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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Studying Mandarin – How to Succeed in The Long Run

20 May

Studying Mandarin in China is more popular today than ever before, but some people burn out and don’t complete the task, these people are usually not learning Mandarin by experiencing China, which gives us some hints to what we should be doing to learn the Mandarin language.

Studying Mandarin is an ambitions undertaking in which not everyone that tries succeed. There are definitely some general patterns regarding who actual masters the task and who does not, mostly it depends on the support they get when they study and how they are actually going about learning the language. Like with most things, the best way to learn a new language, especially one as foreign as Mandarin, is learning it by doing. When it comes to languages, which is inherently about communicating, doing it means speaking. There is a huge difference between primarily just studying a language and trying to get to grips with it by combining academic effort with natural fun (using the language in hobbies and at work). Everyone, literally everyone, that I know which have succeeded in learning Mandarin has done so because they did not only study the language. They were also learning while at work and / or in their spare time. Not only do people that actually speak a language while trying to learn it progress much faster, they also target the areas that most interest them. The combination of these three factors: interesting topics, rapid progress and targeted results is simultaneously a perfect recipe for success and a vitamin / protein / energy packed cocktail of motivational vitality. You keep going like you were a Duracell bunny.

When you are learning a language by just academics the opposite seems to happen. This is a very important lesson for people to learn when it comes to mandarin language studies: you will never last by only burning the midnight candle. You need to get out of the books and practice the language while enjoying yourself. Not only will you progress faster by not studying all the time, you will also enjoy your studies enough to actually finish them – which is not something you will accomplish if you go for it at breakneck speed using only textbooks, flashcards and your dictionary. Maybe, not definitely, but maybe, you can achieve faster short term results but when studying at home you are not going to be able to last the entire race.

Another reason that learning Mandarin by speaking Mandarin, by doing it, as it where, is that when you actually do it, you are not artificially perusing your ambitions undertaking, you are going about the project organically and holistically. You are naturally targeting the objective and you work just the right brain muscles that you will later use in real life because you are practicing the language in real life. I have never met anyone that has learned even decent mandarin from abroad unless their parents are native Chinese Mandarin speakers, that tells me that being in China is if not a pre requisite, it is at least a very useful benefit – going to China and only checking out the library is not the same thing as going to China. There are plenty of libraries where you already live. There is no need to come to China to find one. A course that requires you to overuse the library is not a good course.

What a good course actually constitutes is this: crucial support in developing your own study plan, which suits your own personal objectives. Personal content is by far the most helpful any teacher can ever be, simply because such content is not generally applicable – it is a perfect fit to the exact person that has been tailor-made to suit. A normal textbook can never achieve the same things that a personal study plan can because a textbook does not know anything about what you want to accomplish, a general ambition like “learn Mandarin” is a step on the way but people don’t want to simply want to learn a language, people want to learn Mandarin to do something which has to do with living in China, working in China – it is about experiencing a country and when you start treating the task of learning Mandarin like the reason you wanted to learn it in the first place, you are on route to success.

Rui Ming works for a Mandarin Language School in China that is a great option for those that want to study mandarin, the lingua franca of the growing economic powerhouse. See the program overview page for more information about studying Mandarin in China.

Studying Chinese in China – Why Do It?

20 May

Studying Mandarin in China is a really good idea, for those that feel that they can hack it. Luckily the language is not as hard to learn as it first can seem.

For people who’s mother tongue is either derived from the Latin or Germanic linguistic branches it is difficult to learn to speak Mandarin. As an economic decision it may seem to many than Mandarin is just not worth the effort it takes to learn. I would like to challenge this notion with two arguments. First, Mandarin is not as hard to learn as people that only glances at the task makes it out to be. Second, to learn Mandarin opens up a great deal of doors that other languages can’t touch.

So what do people find so hard about Mandarin? Firstly, the language is a pain to pronounce for people whose tongue is not used to tones. You see, the language is not only dependent on syllables, there are also pitch modulations involved that designates which meaning a particular syllable is meant to convey. The language is also contextual in way that western languages are not: a particular syllable pronounced with a particular pitch modulation can have many different meanings taken on its own, it is only in the context of a sentence that the meaning is clear. The second matter that makes learning Mandarin difficult is that there is no alphabet to describe the above complexities. Instead, as you are probably already aware, the language, like many other Asian languages, is written using characters (picture-like symbols) composed by strokes and groups of strokes (radicals). Now, that is all really really confusing, in the beginning, and the grammar is to not the easiest walk in the park either. But like any other learning experience, learning Mandarin has its own learning curve, and the fact of the matter is that Mandarin’s curve is much steeper in the beginning than it is after a few months of studying. Once you get used to the arcane workings of Mandarin linguistics the effort to increase the scope and depth of your vocabulary is much easier than the initial struggle to get the first few hundred under your belt. When you pass the 1000 word marker your brain will be attuned to the Mandarin system and the learning curve will be flatter still.

