Mandarin Language Schools in China

20 May

As Chinese Mandarin starts to attract more and more international interest we need to ask ourselves: what constitutes a good mandarin language school for a western student?

Learning Mandarin today is more interesting than it has been in the past. Students are flocking from all over the world to learn the language that grants access to what increasingly seems as its going to be the greatest shift in global power of our time: the rise of China as an industrialized and extremely populous nation. China will even in the medium term attract a clout of interest from businesses and other countries alike. The simple fact that every Chinese person is getting richer at a really astounding rate and that they are 4 times as many as there are Americans, means that the global status quo dominated by the Washington consensus will need to change in due time. With it, the nature of the benefits of Mandarin proficiency will also change.

Picking the right Mandarin language schools can be tricky; this is a short checklist of what you should be looking for and what you are better of avoiding. It may sound weird, but the thing you are looking for is not a Chinese language school. You are looking for a western language school in China. The Chinese way of teaching will not agree with your background. This is not that strange, Chinese culture is very different from Western culture in many ways. One of these ways is how power is divided in society. In China you are not in a position to question a superior, where as in a western institution feedback is very much appreciated. Sociology tends to classify post modernity, the time we live in now, as network based. People have come to believe that we are better off if we leave top down structures and instead try to build a meritocracy where each suggestion is not evaluated based on its source but on its own prowess.

Stepping into a Chinese classroom is therefore a bit of a shock for most westerners. We are used to not only being able to ask questions when we don’t understand, but also question when we don’t agree. Both actions are not appreciated in a Chinese classroom and if it does not lead to friction in terms of interpersonal relationships it does at least represent friction in terms of drag on the study pace. This is first and foremost juxtaposition of Chinese and Western educational principles.

The second one that western people are unable to fully cope with is the focus on memorization. Sometimes the level of memorization is simply ridiculous. I know of a school where they required students to assimilate a hundred new words every day. Needless to say, students were unable to do this and fell behind the class pace, which was really the teachers pace as the inability applied to the whole class. However, because it was a Chinese Chinese school, things did not change, as there was not scope for feedback and for all I know they are still trying to hammer in a hundred words per day.

A western student has no time for the hammer. Westerners want to learn by doing. We have not experience the whip and we don’t like our first encounter with it. When we learn math we do so by asking questions when we don’t understand, and then we go home a practice it, we don’t try to memorize math for the simple reason that it is really really inefficient to do so. The same applies to language studies, we want to understand why and then go away and practice it.

Of course it is not the case that every language school in China run by Chinese people has not caught on this trend. Some have and they do much better in rankings than schools that have not. The case is however that those schools with mixed management do the very best. It is the combination of Chinese experience of teaching the language and Western experience of learning it that seems to be golden formula for success when it comes to connecting western students with a domestic education in the Mandarin language.

Rui Ming works for a Mandarin academy that is a great option for those that want to learn Chinese. If you are interested in more information about learning Chinese in China, please consult the website of Beijing Gateway Academy.

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