No matter how long or short your stay is in China, it is useful to learn a few key phases in Mandarin, the language spoken in Beijing.
China’s official language is Mandarin Chinese. A notoriously difficult language to learn, it has no set alphabet and instead uses characters which number approximately 50,000, although only 3,000 are commonly used. The Chinese are generally extremely patient and forgiving with Westerners struggling through Mandarin. Locals greatly appreciate any effort to learn their language, and speaking a few phrases is seen as a sign of respect and will help you interact and integrate with the locals.
Learning spoken Mandarin is made easier through the use of Pinyin, a phonetic system that uses the Roman alphabet to represent characters. It is still tricky to learn because it is a tonal language.
Each character is assigned one of four main tones in spoken form. As a general rule of thumb, if you can’t carry a tune, you won’t get far speaking Chinese. English is spoken in most central and expat neighbourhoods as well as popular tourist sites near the city centre.
However, while English is spoken, it may not be well understood and you will soon learn through experience to enunciate well and speak slowly.
If you are going to be in Beijing only one year, learning the basic phrases will help you get around, order at a restaurant, or negotiate the price at a local market. If you are going to be in Beijing longer, taking the opportunity to learn spoken Chinese will only ease assimilation and make your time in Beijing more enjoyable.
The British School of Beijing, Shunyi integrates Chinese language studies for all our students that are not enrolled in English as an Additional Language (EAL). Students are assessed at the beginning of the year and placed into one of four groups of study with other students of similar ability. For some long term residents it is not uncommon to see red hair, blue-eyed pupils studying in the Advanced group.
Our school's Admissions team can provide you with more advice on starting Mandarin lessons. We recommend the following websites as a starting point: