Well depends on your home university. When I was returning I was refused to skip one level in year two Chinese and after discussion over email, I was requested to take a placement test to prove that I could skip it despite having studied four times as much and living in china for 5 months. After arriving I met with people at the student central who still said I wasn’t able to enroll in the class at all, even with a placement test so I brought my two Chinese textbooks and the textbook I had completed when I left Australia to show them the comparison. They didn’t care and said I had to have a meeting with the head of Chinese and the dean for my area of study. I showed the head of Chinese my textbooks to which she replied “Oh my, this Chinese is harder than our the third year Chinese course” and I rested my case! Hahaha. I was able to get into the next class and although I didn’t learn a single thing the whole semester and studied for other subjects during my mandarin class, I wasn’t allowed to skip the class and go to the next level. Oh well! I got an easy peasy HD that semester and probably only studied for one hour a week outside of class time. It took 10 weeks to get my credit points for my Chinese classes. Although I learned Chinese that was harder than third year, I did have to study a lot and pay attention in third year.

Now I say this, but do not make the same mistake as me. I absorbed maybe half of what I learned in China and because I wasn’t interested in my class in Australia, I essentially put my Chinese on pause. Instead, I should have reviewed the textbooks I was given in China to practice.

5. The textbooks are different … well duh!

Although I did university in Shanghai, we learned Beijing style, but it was still Putonghua. So, at the end of many words we had to say and write (er) 儿。The textbooks are very thorough so even though you covered a beginner textbook in your home country, you may go to the next level and find out you are missing some words (e.g. I didn’t know east, west, south, north). What I would recommend is finding out which of your friends are in the class below you and borrowing their textbook, going to the back where the entire vocabulary is listed and photo copy it, highlight the words you are unfamiliar with and bring it to class for a quick reference. I didn’t do this, I got out my phone and used pleco which did not impress the teacher! Eventually my Moroccan desk mate brought in his two previous textbooks for me to look at.

I had to cover a huge gap and struggled. I could have gone to one class below after two weeks because they do an additional placement test, but I had a look at the textbook and I knew the half of it so I decided that I would stay in the harder class, and although I struggled and most of the Asians in class had a giggle at me like every single day, I was better off learning more right?

This might have seemed like a good idea at the time but when it came to taking the tests I struggled and only got passes and credits. You need to decide what you are aiming for. Are you aiming for a high score or are you wanting to learn as much as you can? Do you want to use your transcript to apply for jobs? Passes and credits will not look so good. Come the end of exam time I was very nervous I was going to fail. This bring me to my next point.

6. Exams are different

If you get an exercise section photocopy it on the very first day at least once. This way you can answer the same questions again when it comes to studying mid semester and final semester exams.

I would suggest taking a practice HSK exam to show you the style they use in China. During my first test I was mainly confused on the sections and what to do, let alone answering the bloody questions!

The first part is always listening. 听力 sends shivers down my spine. In my opinion this is THE WORST part of the exam because it comes from a CD while one of the characters speaks at a reasonable pace – the character is foreign and then the other character comes on who is native Chinese and blah blha blahdie blah blha blah. He speaks so damn quick! What makes it worse is that you cannot see their mouths moving. I rely on watching Chinese people’s mouths and expressions to understand what they are saying. If you don’t do this – do it! I had a friend in third year mando who was shy, so she didn’t look at the teacher while she was speaking. I said oh no, you should look at her and it will help you to hear what she is saying, so she did and she thanked me and said it improved her listening ability so much.

You will have a part that tests your vocabulary and ability to write Chinese characters. Although I sucked at just about every other aspect of Chinese, this was my strength. In the first test, so many people in class failed this section and in the other parts instead of writing the characters, they used pinyin. This wasn’t allowed but the teacher made an exception so half the class wouldn’t fail. I thought this was unfair because it was the only part, I was good at lol.

My teacher said I had the best character writing skills in the class. *hair flip*. I just has the worst grammar abilities hahaha.

Then you will have reading comprehension which will test your understanding of grammar and synonyms. Usually you will pick true/false or ABCDE. 

Then you will have fill in the blank for grammar, and ABCDE for using the correct grammar point.

The last part is usually freestyle writing and your teacher will hopefully give you a hint to what the topic would be. It will ask for 500 characters. I suggest that once you think it is 500, count the lines across and down and multiply them, do not count every character – that would be a waste of time! I urge you to keep it simple, write characters you know 100% and make sure every dian is in its proper place. If you want to use a grammar point but are not 100% confident you’re using it correctly, don’t use it, one thing out of place will mean lost marks.

EXTRA HINT: make friends with people in the same level class as you but who have different teachers. Some teachers will give no hints. My teacher had us playing games two weeks before the games. I wrote down all the points and coincidentally all the points were in the exam! Other teachers will straight up tell you the exact grammar and chapter vocab you will need to know! So, my advice is ask around.

If I missed listing anything, or you have any questions, just comment below 😊

Published by sazcud

I went on exchange to China, Shanghai in 2017 and after sometime I am writing this blog in my reflection of travel, experiences and culture. I want this blog to help bridge a misunderstanding between two cultures, the East and the West, Australia, and China. I also want to provide informative posts about applying for scholarships and tips for living in Shanghai/ going on exchange. I plan to return to Shanghai International Studies University in Feb 2020. This time I want to travel to Chongqing, lijian, taiwan and hongkong to name a few! I am still adding more to my bucket list. Last time I traveled to chongming island, zhangjiajie, zhujiajiao water town, xi'an, yichang and beijing - which you will see blog posts about very soon!

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