Building Bridges to Better Mandarin
Expats in China tend to segregate into two distinct groups when it comes to learning Mandarin; those who fall into its embrace quite naturally, immersing themselves in everyday conversation and becoming fluent in no time…and those who seem to forever ‘float along the surface’ never having the time or the inclination to become truly involved; this group tends to struggle by with a few words, relying on a combination of Chinese friends, inventive mimes and common sense.
Falling somewhat between these two stools, I decided to grasp the bull by the horns and investigate how I could properly master a subject that has remained a periphery goal of mine for several years.
When researching the subject, the first thing you realize is it’s not simply a case of deciding you are going to learn Mandarin. Everyone who has considered taking up Putonghua has at least picked up a travelers phrasebook and quite probably knows a few more words and phrases than they perhaps believe. A clear strategy and goal is a must. How long do you wish to study for? Which area do you wish to focus on? What level do you wish to attain? These are all essential considerations.
Secondly, your typical expat lifestyle is full of uncertain twists and turns. Many a good intention to learn in a structured manner has been wrecked on the rocks of a changed schedule, unexpected illness or new location. Clearly, my choice of school would have to take these factors into account.
With this in mind, I took myself off to Hanbridge Mandarin. As the name suggests, they are ‘dedicated to building a language bridge connecting different peoples and cultures’. Fair enough. As many schools are difficult to get to, involving a mélange of subway/bus/taxi/walking combinations, I was pleased to discover their school was an easy three minute walk from the Window of the World underground.
Once there, I was greeted warmly by their program coordinator Keelary. Intrigued by her name, I enquired as to its origins…Interestingly, Keelary had done her research, and unable to decide on which conventional name she preferred, combined two of her favourites. This could just be the next great way to decide your new Western moniker.
After being given the tour by Kristen, which included a nice outside area for relaxing, complete with fish pond, I was taken to see the manager, Mary, to discuss the issues I had outlined previously. ‘Our students come from a wide variety of backgrounds’ she says, whilst acknowledging that establishing the students baseline and specific goals are a key aim for the organization.
Language in the Information Technology Age
The whole concept of education and language teaching has been revolutionized by the internet, and it seems to be gathering pace, so I asked Mary how Hanbridge had adapted to this new paradigm? ‘You have to start with each individual student…many of those who are able still prefer the old fashioned method of one to one, face to face teaching, as this provides the most comprehensive feedback. So, we’ve gone out of our way to create a relaxed, culturally aware atmosphere here…we’re like one big family, which our students really appreciate’ she states.
Of course, this is not possible for many of their students, so they have an efficient system where the teachers visit either at home or in the office, or for those who wish to maintain lessons whilst on business trips, there’s always the video conference room. ‘These days, the only real barrier to learning is a lack of an internet connection and working out different time zones’ Mary says.
There are several courses designed around busy expat lives, the most popular being the ‘Standard Chinese’, covering 12 levels of courses ranging from preliminary to mastery. Others of note are the ‘Business Chinese’ and ‘Immersion’ courses, the latter offering the possibility of a ‘home stay’ option.
For those expats out there whose first language is not English and are looking to improve their fluency, particularly in Business English, Hanbridge will soon be offering a Business English course.
As I conclude my visit, I wonder where Hanbridge is intent on taking the business? Mary is very clear on this…’ ‘We have a system of Chinese that is both approved and successful; we are now ready to provide online teaching with a combination of professional ism and technology…this is the unique Hanbridge combination not offered elsewhere. We really want our students to be part of our family…we hope they can learn, practice and most of all have fun!’
Watch this space.