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Studying Mandarin in Shanghai: A guide to Chinese language schools

Shanghai is not a very popular place to study Mandarin Chinese. That's because most Shanghainese folk don't speak standard Mandarin all that well. The local idiom, the Shanghai dialect, is as different from Mandarin as is Cantonese, with a pronunciation, grammar, and vocabulary uniquely its own, not really spoken outside of Shanghai. Nonetheless, youngsters here are taught in Mandarin, and most Shanghainese are "bilingual," although they prefer to speak in the Shanghai dialect and their Mandarin is filtered through a distinct Shanghai accent. If you're coming to China purely for the sake of learning Mandarin, opt instead for classical centers of learning like Beijing or Nanjing. Many people, however, come to China for purposes beside or beyond language study. Expatriates working in Shanghai commonly feel inclined to take a few courses on the side, and even students of Mandarin often consider linguistic purity a small price to pay for living in China's most exciting metropolis.

The difficulty of mastering Chinese is often exaggerated: since antiquity, the bias of early traders created a perception, still widespread in the Western world, that the Chinese language is a bizarre gibberish unintelligible to the civilized ear. In fact, spoken Mandarin is no more or less challenging than any other foreign language. While tones and other pronunciation subtleties pose an early speed-bump, once they are mastered Chinese learning is relatively easy. Chinese verbs have no tenses or conjugations, and sentence structure is simple and straightforward, so students can focus on accumulation of vocabulary.

Writing Chinese, is quite another matter, although in this aspect, again, the difficulty level is overblown. Chinese characters evolved from their pictographic origins over a span of some four thousand years into their current appearance. China came close to abolishing characters in the 1950s in favor of a romanized script. Unfortunately for the lazy language student but fortunately for the country's culture, these plans were not enforced. Instead, most characters were transmuted into simpler characters with fewer brush strokes, significantly lowering the difficulty of memorization and raising China's literacy rate. These simplified characters, or jiantizi, are used today in Mainland China and Singapore, while the old traditional characters, or fantizi, continue to prevail in Taiwan and Hong Kong. Most Chinese characters are comprised of two components: a radical on the left often signifies category of general meaning (such as wood, water, metal, or humanity), and the right part gives some clue as to the sound the character makes. After learning about 2000 of the most commonly used characters, you'll be able to read simple things and comprehend general if not detailed meaning, and unfamiliar characters can be deciphered through their components.


Fudan University
Founded in 1905, Fudan figures among the best reputed and most respected universities in China. It's Shanghai's answer to Beijing University. Fudan offers courses in the humanities, social sciences, natural sciences, technological sciences, and management sciences. The first school in Shanghai to accept foreign students, Fudan remains the leader in Shanghai's study abroad options, with the largest number of students and most active campus life. Along with language courses, students can select from a wide range of offerings in Chinese culture and literature.

Each class has fifteen students, who must hold a high school diploma and be under 50 years of age. Application fee is US$50, and each semester costs US$1250. Short-term classes in Mandarin and on cultural topics such as Chinese painting, Peking Opera, folk music, and Taiji are offered as well. A short-term program teaching the Shanghai dialect is also available. Short term courses cost US$300 for two weeks, US$350 for three weeks, US$400 for four weeks, and US$90 for each additional week.

Tongji University
Joining Fudan among Shanghai's most prestigious universities, and also located in the northern University District, Tongji specializes in civil engineering and architecture, but also offers language courses.

East China Normal University
Another school with a huge foreign student population, East China Normal University (or Huashi Da, as it's better known) offers programs in Chinese language and culture. A number of the foreign students here are enrolled in technical and humanities programs. Masters and PhD programs are also available. The school is a prestigious teachers' college, with a large and lovely campus, and is located closer to the town than any of the other leading universities. The school's Webpage includes a full introduction to their 42 undergraduate and 97 graduate programs open to foreign students.

Shanghai University
Shanghai University is actually a wide network of campuses offering a vast array of different disciplines, including sciences, foreign languages, and the arts.

Jiaotong University
Conveniently located near Xujiahui, with a beautiful and historic campus, Jiaotong University focuses on subjects of science and engineering. For language students, short-term and long-term programs are available. The former range from two weeks to six months and focus on oral skills. Long-term programs range from one to two years, costing US$2000 a year, and teach conversation and writing at the beginning and intermediate levels. Apart from language studies, Jiaotong offers Bachelors, Masters, and Doctorate programs in various technical subjects.

International Studies University
SISU's College of International Cultural Exchange offers a four-year program in business Chinese and another English-Chinese program. Short-term courses are also available.