Learn Chinese in China – what are the options?

In my last post I talked about how to avoid the expat bubble when you arrive in China. In this post I’d like to talk about the different learning options available.

No matter which of the below you choose, success will only come to those who follow a few basic principles.

  1. You have to talk.
  2. You have to study.
  3. You have to smile.

You have to speak a language to learn a language. Speak from day one. Do it wrong, get corrected, get better. Don’t worry about looking foolish, worry about getting better. If you don’t speak, you’ll never learn anything.

All the hacks and neural cheat codes in the world won’t replace hard work. At some point you’re going to have to sit down and study. It’s hard, it’s boring, and it’s unavoidable. Hacks can make you more efficient, they can make studying more fun, but they’ll never replace hard work.

To (mis)quote Tim Ferriss: “The mediocre method you stick to beats the perfect system you don’t.” I’ve outlined the below options so that you can pick the one which will suit your individual needs best. Be honest, don’t pick something that will make you miserable. You won’t stick it out. And there’s evidence to suggest that unhappy people are less effective learners.

To that end, read all of the options, and imagine yourself in each situation. Where can you balance happiness and hard work?

Studying while working

Working full time is a very tempting option for many foreigners interested in coming to China. You can get yourself a relatively low stress job, and study in your free time. Once you’re in the country, you’ll pick up the language. You can even save some money while you’re at it!

If financing your trip to China is at all a concern, then this should be the first option you look into. The easiest job to get is as an ESL teacher. As China becomes wealthier there is more and more demand for native English speakers. To work in the ESL industry in China, you need to:

  1. Be a native English speaker, or have a university degree from an English speaking country.
  2. Have a Bachelors Degree.
  3. Have a clean criminal record.
  4. Be of sound body and mind.

There are a range of different options when it comes to employment, some more involved than others. Kindergartens and Universities are best if you want more free time to study. Bilingual, and international schools pay the best. Training centers have the most hours, but the best teacher training.

If English is not your first language.

It is simply harder to find legal work. Many non-native English speakers teach in schools anyway, albeit illegally. Others work in the service industry or as entertainers.

People from a business background, or with an entrepreneurial personality, have an advantage here. Your best option is to start your own business, or try to be sent over by a foreign company with offices in China.


As China tries to open up to the world, there is a great effort to encourage international students to study here. There are many scholarships available, across a whole range of courses.

The standard of education varies greatly, you have to do your research before picking a school. The safest option is to go to one of the better known universities in Beijing or Shanghai. Even then, I would advise you to track down some former students and ask them what the course was like.

How to find scholarships?

I’ve suggested this website to people before. It’s got an extensive catalogue of schools and scholarships. The ratings system is not entirely accurate; always contact current and former students before making a decision. This is especially true if you’re planning to take a non-language course.

A quick note on studying a non-language course. It sounds great on paper, get an MBA in China and you’ll just pick up the language. The reality is different. Most of the full time students I’ve met do no better than full time employees. They fall into all the same traps. If you want to learn the language, you have to study the language.

If you’re a university student right now, check to see if your school has an exchange program. You might not get to choose where you’re sent, but it’s still worth looking into.

If you’re planning on becoming a Chinese teacher, the Confucius Center is looking for you. There are bursaries and scholarships which are open exclusively to people with HSK3 and above. I’m considering taking this route myself.

Residential Language Schools

I’ve lived in two of these schools, one in Hainan and one in Yunnan. One for a month, and one for several months. Needless to say, they were very different experiences.

To avoid frustration, be aware of what you want from the school. Pick the school that suits your needs, as opposed to trying to negotiate a different approach on arrival.

Please note that I only took one course in each school. They both offer a wide variety of courses, your experience might be different to mine.

 Hainan PLS

I spent a little over 6 months living in Haikou, at Hainan PLS. It’s a good school, very friendly atmosphere, and I’m still in contact with the owners on WeChat. With their help, I passed HSK3 in Hainan.


Nobody goes to Hainan to work hard. It’s a tropical island. There’s fresh coconuts and sea food to be had. Haikou is not as hot as Sanya, but for a day-walker like me it’s still a bit much.

The school itself has been in operation for years, and is located in an old villa. It’s run by William and Sharon, who live next door. The rooms are big, and you can eat on campus.  It’s a very homey school. Many students choose to stay there for extended periods.

I had a great time in Hainan, but I didn’t work as hard as I could have. That being said, you can study for longer in Hainan. It’s cheaper, and cleaner, than a lot of other places in China. The quality of life is excellent, clear blue skies every day. I made a lot of good friends there. Of all the places I’ve been, Hainan had the happiest expats.

Keats School Yunnan


I only spent one month here. Six hours of class a day, plus homework. One on one, so there’s nowhere to hide. I was exhausted by the end, but I learned a lot.

Keats suited the mentality I was in at the time, I just wanted to work on my Chinese. Everything else was secondary. I didn’t have a lot of time off work, so I needed to make the most of it.

I only left the school once or twice. Didn’t venture into the beautiful Yunnan countryside. Didn’t even use the free gym membership that Keats’ students are entitled to*. I consciously avoided anyone who spoke English, which was kind of lonely at times.

But it was what I wanted. I was there to study.

For ‘fun’ I took an extra class. I took a few cooking classes on campus, which were actually really good. I would recommend the cooking course if you’re thinking about going to Keats’.

My room was quite small, monastic even. There’s a bed, a desk, a mini-fridge, and a mini TV. It was fine for a short stay, but if I was studying there for longer I think it would be a bit claustrophobic.

Food is provided on campus, and it’s pretty good, so you never need to go out into the world. Some people find Yunnan food to be very spicy. The food on campus is a little easier on Western palettes.

These are just two examples

There’s Chinese schools to sort all levels, and needs. Look around to find the best option.


When coming to China, the first thing you need to consider is what kind of visa you are going to get. To do so you’ll need to select one of the above options.

But showing up to class and being a good student are two different things. No matter what choice you make, you have to put in the work. And do it with a smile.

*Ok, I went once, just to look around.

2 thoughts on “Learn Chinese in China – what are the options?”

  1. I learn from this post that opportunities lie in China and how to get there is well captured in your post.
    Your hard work to achieve your goal is inspiring too. If you made it I possible can too.
    Keep inspiring and informing us.

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