April 2011 issue

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Colossus China

As China’s economy grows so too does the number of foreign students requesting to learn Mandarin. Familiarising themselves with local culture, cuisine and lifestyle is an important part of the language learning process, as Nicola Hancox discovers.

When I started to study Chinese myself almost 10 years ago, most people learned Chinese because it was far away, mysterious and something that nobody else did,” regales Andreas Laimboeck, Director of Live the Language (LtL) in Beijing and Tianjin. And although the student profile may have changed slightly over the years – Laimboeck points to a more business-oriented student today – numbers are consistently growing.

Originally from a small city in Austria, Laimboeck notes that he was inspired to found a school that was run by the student for the student. “Having studied for so long and discovering so much (though certainly not all) you now just relive those experiences by helping others to have them. I could not imagine a more satisfying job,” he gushes.

Located right at the heart of Beijing’s commercial business district, Chaoyong, the school is conveniently located with local amenities such as banks, restaurants and other businesses close by. However, in order to really “live the language” Laimboeck heartily advises students get out of the classroom and familiarise themselves with the local life that surrounds them. “LtL focuses on immersing our students into Chinese life… we help [students] to join a Chinese badminton team, join the cooking club next door or get to know the former red guards downstairs playing chess and talk about how things used to be back then,” he describes.

Right next to Dawanglu subway station, students can jump on line one which passes Yonganli – where thrifty students can shop around for a fake bargain or two at the famous Silk Street Market – Wangfujin, Beijing’s modern shopping district, and Tian’anmen East, where students can alight to wander around the largest city square in the world. Laimboeck, however, favours more leisurely activities, namely a cycle ride round the city. “Then,” he adds, “sit down at a little corner with the guys with the rolled up shirts who will undoubtedly be hanging around there, have a beer with them and learn how to play Chinese chess. That’s what I do on a good Sunday too!” he says.

A highlight in Beijing’s social calendar, and indeed China’s, is the Spring Festival, where friends and family usher in the Chinese New Year. Laimboeck suggests students get out of the city on the 15th and final day of the festival, however. “One has to get out of the city and find a village market. There will be some kind of Beijing Opera played, drums at the local temple and if you are lucky, a travelling dentist will be pulling teeth on the sidewalk!” he relates.

Shanghai is another of China’s dynamic metropolises and is home to several language schools including Mandarin City and Mandarin House. Dedicated to teaching Mandarin Chinese and Shanghai dialect as a foreign language, Mandarin City School Director, Vicky Shi, says they have the advantage of being close to several renowned landmarks including Fuxing Park, a 10-hectare greenspace perfect for people watching, kite flying, diablo spinning, ballroom dancing and even knitting! A former private estate of the French concession, the park has an almost Parisian feel to it, with its many tree-lined avenues.

In fact, the city has often been compared with 1930s Paris – however, Shanghai today is more like a young, New York City. “Arriving in Shanghai, immediately, you will be overwhelmed by all the crowds, automobiles, malls and skyscrapers,” says Shi. Indeed, as the largest city in mainland China, Shanghai successfully marries eastern and western culture. But Shi notes the school, which is located in a 1930s Shanghai-style house, has remained loyal to its Chinese roots.

“I will particularly advise students to see the Oriental Pearl TV Tower while they are studying in China,” muses Shi. This emblematic piece of architecture is situated in the Pudong district, right beside the Huangpu River. Students can either travel to the top of the tower to enjoy the panoramic views of the surrounding area or venture into the basement to walk around the Shanghai History Museum.

Like Shi, Aaron Duff, Business Development Manager at Mandarin House (the school also has a branch in Beijing), enthuses that students will be “blown away by modern architectural marvels” in Shanghai, and he adds that, as an international city, it moves fast with plenty to see and do. The branch is ideally situated near to People’s Square – a central meeting point and a former racecourse prior to Communist rule – as well as world-famous pedestrian shopping street, Nanjing Road.

Both schools organise a range of tours and excursions. At Mandarin House weekend excursions include a visit to the Zhujiajiao Water Town, Yu Garden and a sightseeing trip to the Taikang Road Art District, while at Mandarin City trips to neighbouring cities Hangzhou and Suzhou are readily available. Should students prefer to stay on campus, however, afternoon electives such as Taiji Quan [also known as T’ai Chi Ch’uan], Chinese calligraphy and Chinese cooking provide the perfect outlet to discover more about this country’s fascinating culture.

As a major business hub, Shanghai attracts a steady stream of students looking for work experience to compliment their language studies. Veronika Karacova from BESTEP Consultancy notes that as well as connecting students with internship opportunities in Shanghai, the organisation also provides study options whereby students can study Mandarin with a private teacher. Karacova advises student get to grips with the local cuisine while in town, “including the weird ones!” she says. Wujiang Road is a popular snack street selling local delicacies such as Shengjian – a type of fried bun filled with pork – and a common Shanghainese breakfast food. The most famous purveyor, Xiaoyang Shengjian, is rumoured to serve over 10,000 Shengjian daily.

Marking the starting point of the famous Silk Road, the city of Xi’an is steeped in a history all of its own. Perhaps best known for its terracotta army, a collection of sculptures depicting the army of the first emperor of China, Qin Shi Huang, students would be foolhardy not to pay the nominal fee (US$11) to visit this impressive archaeological site. However, Wang Jing, Director of the International Department at IH Xi’an, observes that the city boasts several other historical landmarks of note including the City Wall – one of the oldest (built in 1370) and best preserved city walls in all of China – the Bell Tower – which has become synonymous with Xi’an – and several temples.

Students can travel back in time by enrolling on IH Xi’an’s Chinese plus culture course. For four weeks, students journey along the historical trade route, the Silk Road, stopping off in Xining, Lanzhou, Jiayuguan, Dunhuang, Turpan and Urumqi to soak up the sights and sounds while continuing to learn the Mandarin language, explains Jing. “Our aim is to let you live a great, interesting and unique trip where holidays, culture, knowledge, Chinese language, adventure mix up together to give you an unforgettable experience,” vouches the school website.

IH Xi’an also boasts a Tang Cultural Experience Day where students learn about one of the most accomplished of all the Chinese dynasties, the Tang Dynasty. Jing notes that students, dressed in authentic robes, will take their lessons down by the river or in the nearby Tang Paradise, a large cultural theme park, where they will recite Tang poetry.

Agent viewpoint

“With a language as complex as Mandarin, there really is no substitute for learning on location. Our clients understand that spending time in one of the big cities like Shanghai or Xi’an offers an unrivalled insight into Chinese customs, traditions and daily life. In the last couple of years, a large number of our students have wanted to visit Beijing and experience the hustle and bustle of the capital city. We also find that Xi’an is popular and this is because it offers an alternative to the modern cities.”
Alex Wolfson, Cactus, UK

“China is rapidly becoming a true heavyweight – economically as well as socially. Europeans choose to learn Mandarin not only to become acquainted with the language but also to develop an enhanced intercultural awareness. Beijing mostly attracts travellers interested in history. Those who prefer a fresh beer on the beach during their spare time might want to follow their studies in Qingdao.”
Christian Graf, Boa Lingua, Switzerland

“Many of the students who go to China are the adventurous type. They are interested in the very special culture, history and traditions. We send internship students to China who combine language study with a practical part in a Chinese company. Our high school students stay in Beijing for one academic year. They love the experience of a completely Mandarin speaking environment at a boarding school and experience life in typical Chinese host families at the weekends. We send most students to Shanghai, also Beijing and Hong Kong are especially interesting because of their history.”
Katja Liebau, GLS Sprachenzentrum, Germany

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