Since Chinese language is the most widely used language dominated in China, therefore, every international student cannot avoid the language issue.
Yes, you can. There’re many Chinese universities that offer English-taught programs in degree level, so you can easily obtain an international recognized degree certificate through learning in an all-English environment for certain years of period. Besides, several famous foreign universities such as University of Liverpool, University of Nottingham and New York University all have opened their Chinese campus to recruit students. Thus, even if you don’t know any Chinese language, these schools could still be your perfect choices since programs are all taught in English, and professors are all from the UK or USA campus.
Generally speaking, we recommend international students to learn Standard Mandarin, which is originated from the northern dialect system. It actually covers the majority of Chinese geography, from the north-east all the way down to Yunnan Province. So, learning Mandarin could get you around most parts of China without difficulties on an average basis. On the other hand, couples of local dialects are indeed very interesting. If you intend to learn some, it sure will be of great help in your communication with people from different areas.
When you were starting to learn Chinese, you probably have encountered this situation: People from mainland China will tell you to learn simplified first, while people from Taiwan or Hong Kong will tell you to learn traditional first, and they'll both present perfectly reasonable arguments in favor of their points of view, which made you very confused.
Traditional vs. simplified characters is an ongoing debate that many Chinese feel very passionate about. In Hong Kong, Taiwan and among overseas Chinese, opposition to simplified characters remains strong. Within Mainland China, however, there is very little incentive or support for returning to traditional characters.
The better way may be you should pretty much end up learning both eventually, at least to some degree. Apart from the reason that simplified Chinese is being used by the largest population in the world and it will help you communicate with most of Chinese smoothly, another recommendation reason especially for new Chinese learners is that much larger amount of educational material are published in simplified form these days. For self-learners particularly, there are just a larger variety of textbooks and other materials to choose from in simplified Chinese.
In an overall assessment, let’s say that both forms are very useful to know. Besides, with modern software, converting between traditional and simplified characters can be done automatically with ease. It's as easy as changing a font style. You don't need a translator for that.
Technically, “fluent” is a relative concept, each individual could have personal interpretation. Take this as an analogy. I’m a normal person, for me, after learning English as a second language for nearly 15 years, I still make grammatical errors time to time and speak in a not-so-local accent. So I understand how far it is ahead of me to be truly “fluent” in English. But sometimes I also think that compare to certain groups of Chinese people, I speak much more fluent English than them, and communication between my foreign friends and me always goes smoothly. So, here is my point: the ultimate use for your learning a foreign language determines your level of “fluent”.
In terms of Chinese language, if you just want to get around in China, make friends with locals, make sure that daily communication is not a problem, I think 1 year of study is enough (Of course you should be very hard-working.) As to professional academics, that may require more for lots of professional vocabularies will need to be memorized and used properly. I’d say at least 3 years of immersion in the language. If you are a translator or translator-to-be, OK, trust me, you should devote your entire life to the language. Chinese language is developing literally every day, many new words are invented even as a local I cannot know what is mean exactly at first sight.
Take Mark Rowswell (aka DaShan)’s summarization at last:
“2 years to lie on your resume and hope no Chinese speaker interviews you for a job (because 2 years is enough to bullshit your way through a situation in front of non-speakers).
5 years for basic fluency, but with difficulty.
10 years to feel comfortable in the language.
One lifetime is not enough to attain the level of a native speaker, unless you start before the age of 10 (I was 19).”
Personally I think there is no shortcut when it comes to learn a new language, particularly for westerners to learn Chinese, a completely different language system. But there is a few things that you could follow to help you learn in a more efficient way.
1. Start with pronunciation
Learn Pinyin, the standard method of Chinese romanization. Get your pronunciation down solid. Chinese pronunciation seems similar to English when you first start studying. It’s not actually. Learn to differentiate between 'zhe' and 'zhi,' between 'xu' and 'shu', and between 'jin' and 'jing' (even a lot of Chinese people, especially around Shanghai, can't do this one). This is the most tedious part of learning Chinese. Find a person to help you.
If you study in China, then you will have the benefit of being in a country where everybody can speak Chinese fluently and a large number of people can talk in English. So, make a friend. It doesn’t matter how you do it, there’re bunch of ways to make new friends, but the important thing is to get your pronunciation down.
2. Learn your tones
Make sure that your pronunciation of tones is extremely clear. A lot of people who are learning Chinese will tell you that tones don't matter, because Chinese is so contextual. This isn't true. These people are just being lazy. Speaking non-tonal Chinese is like speaking English without tenses. People might understand you. But you'll definitely sound like an idiot. Therefore, again, get a native to help you. These are the basics, and you'll use them forever.
3. Make it fun
At this point, learn a few common verbs and nouns and start talking to people. As a rule, Chinese people are generally pretty nice, and pretty encouraging, about non-Chinese speaking Chinese poorly to them. Better than average number of Americans’ response to someone speaking broken English to them. It’s a good laugh, if nothing else.
Don't get discouraged if people don't understand you. You should know before starting learning that it’s a tough language after all.
4. Learn to read
You need to know a couple of thousand Chinese characters to read effectively. So learn ten a day for a year, starting with the most common, the most useful, and the simplest ones. They add up quickly. Simple characters build more complex characters, and characters build words. As a general rule, the more complex the word, the more characters it uses.
Fire is a simple concept, so it gets a character - 火
Vehicle is pretty straightforward as well - 车
Train is a bit more complicated, no need to have a whole character just for train, let's call it a fire-car instead - 火车
5. Probably don't learn to write
Writing is way way way harder than reading. If you only want to achieve a basic level in spoken communication, it’s not really worth your time to learn how to write Chinese characters. But on the other hand, if you do want to learn to write, you’d better go to a class and learn from a professional teacher.
6. Use it or lose it
Once you're this far, the most important thing is diligence. Keep up with your studies. Learn a little bit every day. And when you learn a new word or two, break it out on someone immediately. This will solidify the memory. Yeah, you'll look like a bit of a dork when you suddenly force the dinner conversation to the price of subway tickets, but you're learning. Get some friends who will humor you in this regard for a little bit. Offer to buy someone a beer if they'll sit and listen to you butcher their mother tongue for a few minutes.
Mandarin is a tough language. To be sure. But if you're creative with your approach, consistent with your practice, and learn to have fun with the language, you will be able to achieve at least a conversation level of fluency relatively quickly.