Thinking of Learning Chinese in China? You could do a lot worse than attend classes here.

Although this university has been known for over five years as the Beijing Language & Culture University, the powers that be have recently decided to change the name to the simpler 北京语言大学, or Beijing Language University.

A foreigner can learn Chinese at a lot of universities and schools in China, but this is the only international university to have "teaching Mandarin to foreigners" as its primary mission, although that's not all the school does. As such, it's one of the easiest places to get transferable credits for your time studying putonghua ("Mandarin" in Chinese), as it is well known and well thought of outside of China.

Founded in 1962, it has programs in arts, Chinese, and foreign languages. It's located in the north of Beijing in Haidian District, otherwise known as the "University District" as most of Beijing's campuses are located within a stone's throw of each other. Beijing Normal University, Peking University (which is often incorrectly called Beijing University), and Tsinghua University (which these days is often incorrectly called Qinghua University; ah the joys of obsolete romanizations!) are all in the area, among many others.

The BLCU campus itself is quite compact, dormitories predominating as they do on most Chinese campuses, and the tree-lined avenues are a particularly beautiful feature in the hot Beijing summer. A brand-new gymnasium was opened just in time for the 40-year anniversary, in September 2002.

About 6,000 students from all over the globe attend, which is one of the thrills of learning here - Mandarin quickly becomes your lingua franca and you find yourself talking to people with whom you have no common language save Mandarin, and neither of you is Chinese! The downside is, of course, that this enables the lazy to "get by" with minimal Chinese. Incidentally, Koreans make up the largest part of that 6,000 - between 60% and 80% depending on who you ask.

There are also about 2,000 Chinese students who attend the campus, a lot of them studying linguistics in which discipline this school excels. Also, the Chinese students are offered a variety of other languages including French, Japanese, and of course English.

This is another benefit of doing at least some of your Chinese study here - you will easily be able to find a language partner who is learning your mother tongue - and language exchange is one of the true joys of learning a second language! And, let's face it, if you're going to go to that trouble, then immersion is the way to go. And if you want immersion in Mandarin, Beijing is the place to be, as Mandarin is Beijing's dialect. Unlike, say, Shanghai which has a dialect all its own: Shanghainese.

I do have a personal connection to this school, as I studied Mandarin here throughout 2002. I found the quality of the coursework to generally be excellent, although like university classes everywhere, a lot depends on if you get a "good" teacher. By good teacher, I mean a teacher that in method, style and personality appeals to you as a student. Class sizes are on the large side (30+) for first semester students, and get dramatically smaller thereafter.

Like any Chinese university, by "Western" standards the admissions process here has a reputation for barely controlled chaos, which can be awesomely daunting to someone fresh off the 'plane. Unfortunately, one of the charming parts of the process in years gone by - the lecture about Chinese morals - has been cut in recent times. This was the fabled moment when the new westerners were crowded into a small room, upbraided for their "loose foreign ways" and told to "keep away from our women". I paraphrase, but only slightly.

Semesters are the half year variety, and compared to studying almost anywhere else in the world (places where study isn't free, that is) the fees, which can be paid per semester or per year in advance, represent good value.

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