I know many people that have learned to speak Mandarin fluently; actual Chinese people when speaking on the phone can mistake many of my friends for being Chinese. The particular thing that makes learning Mandarin worth it is this: everyone of my friends that have learned to speak Mandarin have incredibly cool jobs that they could never have gotten in their home country. Firstly, a western education is still bounds and leaps a head of a Chinese education. Almost all top-level managers in China have gotten their degrees elsewhere. That is not something that goes unnoticed when you are working on a lower level within the Chinese economy, the economy that is by far the fasters growing one today. A really cute French girl in her late twenties that one of my best friends used to date is a prime example of the opportunities that are granted people that achieve bilingual status. She runs her own department within a modern art dealership and acts as a conduit between the west and China, she was one of the first people I met in China and her story since arriving in China is truly amazing. Since learning Mandarin her career has had Apollonian trajectory and she claims that the combination of western education and mandarin proficiency accounts for 95% of the rocket fuel. Another friend of mine, also involved in the arts, namely as a videographe, claims that his art career is also fueled by that ability to communicate his pretty amazing ideas in Mandarin. He muses that it is less the originality of his ideas that is the reason that he has received funding for 3 major installation projects than the fact that they are unique to China. He is one of many with similar ideas world wide, but in China he is one of a kind.

Rui Ming works for a Mandarin Language School in China that is a great option for those that want to study mandarin, the lingua franca of the growing economic powerhouse. See the program overview page for more information about studying Mandarin in China.

Why Learn Mandarin – A Reason You Haven’t Yet Heard

20 May

There are a host of reasons that are often mentioned when it comes to studying Mandarin. Here is one that you may have missed.

There are many reasons to learn a language like Mandarin. Chinas economy is booming for one. China is an incredibly different culture and Mandarin holds the key to exploring China on its own terms (for a second). One reason that is seldom mentioned is the effect a new language can have on a person’s way of thinking. The argument goes something like this: the way we think is inherently linked to language, our thoughts are defined by the vocabulary that we know – the greater the scope and depth of our linguistic capabilities, the more complex and deep ideas can be articulated in our minds and to others. By learning more words within our mother tongue we can enhance our ability to analyze and understand the world around us. By learning words in a foreign language this effect can be increased many times over as the ideas and relationships described by an alien tongue are more different than those we have encountered in our own. I will now try to expand and exemplify this reasoning further and then explain how different Mandarin actually is from those languages that are derived from the Latin and Germanic branches of languages.

If we map every possible idea that we can have in the form of a circle we can visually explore how these ideas can be best thought of. In the center of the circle we put the absolute most basic ideas. The idea that eating solves the problem of hunger might be the idea at the very center. As we progress outwards in all directions ideas get more complicated. At the fringe of the circle we can probably find the general theory of relativity, slightly closer to the perimeter we would plot the special theory of relativity (which Einstein said only 6 of his contemporary people could understand) and at the very perimeter we have ideas no one has thought of yet. If a person understands complicated statistics and mathematics it would be much easier for them to learn Economics (for example) than if they did not. Therefore Economics should be placed between the areas that represent math and statistics. If one connects the dots of cyclical relationships in math (the sinus and co sinus curves are examples of this) and some basic statistical analysis of how the economy has fared over the last century, one would thought of the business cycle (for example) – which was exactly how that idea was modeled in the first place.

Now that we have that picture in mind: a great circle which represents every idea there is, and we have that example of how two dots were connected to create a new realization (there are natural periods of strong and weak growth in the economy) we can conclude this; if we can gain access to dots far from the ones we already have firmly in our mind, really great new concepts can be arrived at. What do we get if we mix a few art dots with a few dots pertaining to how people assimilate information? We probably invent typography, web design and newspaper layout in one fell swoop.

