Where to learn Mandarin?

With the recent events of the husband of one couple who was deported from mainland China for five years while in the last stretch of language school, the following question has been proposed to me many times in some fashion: “Should future missionaries to China study the language in the mainland or should they study outside of the mainland and once finished they move to the mainland?” It is a good question to be considered!

(For the brief answer, just read the bolded parts.)

Note: This is common in missions, to study the language in a different place than you are going to start your ministry. It can be a different country, or it can be a different city.

I have thought about it awhile and given different answer at different times, but now I will attempt to explain my opinion. And it is just that, an opinion.


First, without considering the risk factor, let’s answer the question: “Where is the best place to learn Mandarin Chinese for those desiring to work in the mainland? I think that Northeast China is the best place to learn Mandarin Chinese for those who want to work in mainland China.

Here are a few reason:

  • It is known for having a standard accent.
  • You can easily accomplish full immersion.
  • There are not a lot of English speakers in comparison to other places.
  • Finding a school and language tutor is easy and cheap.
  • They use only simplified characters for reading and writing.

I also chose the Northeast because other parts of China are known for having non-standard accents and large pockets of minority groups that speak other dialects/languages than Mandarin Chinese.

Therefore, considering language learning only, I believe the best place, to learn Mandarin Chinese, is Northeast China (for those wanting to do missions in the mainland).


Second, let’s consider places outside of the mainland that are possibilities for future missionaries to move to and study. I will list the countries from worst to best and mainly just consider the ability to learn the language there and not anything else.

  • United States, Canada: Find highly populated areas of Chinese people to try to immerse yourself. Hire a language tutor and enroll in a language school through a culture center. I think this is the worst place to learn because full immersion is hard to come by if not impossible.
  • Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia: Same thing, find the highly populated areas of Chinese people to try to immerse yourself. Hire a language tutor and enroll in a language school. This is better because there is a higher density of Chinese people, but it still isn’t full immersion (that I know of).
  • Taiwan: This is the best place to learn Chinese outside of the mainland because, for the most part, everyone speaks Mandarin Chinese. Some older people might only speak Taiwanese, but you can easily be fully immersed in the language, find a language school and tutor. The main difference would be in accent and the use of traditional characters versus simplified characters.

So, yes, there is a place outside of mainland China that offers everything a person would need to learn Mandarin Chinese fully. Considering language learning only, I believe the best place, to learn Mandarin Chinese outside of the mainland, is Taiwan.


Third, let’s consider the risk factor. The risk factor is: the risk of being deported from China while in language school and before you have started your ministry. Obviously the risk of deportation is something every missionary to China must face, or no one would ever come to China. The part that is in question is: when is the best time to take the risk? In language school or after language school…that is the question!?!

We will start with the “after language school” option. This means that a missionary will find a place outside of China to learn the language and when he is finished learning the language (around two years or more), THEN he will move to mainland China to start his ministry.

Here are the pros:

  • You ARE guaranteed 100% to not be deported from mainland China.
  • You can gain a level of Chinese fluency if you choose the right location.
  • You DON’T have to live with the restrictions of the mainland.

With these pros also come the pros of the country you choose to move to, which would be different per location.

Here are the cons:

  • You are NOT serving in mainland China for a long period.
  • You WON’T learn the culture of the mainland while in language school.
  • You WON’T learn how to do ministry in the mainland while in language school nor learn to overcome the fear factor.
  • You WON’T gain a better level of Chinese fluency when considering accent, characters and “the way mainlanders talk”. You have to transition from traditional to simplified characters. You will spend time once you arrive in the mainland making these changes, of which, none of these are impossible; it is just an extra step.
  • You can be doing ministry as your language progresses, but this might be a deterrent to leaving that country and moving to the mainland.
  • You may never leave there and move to the mainland because you have setup life there for two or more years.

With these cons also come the cons of the country you choose to move to, which would be different per location.

Next is the “in language school” option. This means that a missionary will find a place inside of China to learn the language and when he is finished learning the language (around two years or more), THEN he will start his ministry.

