Everyone tells you that if you want to speak fluent Chinese you’ve got to go to China. And they’re not wrong there! Chinese is a complex and difficult language to grasp, and moving to China makes sense.
But China is a great place to learn other languages too. While you obviously want to spend most of your time practicing your tones, characters and Chinese vocab, there’s nothing stopping you from having an extra hobby and picking up another language on the side.
In this post, we’ll look at what other languages you can learn in China and count down to the best alternative language to study in China. For our criteria, we’ll look at geographic proximity to China, access to native speakers, relevance to China, opportunities, and ease of travel.
French narrows out German on our list as the 5th best language to learn in China. The language of love obviously doesn’t rank highly in terms of access to French-speaking countries (in proximity to China) and has no lingual overlap with Chinese.
But on the plus side, French is relatively simple for English speakers to pick up and there are native French speakers just about everywhere in China! Francophones from Africa are well represented across China, while French speakers from France, Switzerland and Belgium flock to the major cities such as Beijing and Shanghai. Shanghai’s Xintiandi was once an official French concession and is still today a quasi-French territory! Having so many French speakers among the expat circles in China makes learning French easy to practice.
The other great thing about learning French in China is that the Alliance Francaise language institute network is super affordable in China. A ten-week semester of classes twice a week costs about 1,800 RMB (USD $300) and which is a real bargain! Alliance Francaise has centers in many cities in China including Beijing, Chengdu, Chongqing, Dalian, Hangzhou, Guangzhou, Hong Kong, Jinan, Macau, Nanjing, Shanghai, Tianjin, Wuhan and Xi’an.
The national language of Vietnam comes in at number four in our countdown. Vietnamese is a tonal language similar to Chinese but with a few extra tones on top. After learning Chinese you’re probably not in a rush to learn more crazy tonal combinations. However, on the plus side, you’re going to pick up Vietnamese tones and vocab quicker having learned Chinese. Given the proximity between the two countries, Vietnamese and Chinese possess a number of words that overlap in pronunciation.
In terms of learning Vietnamese in China, you’ll want to look at basing yourself in the south of China in Sichuan, Yunnan and Guangxi where many Vietnamese students are studying degree programs. Vietnam is also just across the southern border of Guangxi Province and a cheap option for travel. A visa is required for most nationalities to travel into Vietnam which is a slight drawback.
On the job opportunity front, Vietnamese is also not a bad language to learn. Vietnam has a young population and a dynamic economy that is behind China in terms of development but moving quickly in the right direction. A lot of international companies, including Intel and Samsung, are relocating their manufacturing facilities from China to Vietnam. It’s safe to say that there wouldn’t be too many foreigner professionals who can speak English, Vietnamese and Chinese so finding a job should be well within reach. All three languages are certainly going to help with a potential switch to living and working in Vietnam. Also don’t forget the amazing coffee culture, French bakeries, and the friendly locals!
The land of the rising sun comes in at number three. Japan ranks well for geographic proximity and travel access as many nationalities can enter Japan 90 days visa-free. You’ll have a great start to learning the Japanese characters Kanji, which are based on Chinese characters. Unfortunately, in regards to grammar and pronunciation, there is very little overlap between Chinese and Japanese.
The main downside of learning Japanese in China is access to native speakers. While there are healthy numbers of Japanese nationals living in China, they do tend to be families and working for Japanese companies in major cities such as Shanghai, Beijing, Dalian and Tianjin. Japanese families living in China tend to stick to their own circles and are rarely seen in mainstream expat circles. Major cities in China on the east coast tend to have a few Japanese students which are the best option for finding a Japanese language partner.
There’s a lot to like about learning Russian in China. From China, you have access to multiple countries that speak the language, as well as a big expat population of Russian speakers working and studying in China.
Harbin is the obvious first stop for anyone wanting to compliment their Chinese language studies with Russian. Or you could just skip Chinese all together and start your Russian adventure in China. Harbin has a strong Russian influence in terms of architecture, as well as freezing cold winters that can get you quickly acclimatized to Russia before you go! The city itself is 400 kilometres away from the Russian border. If you’re looking for an adventurous entry point to Mother Russia then there’s also the famous Trans-Siberian Railway which you can connect to from Beijing.
Russians themselves tend to flock to the Chinese cities of Harbin, Dalian, Beijing and Shanghai to work and study, but you should find Russians in almost all major Chinese cities. Sanya in Hainan is a magnet too for overweight middle-aged Russian men in speedos on holiday with their families. China has a healthy representation of nationals from former Soviet countries who speak Russian as well. Russian is a national language for Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Mongolia, which are all just across the border from China. Visas can sometimes be extra effort for entering these countries but perfectly manageable for most nationalities.
From the peninsula once known as the Hermit Kingdom of north-east Asia, Korean comes in as number one and ticks all the boxes in our countdown for the best alternative language to learn in China! South Korea is highly accessible from China (a relatively cheap two-hour flight from most major cities on the northeast coast of China) and 90-days visa-free for many foreign passport holders. If you want to go work in South Korea, both Chinese and Korean language skills are a big plus for finding a job too.
South Korean students tend to be the dominant foreign student demographic on campus in China and especially in Tianjin, Dalian, Beijing, Qingdao, Shanghai and Nanjing. You’ll even find North Korean students on campus at BLCU in Beijing and North Korean restaurants in many major Chinese cities! However best to hang out with Koreans south of the border, and especially as those from the North aren’t allowed smartphones or WeChat.
However, given that South Korean students have already hit critical mass in most universities, and because Korean students who study in China are not English majors, they do tend to socialise in their own social circles. However, if you can speak some Korean you’ll be instantly welcomed to join your Korean classmates for Friday night drinks. China has a great supply of Korean restaurants and there’s nothing better than going out with your Korean classmates for Korean BBQ, Soju drinking, drinking games and lots of selfies!
Korean is also the only international language spoken by a Chinese minority group. The Chaoxian minority group speak Korean but that is just slightly different in terms of accent and slang. The language is more similar to Korean spoken in North Korea, which is only natural given the geographic proximity. Finally, Beijing is a popular entry point to North Korea if you want to check out the world’s most isolated country!
What’s your top 5? Tell us below!
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