To learn Mandarin you are not only required to assimilate a host of new vocabulary and some grammar – you actually need to completely rethink the idea of language. Conceptually, both verbal and written Mandarin communication is foreign in ways that you are probably not able to imagine without studying Mandarin or another Asian language (which uses tones to differentiate between meanings and symbols to represent words (as opposed to an alphabet)). If you could increase your ability to think by learning more native words, and even more so by learning a new language like French or German, your brain is in for an absolute firework display of explosively colorful possibilities when you sit down and put some effort into Mandarin. This may not seem as reason enough to learn a complicated language. But coupled with the employment and cultural aspects that I started this article of with, it is one major kicker that can hardly be overstated in the context of added bonuses to learning a new language.

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

The Best Way To Learn Mandarin

20 May

Learning Mandarin should be about speaking Mandarin, that is my message here.

If you are looking to study Mandarin and money is not your primary criterion, you should not study with a university but with a reputable private language school. There are quite a few reasons why but the most salient objective fact is this; private language academies have much smaller class sizes. To put this into context; a university typically has around thirty students in a class. There are language schools with class sizes 10 times smaller than this (3). If you have to fork out double the amount (around 700 US Dollars) for this type of personal attention, compared to the factory experience of a university, it is worth it – progress is simply multiple times faster when the teacher can interact with students on a personal basis.

But, what should you look for when you are selecting a language school? People buy good and services to either solve a problem or enjoy new opportunities. Someone learning a language are not looking to solve a problem, they are looking to explore, to gain access to a new culture, to create new possibilities in a country that they were not born in. Before I get into the academic aspects of what a good language school is, this point is very much worth considering; learning a language is at least 50 percent exploration. A good school should divert 50 percent of its energies to help its students experience the country they are in.

China is a breathtaking. Although Beijing is not a tropical paradise (there are no sandy beaches, no palm trees and no azure blue lagoon) it is still an intensely exotic place. I live in the very centre of the city and it takes me no more than 10 minutes to go from my apartment to The Forbidden City on my electric rickshaw. There are thousands of alleyways still in the city and one of my all time favorite pass times is to zoom around in the old city looking for new crazy sight. Because every day in China is baffling. My friend calls it the land that logic forgot, and that is part of the exotic experience as much as the old parts of Beijing are. I think that the strangeness of some of the decisions (that, yes, are seemingly illogical) are merely a transient phase that China is going through. After all, the country is 4000 years old and it is not really surprising if it find is a bit hard to get used to the cataclysmic changes that it is currently undergoing.

For me, the most exotic aspect of China is its future. China will be a superpower that is most likely going to eclipse The United States before I am dead. To live in Beijing is to stand on the breaking surf of the greatest paradigm shift of our time, and it is really really exiting.

So what can a language school do to help you explore China on you terms? The lamest thing would be to buy you a ticket to The Forbidden City (yes that is criticism of what the majority of language schools consider a worthy effort). What the schools should do is this: teach you the stuff that you need to go off on your own and practice Mandarin in the setting you are going to use it. Be it in a specific business sector or something you see yourself probably doing as hobby in the future, the school should teach you the relevant terminology and jargon to be able to see what these things are like in China, on your own. Discussing the other beneficial aspects of this method takes about a thousand words to do properly, so let me summarize it like this. If you are interested in a topic, it makes sense that you learn in much quicker. When you are interested in a topic and you are progressing quickly, it is very easy to keep up motivation. There are no better ways to learn something than doing them. That’s what makes a good language student a person on an adventure.

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

Language Schools – What Makes Them Good?

20 May

Learning a language in a school can be done in many different ways. Here I argue that personal attention is the most important aspect of any language schools ability to teach effectively.

What makes a good language school? The answer will shift from person to person and also vary between different languages, but there is one point that is most likely shared by almost every student of every language. That point is personalization. I will expand on why a personal approach is so important for a person trying to learn a new language, but first I want to quickly discuss how this statement fits in with what education really is. All things that we can sell pretty much falls into two categories: goods and services. The hallmark of excellence in both these categories is attention to details. How they differ is that attention to details in the manufacturing of goods means that everything produced is identical, where as for services, the category where education clearly belongs, attention to detail means that every experience is unique.

The importance of a personal approach is derived from the fact that people are individuals. Everyone has his or her own reasons for studying a language. The reasons range from every type of hobby to every type of job. But regardless of why you want to learn a new language there is always at least one reason that can be focused on. Even a person that does it “just for fun” anticipates a situation in which using the language will be most fun, that situation is that person’s reason, which too can be focused on. The reason that this type of focus is helpful is three fold.

