Want to Learn Chinese? Stay Home.

To anyone looking to future-proof himself, studying Mandarin in China might seem like a smart investment. Surely, then, the best thing you could do is to jump on a plane and sign up for classes, right? Wrong. Studying Mandarin in China may still be a good deal—universities there generally charge outsiders about $1,800 for five months' tuition—but that's where the advantages end. Language teaching in mainland China is almost uniformly poor, thanks to outdated materials and a wooden, stultifying teaching style.

That hasn't depressed the numbers: these days, some 100,000 foreigners flood into Chinese campuses yearly, a huge increase from the 50,000 total who came during the 30-year Mao era. The change is partly due to China's booming economy, but there's more than market forces at work. Confucius Institutes, Mandarin teaching centers set up worldwide, funnel students into year-abroad language courses in China, and Chinese colleges have also built fancy new dorms and stepped up intensive summer programs to attract foreigners (and their cash).

Yet most who come end up with a raw deal. Take the country's top language-training center, the Beijing Language and Culture University (BLCU). Mutune Kisilu, 19, is a typical enrollee. The Kenyan has spent a year there and says he can now discuss computers in Mandarin—but no thanks to his classes, in which he was frustrated by fusty textbooks and passive speaking exercises.

Jonathan Noble of the University of Notre Dame says part of the problem is that typical language classes in China are built around memorizing lists of written characters. Speaking practice is often limited; thus, while students gain vocabulary, "they're not actively thinking about how to use the words in different situations." As a result, he says, students who stay in the U.S. sometimes gain fluency faster than those who have spent time in China.

Blame it on Confucius, who emphasized deference to one's elders and teachers. His influence still haunts China's education system. Instructors are expected to talk and students to listen. But this isn't how the brain learns languages, says Lance Knowles, a neurolinguistics specialist who designs vocational language courses. His recipe for fluency is the opposite of the Chinese collegiate method: it stresses listening and speaking, with as little exposure to text as possible, since he says that idles the relevant brain centers.

Textbooks have their place, but those used in China tend to feature lists and don't contain enough repetition of basic grammatical patterns—a must-have. Students are most likely to stay focused when tackling real-life situations, something few mainland books offer. Instead, they tend to feature a mind-numbing panda chapter, then go on to describe the reproductive habits of the bamboo plant, say, or traditions behind famous dishes. Good luck finding business content or other real-world conversation.

What should an aspiring Mandarin speaker do, then? Either pay the much higher rates in the West or go online, where plenty of interactive systems offer fresh modern content.

There are some signs Chinese colleges are finally recognizing their problem. Leading the charge is Miao Qiang, 37, who's in charge of devising new Mandarin teaching texts at BLCU Press, which currently publishes 81 of China's 100 top-selling language books. Miao is proud of New Practical Chinese Reader, written with the aid of Canadian universities in 2002. With 300,000 copies in use, it is cited by teachers as a big step forward. And indeed, it does feature some advances, though Miao acknowledges it's still short on work-world scenarios (he says those are coming). All course content is now being reviewed every five years, he says. But online learning systems are far quick-er to adapt—a few already teach how to promote one's strengths in today's dire economic climate.