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6 questions to ask when choosing a Chinese language school

By Daniel Nalesnik

You've decided to invest in yourself and take Mandarin Chinese classes. But with so many schools to choose from, where do you start?

Here are six questions that will help you spend your money wisely: 

  1. "Who are your teachers?"

    There are generally two types of teachers.

    Type I are native speakers who teach on the side to earn some income. They may not be formally trained and may be unable to provide clear learning outcomes. 

    Type II are those who have made teaching their career: they often have education certificates/credentials, teach full time (at a school or independently), and have years of experience helping students like you overcome learning obstacles.

    For almost everyone, finding a school with Type II teachers is worth the extra cost: it may mean the difference between being exposed to best practices to reach your goals quickly -- and feeling stuck for months on end, feeling like you aren't making any progress. 

    Who are Type I teachers useful for? Advanced students who are looking for supplementary conversation practice.  But, it is still worth finding a full-time career teacher if you're looking to advance. 
  2. "Who are your typical students?"

    Try to find a school that has experience supporting students with similar learning goals to your own.

    Typically, a school will focus on one or more demographic groups: children (up to age 12), adolescents (13-18 years), or adults. Some schools that cater to adults will also have a specialization like business/finance, law, or sports. But keep in mind: specialized Mandarin isn't as useful to a beginner as it is to a more advanced student -- and niche schools tend to charge more. In most situations, reaching HSK level 4 or 5 is a good goal to have before seeking specialized Mandarin training.

    As you'd expect, each group has its' own goals -- like passing a college entrance examination or being able to travel to China and hold basic conversations. Make sure your school has the right program for your needs -- and can show proof that their students have achieved their goals. 
  3. "How do you assess the level of your students?"

    This question is particularly important if you're considering a group class. If a class feels too easy,  you may not progress much. If a class feels too hard, you risk being frustrated and will find fewer opportunities to speak in class. (If you must choose between slightly too hard and slightly too easy -- choose the easier class and practice speaking as much as possible. Most students err on the side of learning too much while mastering too little.)

    In the context of language proficiency, terms like "intermediate" and "upper intermediate" are too broad and do not precisely reflect a student's capabilities -- yet they continue to be used because they are simple to understand.

    Which is why a quality language level assessment at the start is so important. Level assessments may be written or oral, or may just be a question about your past proficiency exam results. Ideally, all three will be considered.

    If a school doesn't assess your level, or simply asks you to identify your own level, this is a red flag. One exception is if this is your first exposure to Chinese and the school can identify you as a true beginner.  (If this is the case, make sure they have experience teaching beginners).
  4. "What curriculum does your school use?"

    You'll usually hear one of three answers:

    Great answer: "We use Some Textbook XYZ"

    High-quality textbooks systematically expand students' vocabulary and grammar and provide repeated exposure that will lead to a deep understanding of the most important concepts.

    "New Practical Chinese Reader" and "Integrated Chinese" are both excellent textbook series with updated editions after many years of feedback. For students hoping to take the HSK exam, the "HSK Standard Course" published by Hanban is also a great choice. 

    Suspicious answer: "We made our own curriculum"

    This response requires a little more digging.

    On one hand, it may indicate that the school has significant experience teaching students just like you (with goals similar to yours) so they created custom learning materials to help this type of student progress as quickly as possible.

    On the other hand, they may have created their own materials for other reasons -- perhaps so they do not need to purchase textbooks from a 3rd party, or so the school can have something they can require you to buy from them. If a school uses the same proprietary materials with all students, regardless of their goals -- it isn't a good sign. 

    Creating custom materials isn't necessarily a bad thing. However, you should have a clear understanding of the reasons for this and be cognizant of poor quality materials (of which there are a lot) -- and good resources (such as the textbooks mentioned above) -- as these make a huge difference to your chances of success.

    Bad answer: "We don't follow any particular curriculum, we just teach whatever you want each day."

    Learning Mandarin is serious business that you're investing your time and money on. Be cautious of any school that doesn't have a systematic plan to help you achieve your goals.

    A note on audio: Incredibly important (but often overlooked) is using the audio that accompanies your textbook.  This can be a CD or a link to downloadable audio files - but make sure the school can offer this to you.  Listening to audio from your textbook dialogues dozens of times is essential to reinforcing your mastery of Chinese -- and is a relatively easy, passive activity you can fit into your schedule.
  5. "What is your homework policy?"

    The reality is that one to two hours of class per week, with no practice in-between, is insufficient exposure for you to make much progress. Without homework, you are unlikely to progress beyond mild familiarity with Chinese, no matter how high the in-class teaching quality is. 

    Homework should focus on things you can do with high efficacy on your own. Here are some great homework options a school should give you:

    1. Learning vocabulary (with effective learning methods such as spaced repetition)
    2. Reading
    3. Watching TV/movies

    Exposure assignments (i.e. reading a book or watching TV) are good for building fluency with what you already know -- and not learning new stuff. As such, these assignments should be at (or below) your level. If you need to look up words or grammar every sentence or two, no one can blame you for becoming frustrated and quitting. 

    Writing assignments are also good. While you won't receive real-time feedback at home, consistently writing (or responding to prompts) every day is great for discovering gaps in your knowledge. Make sure everything you write is corrected by your teacher in school so you can learn from it!
  6. "Do you use spaced repetition?"

    Spaced repetition is a breakthrough learning method of the last decade. It enables you to dramatically expand your knowledge in the shortest possible time. It is very good for learning almost anything -- but outstanding for learning foreign languages.

    By exploding your vocabulary with spaced repetition you simultaneously supercharge all your subsequent practice with the language, whether it's in class, with a tutor, reading, watching TV, or anything else.

    Spaced repetition is so famous for a reason: results. If a language school isn't familiar with spaced repetition (or doesn't advocate using it as you learn with them), it is worth exploring why!

One last tip: Ask for a trial class, even if you have to pay for it. Every school will promise that their teachers are the best, their methods are the fastest, and their students see the best results. It is reasonable to request that they prove it before you buy a month, semester, or year of classes.