The first reason to focus on personal topics is that relevance is the golden key to learning. A topic that a person finds interesting before even reading about it is always going to be much much much much much easier to commit to memory than a topic that is of no interest. Trying to turn on that light switch which makes a brain pay attention is the most important part of any teaching job, if you don’t succeed in this, you will never teach anyone anything. If a student is learning about a topic that is of special attention to them from the start, this hurdle is already circumvented and the learning experience is set on a rocket like trajectory from the second a student steps into the classroom.

The second reason is linked to the first reason. Relevance makes the process of learning a language much quicker, and when results are gained at a fast rate, it is much easier to stay motivated than if they come slowly. When they also come with less effort than through another way, keeping going on the same track is a walk in the park. Motivation does matter as learning a language takes a long time, there is no better aid than a fast results through personal content to keep motivated through the entire race.

The third reason is also linked to the first and second reasons. The first reason is that learning a language through personal content is quicker than learning it in another way (i.e. speed). The second reason links this fact with motivation (i.e. maintaining the speed in the long run). The third reason that focusing on personal content is by far the best way deals with the distance between your starting point and the finish line. If you are focused, and don’t go off into topics that matter zilch to your objectives you will be on the shortest route possible. Not only does personal content offer speed, it also offers the ability to make that speed work for you even after you get tired, and it makes your journey physically shorter to boot.

I can’t think of a better way to learn a language. When learning Mandarin, which is the language that I am most familiar with from a teachers point of view. The motivation issue is even greater than other languages. The road to proficiency can be rocky and people do falter at times. If you don’t have a reason to keep going, such as a clearly visible improvement, you are unlikely to get up and reach your destination.

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.

Studying Mandarin and Class Sizes

20 May

Learning Mandarin in China is much easier than learning is elsewhere. The number one factor underpinning any effort to capitalize on being in the country is the amount of students that a teacher needs to attend to in class.

To answer the question “What is the best way to learn a language like Mandarin?” we should start by defining what makes Mandarin special and what we mean by learning it. Mandarin is different from Germanic and Latin languages in a few ways; to get to grips with Mandarin pronunciation is initially difficult because there are concept involved that you have never even heard about, the writing system is also entirely different and the syntax has many foreign elements that also take time to get used to. When I discuss these difficulties I will do so in the context of someone that is interested in mastering the language, not just learning the very basics. The reason that I reckon that this distinction is important is two fold. The first reason is that a major commitment most often has an underlying reasoning behind it, most often a desire to work with China in some way, this, as you will see, directly affects the way a persons studies. The second reason is that studying mandarin in the short with only basic results is different from a more serious commitment that involves learning more about the underlying structure of the language; the building blocks which is used to form more complicated sentences and meanings.

Lets start with picking an example of an underlying reason for learning Mandarin: let’s say that someone wants to learn Mandarin to work with graphic design in China. The best way to achieve this is unequivocally to use the language in a setting that pertains to graphic design, such as an internship or in a position where Mandarin is useful but not necessary. That will allow you to practice the language in a natural way and directly approach the topic that is most important. By organically building up your base knowledge your foundation for further studies both within this topic and other topics as well will be extremely solid.

But a place to practice the language is only one aspect of the full story here. In order to get to a point where using the language, even in a basic way, you need to overcome the three obstacles that I outlined at the beginning of the article; pronunciation, familiarity with the writing system and a command of basic grammar. If you were just learning the very basics, in order for example to be able to be polite while traveling, you could just memorize the 50 to 100 words that you might need. As a serious student you are however, of course, much better of by actually achieving a better understanding of why the words are formed like they are, that way it will be much easier to get to grips with a larger and deeper section of words and meanings.

Pronunciation requires correction. You cannot efficiently learn to pronounce words from a book or even really an audiotape. You are always better off having someone that speaks the language correcting you until you get it right. That means face to face time with a teacher. The best way to get over this hurdle is by enrolling in a school with small class size (less that 10 is good, but the smaller the better!).
The writing system is also best tackled in a small group because different people find different parts of it hard, this means individual questions, which also means that there are benefits to a lot of face to face time with a teacher. Grammar is easier than both pronunciation and writing in Mandarin so the class size matters less for this aspect, but of course a small class size is conducive to faster results in this respect also.

I wrote so much about class size because the way to really capitalize on a internship or a similar position is to be taught the exact jargon and terminology you need for this role. This is never possible to teach in a large class size.

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