Newsweek featured an interesting article about learning Chinese in China a while ago. It basically argued that though learning Chinese in China might be cheaper learning it at a language institute at home, the teaching methods in China are so outdated that you’d actually master the language quicker by learning it at a Western institution.
There may be some merit in the arguments that the article brings forward, namely that too much emphasis is put on rote learning and too little on repetition of common grammatical patterns, making the education too theoretical and not geared towards actually speaking the language.
One of my Chinese teachers here in Singapore obviously agreed with this criticism. When a student kept asking for the underlying grammatical rules when asked to repeat a grammatical pattern: “don’t focus so much on understanding. You may understand the pattern theoretically, but if you cannot reproduce it when you are speaking, what is the use”? She basically urged the student to abandon the academic mindset and get her mind around using the pattern, taking as many tries as it takes to get fluent.
Many Chinese learners in China obviously disagree – why otherwise would they have gone to China? And they have a point. The article is biased and takes one or two schools to represent all Chinese teaching in the country. I’m sure there are very bad and very good schools in China for learning Chinese. Take for example the Hutong School in Beijing, which was set up by young Chinese and Europeans and geared to young Europeans offering very practical methods as one example that obviously does not fit Newsweek’s criticism.
Teaching methods are a factor, who is actually teaching you is arguably much more important. And honestly, how are you going to learn Mandarin if you cannot use it outside of the classroom? Being in China necessitates you to speak Mandarin.
I do think that the traditional teaching style in China is not one that focuses much on application, but you can’t just assume that this problem is going to be present at any teaching institute in China. If you are going to learn Chinese in China (or anywhere else for that matter!), do your homework – speak with previous students, find out about the teaching methods.
In fact, studying Chinese in Singapore may offer a middle way. The Singaporean education system was shaped by its colonial power, the UK, while you can use Chinese in everyday life here. But again: do your homework before you choose where to study!