Here are the pros:

  • You ARE serving in mainland China from the start.
  • You WILL learn the culture of the mainland while in language school.
  • You WILL learn how to do ministry in the mainland (a closed country) while in language school and learn to overcome the fear factor.
  • You WILL gain a better level of Chinese fluency when considering accent, characters and “the way mainlanders talk”. You will NOT have to transition from tradition to simplified characters. You will NOT spend time once you finish language school making these changes. You will NOT have an extra step.
  • You can gain a level of Chinese fluency if you choose the right location.

With these pros also come the pros of the city you choose to move to, which would be different per location.

Here are the cons:

  • You are NOT guaranteed 100% to not be deported from mainland China.
  • You DO have to live with the restrictions of the mainland.

With these cons also come the cons of the city you choose to move to, which would be different per location.

Adding in Other Factors:

The “convenience of life factor” (depending on location) can also be seen in two lights. First, the positive: Moving to a nice country outside of China helps the missionary to slowly adapt instead of jumping in head first. It means going from “American convenience” to “like American convenience” to “not like American convenience”. It is a slow and helpful transition. Second, the negative: Moving to a place of “like American convenience” could be a deterrent from moving to a place that is “not like American convenience”. It is a hinderance instead of a help. It is hard to move from better to the worse. Some won’t make the move.

The “cost factor” means: can you afford to live in one country and then at the end of around two years sell everything (or ship it) and move to the mainland?

When you make a comparison, it seems clear that the best place for language school is mainland China EXCEPT you are NOT guaranteed 100% to not be deported from mainland China.

I think, at this point, I should clarify a couple of misconceptions:

  • Learning the language in the mainland doesn’t mean you will be deported, but that there is a chance. You also have the chance to finish language school and start a ministry without ever being deported.
  • Learning the language outside of China doesn’t mean you won’t be deported once you move to the mainland. It is possible to be deported within your first month in the mainland. Thus, you will never really do ministry in the mainland. (Nor does it mean you will be deported when you move to the mainland.)
  • Deportation is something that does happen every year, but there are thousands working in Christian ministry in China who never get deported. Your chances seem higher if the ministry has a more bold approach to ministry. But as with most things in China, each place is different, and circumstances are different.
  • It is “timing,” which is something you can’t control. You can’t know when the “bad timing” is, you can only move forward with what you know to do. The risk of “bad timing” might be able to be delayed, but it can’t be done away with if you want to work in the mainland.

So where does this leave us? Here is my conclusion:

Go where you want to go!

It is that easy. Which of the options sounds best to you? Which one seems to have fewer hindrances? Are you willing to take the risk for the benefits? Are you not willing to take the risk for the benefits? Are you willing to eventually move to the mainland no matter what? Will you be sidetracked by moving to another country?

Outside the mainland” means you will be guaranteed to finish language school without being deported from the mainland, but there is a temptation of staying in that country and never actually go to the mainland as a missionary.  Once you move to the mainland (if you do) to start your ministry, the risk factor is “in play,” and you could be kicked out any time.

Inside the mainland” means during language school there are many benefits and you can be doing ministry among the mainlanders as your language progresses, but also you take the risk of being deported.

Here is the struggle between the decision: If you study the language in China, then you have a chance of being deported. If you study the language outside of China, then the temptation is to never leave where you are studying and go to the mainland.

So the concerns with both is that you won’t stay in or make it to the mainland.

The decision might be easier if we could put a percentage on the “chance,” but we can’t. It is 50/50 no matter where you go. A guy doing language school in the mainland might last longer in China than the guy who did language school outside the mainland. Or vice versa. We don’t know.

We have to decide to trust the Lord with this decision and not be worried about or make decisions based on tomorrow’s unknown or fear. In my opinion, if you really want to do missions in the mainland then lean towards the mainland, unless directed otherwise.


The real questions to be asking:

  • Is there a place you can properly learn Mandarin? Where?
  • What country do you want to serve in? Which path best leads you there?
  • Is there a missionary there that can mentor, help, and guide you? Who? Do you want that?
  • Is there a ministry you can serve in? What? Where?
  • What are the financial cost involved? Can you afford it?
  • What are the risks? Will you trust the Lord no matter where you go?

Go where you want to go!

One thought on “Where to learn Mandarin?

  1. Anthony mansfield

    hi do you have the section on” leave and cleave/one flesh “Marriage guidance in Mandarin tony from in Brisbane Australia

    Reply

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