Chongqing is a fantastic base for learning Mandarin. The vibrant city offers a colourful mixture of advantages, whilst also harbouring a few pitfalls that are navigable once you understand the landscape.
In this first examination, I want to tell readers on how they can gain the most from a language orientated stay here.
It would be impossible not to touch on the local dialect known as Chongqinghua重庆话, but I will only focus on its potential influence on learning Mandarin, and instead leave a deeper study of the language itself for a future post.
The advantages of a Chongqing base
- English speakers are harder to find compared to the other major cities of Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou, which means opportunity abounds to practise your skills with less recourse to English.
- There are relatively few overseas residents in comparison to elsewhere, even to Chengdu up the road. I’ve heard the plausible number of around 10,000, which sounds right considering how rare I see other foreigners out and about. This way, you have little excuse not to immerse yourself and gain that invaluable practical experience.
- Chongqing locals make for a warm and hospitable social environment. You will definitely encounter friendly people eager to chat away once you break the ice with a few words of Chinese.
- You can combine Mandarin with a full range of cultural experiences and settings in Chongqing. Why not practise and learn over hotpot, as you bathe in the springs, savouring the atmosphere of a Chinese teahouse, or the natural surroundings of Nanshan. The possibilities are endless.
- A language exchanges or professional course is a great way to interact and improve your Chinese. You can find universities and private schools that cater specifically to foreign Mandarin learners, while many locals who want to practise English are willing to teach you in return.
- Naturally, everybody understands Mandarin, and the majority of young to middle aged urban dwellers can speak it back to you without any problem.
The main stumbling block in Chongqing is the local variety of Sichuanese, and more importantly, the hybrid version of Mandarin of the two called ‘Chuanpu川普, chuan from Sichuan四川, and pu from Putonghua普通话。
Understanding Sichuanese and Chuanpu is undoubtedly useful in Chongqing, but it shouldn’t be on your list of priorities if you are a basic or intermediate Mandarin learner, and nor should you learn to imitate them, as you will reduce the quality of your Chinese this way.
You can solve this problem by tuning in to the sounds of Mandarin. Once you have a basis for comparison, you will find the two languages very distinctive, and you won’t mistake one for the other.
For the most part, it’s the Mao era generation from the 1970s and before who tend to speak the local dialect only, and struggle to speak standard Mandarin.
Other than leading your Mandarin skills astray, you will find that Sichuanese speakers understand you, but your unfamiliarity with the local dialect means you probably won’t understand them. The key is to not feel disheartened, and accept this will be unavoidable sometimes.
Secondly, since there are so few expatriates in Chongqing, and even fewer who speak Chinese well, many locals have little experience with foreign accents, as well as consciously speaking slowly and more clearly themselves. Again, patience and perserverance will pay off over time.
Lastly, ESL is big business in Chongqing. Young students and xenophiles will be naturally anxious to practise English with you, if only a little shy. Since English students are almost dead certs to speak excellent Mandarin, why not suggest doing a language exchange if you encounter one and have the time? I’m sure many would help you this way.
While Sichuanese is a potential obstacle to learning Mandarin well, Chongqing is still an amazing location for taking on the endeavour, just as long as you are aware of the difficulties, and maintain the right access to teachers and study resources.
In the end, it comes down to the individual. The more you reap, the more you sow. I know foreigners who have lived in Chongqing for over a decade and barely speak any Chinese at all, while some have stayed a short time and have done a grand job.
Stay tuned. In the near future, I will offer readers some great tips for starting Mandarin today, and gain that headstart for when you first come to visit China!