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Learning Chinese as a Second Language (CSL)

written by: davidmakofsky • edited by: Rebecca Scudder • updated: 8/2/2012

Chinese language institutes now estimate that there are over 40 million people enrolled in a program to study Chinese every year. This article offers a review of some of the major options available for CSL, whether in a non-Chinese context or in China itself,

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    The number of Chinese as a Second Language (CSL) students is growing. As reported in China Daily, language experts say that over 40 million people are now studying Chinese as a second language, but next to people learning English as a Second Language, for example, this really represents very few people. Many more people know English as a Second Language (ESL) than as a native language. There are probably 900 million ESL speakers, whereas there are only 500-600 million English native language speakers. At this rate, there would need to be close to 2 billion foreigners learning Chinese, so right now Chinese is only at 2% of its potential if Chinese (CSL) were to approach English (ESL).

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    The Chinese Government response to the need for Chinese studies

    The Chinese Government has responded by opening Confucius Institutes. Some wonderful statistics can be cited. In 2004, a record 110,844 students from 178 countries had enrolled at Chinese universities, according to official Chinese newswire Xinhua. Reuters reported that this represented a 43% increase from 2003. In addition, more than 30 million people are currently studying Mandarin abroad, the newswire said.

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    The real problem with studying Chinese as a Second Language

    Opening institutes, of course, is a wonderful idea. As is usually the case with governments, there is a lot of official work, but this misses the problem dealing with actually learning Chinese. For people whose native language is a phonetic based system rather than a character based system, learning Chinese is a big problem. . This is emphasized by the fact that more than half of those studying Chinese are those from Korea and Japan, people whose native language is a character based system. Sources said that the number of foreigners who come to China to learn Chinese has risen by 35 percent each year since 1997, and most come from Japan, the Republic of Korea (ROK) and Southeast Asian countries.

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    Can Westerners use Chinese dictionaries?

    If a Westerner wants to learn Chinese, he or she can best learn through a language called "pinyin". Pinyin is a phonetic system that is considered a “romanization" of the Chinese language, and most of those who study CSL begin by learning pinyin. Even Chinese youngsters learn with pinyin since Chinese characters give no hint to their pronunciation. Mass literacy was not the goal of the ancient scholars.

    By teaching pinyin, students learn how to pronounce the characters. The learned pinyin characters and words can become a learning dictionary. There are some problems even with pinyin: The main disadvantage to romanization is that students often have preconceived ideas about the pronunciation of the Roman alphabet. For example, the Pinyin letter “q" has a “ch" sound, and it can take some effort to make this association.


    When the student graduates from a workbook vocabulary list to a dictionary, more problems are encountered. Part of the problem with using a dictionary is that sooner or later (usually sooner) the CSL student runs into a word that is not in their workbook. To improve vocabulary, we use dictionaries with characters, pinyin, and the native language of the student. Pinyin dictionaries are not organized in strictly alphabetical order. They are organized by Chinese character and then by alphabetical order. Ren, the basic character for “man" is followed in my dictionary by “rencai", a talented man and “renzhong", an ethnic group. Following this are the listings for “ren" representing benevolence and then ren’ai and so forth. If you do not know the characters, you will have trouble using the dictionary.

    There is no way to avoid learning characters if we want to learn Chinese.

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    Learning CSL by visiting China briefly

    There are a lot of ways to get started. One easy way is to take a class, and there are many advantages to that – you meet other learners, you get the advice of a teacher, casual conversational classes are available all over China, and there are private tutors who can help you. If you go to web sites designed to attract foreigners, such as Beijing Today or Beijing Stuff, you cannot fail to find Chinese people anxious to teach Chinese or simply to exchange lessons. English speakers can go to the English Corner at Renmin University on Friday night, and have a unique experience listening to Chinese people and meeting them. English Corner is free, people gather every Friday night, and many people are anxious to speak to an English speaker.

