Where to Learn Chinese

Where to Learn Chinese in China?

What Chinese study program to choose is an important question for anyone who comes to Beijing to study Mandarin. There are many choices, from intensive private Chinese lessons to studying at a university. What fits you best will depend very much on what you are looking for. But where to learn Chinese? Let’s hear form an expert

The following story is written by LTL founder and director Andreas Laimböck who talks us through his journey learning Chinese and how LTL came about.

My Chinese Learning Story – by Andreas Laimböck

When I first came to China I asked a friend of mine where to learn Chinese. He recommended BLCU for studying abroad in China, as BLCU is one of China’s most famous universities for learning Mandarin. So I signed up and just like most students there today, had an amazing time. I met other students from all over the world, we went to the bars next to university almost every night and I enjoyed every minute of it.

Andreas has been studying Chinese for almost 20 years

Andreas has been studying Chinese for almost 20 years

However, after a few months I started to realize that I was not really learning Chinese and my Mandarin was progressing incredibly slowly. It was called the “Intensive Chinese Program”, with 30 lessons per week – however, the listening classes were completely useless and nobody ever attended them. I ended up with less than 20 lessons, each lasting about 45 minutes, which isn’t much time at all. Also, there were 20 students in our group, of which five turned up only once in a while. The other 15 spent most of their time listening to a teacher lecturing us about Chinese grammar.

Problems learning Chinese

By his own admission, Andreas made a slow start to Learning Chinese

By his own admission, Andreas made a slow start to Learning Chinese

In such a big group there was very little opportunity for each student to speak the language or for the teacher to pay attention to individual student’s pronunciation problems. As a result I got used to speaking with poor tones (which I came to regret later). And while I also had one amazing speaking teacher (从老师  is the best!), in general the teaching style at a Chinese university follows the traditional Chinese educational approach: sit down and listen, rote memorize, spend endless hours writing characters with very little explanation of the logic behind the whole thing, and get very few opportunities to practice using these new words during class. While this might be suitable for someone used to this kind of education, it wasn’t suitable for me.

What’s more, after class my social life was exclusively with other foreign students. At Chinese universities international and Chinese students are strictly separated. They live in different dormitories and have classes in separate teaching buildings. This leads to very little interaction between the two groups. So while I improved my French and Italian quite a bit, and ended up picking up quite a bit of Korean, my spoken Mandarin just didn’t get better.

So after about seven months I decided that if I really wanted to learn Mandarin I would have to find another way and left the university. As I had paid for the whole year already, that unfortunately also meant I lost almost a whole semester’s tuition fees.

Learning Chinese Individually – Making Progress

At this point improving my Chinese was very important to me, but I also wanted to save money. I therefore just found a private language tutor because it was very affordable and also 1-on-1 – which I very much enjoyed after having spent seven months studying with 20 people in a class! I first spent a lot of time correcting the bad habits I had picked up at university and finally started to gain some confidence in actually speaking Mandarin. At that time I had been in China and studied Mandarin for quite a while and I knew how I wanted to study to pan out.  I ended up “teaching” my tutor how to teach me and my Chinese started to improve.

Andreas welcoming new students to LTL Beijing

Andreas welcoming new students to LTL Beijing

However, I soon found out that the problem with being a private tutor is that it is actually quite a rubbish job. A tutor gets no social insurance, no stable salary (when I was on holiday, she had no income), no sick or maternity leave and could never realistically hope to start a family or live any kind of functioning life in Beijing.

That means that the only people willing to do it are either very young students with little to no teaching experience or those who really have no other opportunities because they are not qualified to work at a real school or get another job. As the young students get older, more experienced and better at teaching, they either find a stable job at a private language school or change careers. Those who have no other opportunities keep looking until they find something else to do. So both groups are mainly tutoring for the short term and have no real incentive to learn how to become better teachers as they know that most likely they will very soon be doing something else.

So while I did start to improve, my tutors were actually not really teaching me how to learn the Chinese language, but more helping me to correct pronunciation mistakes or answer questions while we read through the text book together, and really it was me directing the classes.

Private Chinese Language School – On a budget

Later, when my Chinese had improved and I had started working in Beijing, I wanted to continue to learn. While I certainly didn’t want to go back to studying via rote memorization with 20 other students at university, I also wanted a real teacher who could lead me in my study experience and provide guidance on how I could reach the next language level quickly. Someone who had actually learned how to teach Mandarin and was in it for the long term. Someone who wanted to be the best teacher possible instead of just tutoring to earn some money on the side. There were a huge number of private language schools in Beijing at that time, all of which promised all of this on their websites: professional teachers and a focused curriculum, at surprisingly cheap rates.

After looking around a bit I chose one and started my Mandarin course there. The results unfortunately were very disappointing. My first teacher was late for class, not prepared at all and seemed to barely have seen the book I was using. While other teachers I had there and at other budget private language schools afterwards arrived on time, none of them were the professional language instructors I was looking for. Over time I found out that all these schools did was hire pretty much any Chinese person who wanted to earn some money, gave them a quick in-house teaching introduction course and then let them start to teach.

None of them were hired full time, so there was no stable salary, social insurance, sick leave or any of the other things that a human being needs to live a normal life. As a result – just with the private tutors I had previously – even those who loved teaching Chinese sooner or later had to leave to do something else, because you can’t support a life in Beijing at the salaries they were earning. While this explained the cheap prices I was paying, I again ended up quite unsatisfied with my learning experience.

The beginning of LTL Mandarin School

I continued to study Mandarin on my own, at various schools, with different tutors, and immersed myself in the language through work and friends. However, I decided at some point around 2008 that there must be other people out there who had similar experiences to mine and wanted something better. That was when I founded LTL.

Andreas spreading the word on where to learn Chinese

Andreas spreading the word on where to learn Chinese

My aim was to create a way to help students avoid all the mistakes and problems I had encountered when learning Mandarin. I wanted to offer flexibility, as well as fully-qualified, motivated teachers and a supportive study environment. I knew that having the opportunity to speak the language as much as possible is key, so I wanted LTL students to be able to live with a local Chinese family whilst they studied. I wanted the Chinese class sizes to be small and the teaching focused on interaction and fun. And of course, I wanted our teachers to be able to build a career in teaching Chinese at LTL. That would mean offering them a good, stable position that allowed them to invest in their teaching ability without having to worry whether they would get a pay check next week or what will happen if they get sick.

Today, the first teachers we hired still work with us and we have an incredibly stable teaching team. We continue with very small classes, with an average class size of three and never more than six students per class. 80% of our students live in Chinese-speaking homestays and most choose a complete immersion program as part of their course. We offer courses from as short as one week to one year with 24/7 support, visa invitations, a very fun student community and we are by far the best reviewed Chinese language teaching institution on the internet (google us!). We can get a complete beginner student to HSK 6 level within a year of intensive Chinese study.

Today I am an HSK examiner myself and speak Mandarin pretty much all day at work. It took me almost five years to get there and when I see our students reach a similar level after a year of full time study at LTL, I am quite proud about what we have achieved here.

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