Chinese Language Schools – The Good, The Bad and The Ugly

20 May

What makes some language school better than others?

What makes a good language school good and what makes a bad language school bad? I work with language courses and I spend most of my working time thinking about that question. One can argue that this is subjective and that which appeals to one person is not going to appear attractive to another person. That is true, but regardless of personal preferences there are objective matters to consider; it is simply the case that students at some schools progress much faster than students at others. Having recently completed an audit of the course offerings of thirty Mandarin language schools in China I have singled out what I believe is the two primary variables which determine the success of a language student.

The first factor is very simple and I think that most people will guess which one it is: class size. Naturally the amount of students that a teacher needs to teach will affect the results of each of the students. With more face-to-face time, students are able to ask more general questions and get more advice and pointers. Students are also able to ask more specific questions; queries that deal with facts that may be of little or no interest to others, and hence specialize their own learning experience. A tailor-made learning experience is intimately related to the second factor. But before I explain just how I think it would be useful for me to expand on why face-to-face time is especially important for Mandarin language studies.

Because of the word limit here I face a Catch 22. If you have previously studied Mandarin you can skip this and the next paragraph, as it will not tell you anything new. If you have not previously studied Mandarin you will most likely not fully grasp what I will try to describe here. Luckily, what I am trying to convey is that the initial period of Mandarin language studies is very confusing – which actually makes the next paragraph a benign Catch 22.

All the confusion arises from two differences between Latin and Germanic languages and the Chinese language branch. Firstly, as you already know, Mandarin has no alphabet. Instead it is written with characters. These characters don’t contain the pronunciation of the word they convey the meaning of, which makes Mandarin words a trinity (meaning, written form and pronunciation) as opposed to a western word’s twin system (meaning and spoken / written form). This is tricky for the brain to get used to and it takes a bit of time for a western person to really rewire his or her brain to this way of thinking. The second difference is almost completely without redeeming characteristics and really does not help with the rewiring process at all. The syllables used in the spoken form are only half the picture. You also need to modulate the pitch you are using when you pronounce the word to distinguish which of 5 groups of words you are trying to specify. After that you also need context, as the groups are not specific enough to single out a word on their own.

I told you it was confusing. But with a small class size almost everyone is able to get to grips with it on fundamental level within a couple of months. Once that critical point is reached it is much smoother sailing from there on out. But if you are trying to get there and you are not able to ask questions and get individual pointers that initial stretch of road can take a very long time to cover, which is where most of those that fail fail.

The second variable that underpins good language schools ability to teach Mandarin is that they do not only try to teach the language (bear with me). Studying is ultimately really boring in the long run. People that are able to learn by speaking the language, because they are supported by the school in practicing outside of class – by having access to real life content in the class room environment, by that environment being practical as opposed to mostly theoretical and by the curriculums ability to tailor itself to fit individuals as opposed to a grey mass, some people that would otherwise not have gone out into China and experience China on its own terms, are able to do so.

Rui Ming works for a Mandarin Language School in China that is a great option for those that want to learn mandarin. See the program overview page for more information about learning Mandarin in China.

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