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    Learning CSL on line

    If you actually want to learn to speak and read Chinese, a systematic approach is needed. Chinese, for most Westerners, is not easy to just pick up without regular organized study. If you have access to a computer, there are many learning programs available. A good program will have a spoken voice accompanied by a script in pinyin and in characters, so that you can follow the text.. At the current time, major firms have entered the computer-based language learning field and included Chinese as one of the languages. The products are uniformly of a high quality. Rocket Language is one such firm, end there are others: Rosetta Stone, Power Glide, and Learn Any Language, to name a few. Prices vary considerably.

    China Pod is also an option. to consider. It is computer based, but very different from the others. China Pod is exclusively dedicated to learning the Chinese language. China Pod offers Podcasts, but they also offer distance access to teachers and to a community of learners. It offers groups, discussions, and exposure to Chinese culture. China Pod is a subscription service rather than a Cd-rom. The cost is $10-$30 per month and the speed of language learning is up to the student, so it is less expensive to get started..

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    Using workbooks and dictionaries

    There are standard Chinese language learning workbooks being sold, and also some interesting ones. Among the programmed learning books, one of the most widely used is Conversational Chinese 301, published by the Beijing Language and Culture University Press. This can be purchased right on Amazon by entering the name; the book is known worldwide.

    For English Language speakers wanting to learn Chinese a good book that is also a course and an interesting dictionary is Sinolingua, “500 Basic Chinese Characters." The text is extremely interesting, and it has a good dictionary with Chinese characters,-Pinyin, and English.. A dictionary with all three is the only kind of dictionary to buy if you want to learn Chinese as a beginner. One such dictionary is the Oxford University Commercial Press, a Concise English-Chinese, Chinese-English Dictionary. . One problem is the small print,– but why buy a dictionary that is too large and heavy to use, and why buy a dictionary that does not include the basics?

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    Some bookstores in Beijing

    If you happen to be located near a good bookstore, there is no trouble finding books. Beijing Foreign Studies University has an excellent bookstore dedicated to learning languages.. The Beijing Foreign Language Bookstore on Wangfujing Street is five stories full of books and dictionaries. If you like bookstores that are smaller and more comfortable, serving coffee and offering a relaxed atmosphere, there is Lush-Oxygen in Wudaoko right near the train station, or Bookworm on Sanlitun street in Chaoyang.

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    Studying CSL part time (in Beijing)

    Teaching English while studying Chinese is a staple for many Westerners in Beijing. There are many schools to learn Chinese. If you want to dedicate your self to CSL in a school environment, you probably need to go to school every day, or close to every day.. For those of you who are working or who simply cannot go to class for four hours every day, Diqiusun Language School (Global Village) is a very popular choice with Westerners. It is a Korean run school, and its website is in Korean, but the school attracts non-Chinese speakers from all over Beijing. The tuition is low and the student can pay for two weeks lessons at a time.. There are many classes at all levels, and the 80 minute classes begin at all reasonable hours of the day and evening. . If you feel the class is going too quickly for you, then you can simply switch to a lower class. The location is convenient in terms of transportation – the school is right across the street from the Wudaoko subway station, and there are plenty of buses that pass by this location.

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    Western online comments about CSL part time

    When you talk to Westerners, you often hear the following comments:

    I m only planning to study for one or two months, and I want a school with reasonable prices

    I work, or I have children to take care of, and I don’t have much time

    Commuting around Beijing is too difficult for me; if I go to school, I need one near where I live

    I simply did not realize when school started; is there anything I can do?

    One of the reasons why comments such as these are so common is that the Chinese government offers student visas only to specific schools and to students that meet specific conditions, and there are many who, for various reasons, want to study Chinese and cannot or have not met these requirements.

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    For those who can study Chinese full time (and get a visa)

    For those who can go to a four hour per day intensive language learning program, the most famous one in Beijing was pioneered through the Beijing :Language and Culture University.

    BCLU (Beiyu) is a Chinese Language Training School for foreigners in Beijing and it is also a training school for teachers of Chinese as a Second Language. There are now many schools like this, and they involve enrolling for school at a specific time of the year (usually August or February, but check the date). Because of the need for flexibility, some of these schools now offer language courses outside of the fixed schedule.