First, I’d like to start off by wishing everyone a merry Christmas! What’s prompted me to write this is the fact that over the past few days, I’ve seen quite a few posts about learning Mandarin at university. However, the vast majority of them seemed to have an entirely negative outlook on it, and most criticism was focused on the lack of job prospects a degree in Mandarin appears to have, and not necessarily why the courses themselves were ineffective. Therefore, I’d like to write a comprehensive post regarding most of the factors you will need to consider when deciding whether or not to take Mandarin at college.
Firstly, there’s the professor. In most cases, they are a native Chinese speaker, but that’s no guarantee that they’re a professional educator, especially if you live in the United States. Do some research/looking around, see when some Chinese courses are being held, and ask the professor if you could drop in for one or two lectures if possible. During that time, look to see how much the professor engages the students. Are they dismissing the students’ questions, or are they actively calling on people to read/explain sections of text? Look into what textbook they’re using, how much they stay on track, and so on. I’d also heavily recommend interacting with some of the students, and asking their opinions on the program as a whole. They will be the ones most honest with you, particularly if they are taking intermediate or even advanced-level courses.
Secondly is to consider the students themselves. Do they feel comfortable with their reading and speaking abilities? Is the level/amount of homework suitable? Are they making a point to try and communicate with the professor in Chinese as much as possible? Or are they seeming to put in the bare minimum, and having to wait to be called upon when the professor opens the floor for answers? It may sound odd to analyze a specific set of students, but this can serve two extremely important purposes. Firstly, a student is the reflection of the learning environment a professor fosters. While I’m perfectly aware that not all students are as diligent/motivated as others, there should at least be a bottom line, particularly in the case of small-sized classes. If the vast majority of students aren’t engaging with the language outside of class, and aren’t making a point to actively participate in class, that should be your first red flag. Secondly, these very students may end up being your classmates next semester, because it is certainly possible to test into most of these intermediate/advanced-level courses with a bit of preparation. It’s important to remember that these students may be your classmates for the next few semesters. It’s up to you whether or not you want to surround yourself with them.
Thirdly, speaking of testing into courses, is the possibility of skipping some classes. This is 100% something you should consider doing. If you can find the books the professor uses to teach the class, and go through them cover-to-cover, you are very much likely to test out of at least one course. It also helps to be in regular contact with the professor. If they see a student who is diligent and committed to the language, they’d more than likely be willing to help you get into their upper level courses.
Additionally, there’s the structure of language learning classes as a whole. Several studies have found that, as a native English speaker, the approximate number of classroom hours needed to attain fluency in Mandarin Chinese is about 2200. Unless you have a time machine or lots and lots of money, it’s unreasonable to expect that you will attain fluency from taking these courses in isolation. In the best case, it will ensure that you have a strong foundational understanding of the language, an invigorated motivation to continue learning it, and a clear understanding of how you should continue doing so. In the worst case, you may even quit the language as a whole, because of poor instruction, a bombardment of homework, and a ruining of your motivation. If you want to benefit the most from your time at university, you must spend a significant amount of time with the language outside of lectures/assignments. Not everyone is able to make that investment, given that they may have a busy college schedule and/or a job to hold down.
Further, you need to consider that it’s more than possible to learn the language without attending university courses for it. It’s important to note that the aforementioned 2200 figure refers to hours of time spent in a traditional classroom setting. Realistically speaking, that number may be much, much lower if you aren’t held back by things like exams, homework, and classmates who may not be as dedicated as you are.
Finally, think about why you want to learn the language. Is it to better connect with the culture of a loved one? Is it because you really enjoy Chinese culture/shows? Or is it because Mandarin is becoming an important language in international commerce? When talking to a professor, be sure you communicate these goals to them, and have them explain how it is their plan of study will help you achieve what you desire. If the professor cannot give you a convincing answer, it may be in your best interest to find someone else that can, whether it’s a professor at another school, or even a private tutor.
I hope this post helps you make a better informed decision. Feel free to chime in with your experience as well.