September 2015 issue

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Learning Mandarin in China

Chinese language learning has moved into the mainstream. The market is now maturing, with the result that competition among schools is intensifying and choice is increasing, as Jane Vernon Smith reports.

Whereas, a few years ago, people tended to learn Chinese for “hobby and travel” purposes, says Kevin Zhang of Beijing-based Capital Mandarin School, today, it is for reasons of business and teaching Chinese abroad.

As Margherita Liu, Manager of Mandarin Zone Language School, also in Beijing, highlights, more and more international students are aware of China’s economic development, and there are more opportunities if they can speak Chinese.

Students are also being encouraged by their schools to learn Mandarin from an early age, as Emma Devine from Xplore - The World! points out. “There is no doubt that China is playing a more prominent role in Western commerce and culture, and there is certainly more emphasis being placed on learning Mandarin in schools, especially at A-level,” she says.

Student nationality trends at Chinese language schools tend to underline this point. Julie Kong of Mandarin Spring in Shanghai, who comments that her school is receiving growing numbers of students from Spain and Italy, believes that this is because the economy in China is much better than in their home country and so it is easier to find a job in China.

Similarly, Romain Tournier, General Manager and Co-Founder of the Tailor-Made Chinese Center, which has schools in Beijing and Shanghai, has witnessed an increase in students coming from France, Germany, the USA and Italy. “They all have big business with China and almost no growth in their home market. It’s a way for them to be more competitive on the job market,” he suggests.

The USA is well represented at many schools in China, and Kevin at Capital Mandarin School observes that “the US dollar still goes a long way”, while Julie at Mandarin Spring notes that visa policy has been favourable for students from the USA over the past 10 years.

For Kevin, the top nationalities at present are American, Russian, German and Spanish. Russians are becoming more prevalent, he points out, a trend that he expects to continue, as business between Russia and China grows.

While the USA and European countries tend to have a strong presence throughout, That’s Mandarin is seeing a general uptick in students from the rest of Asia and Oceania, and is starting to see growth from South America, according to International Business Development Manager, Libby Chick.

At the same time, Kirsty Mattinson, Head of International Recruitment and Support at Xi’an Jiaotong-Liverpool University (XJTLU) in Suzhou, which receives students from all parts of the world, has seen a rise in numbers of late from Indonesia, Korea and Russia. As Kirsty highlights, with the launch of the One Belt, One Road (OBOR) development initiative in 2013 to promote cooperation and connectivity between China and the rest of the Eurasia region, numbers from these countries are set to grow further. “Educational outreach, especially around scholarships and transnational learning, are likely to increasingly flow along these linkages,” she observes.

As Kirsty observes, the Mandarin language is increasingly taught in schools and Confucian Institutes around the world; as China has grown in importance in international business, a number of new trends are emerging with it.

According to Margherita, students are coming at an earlier age, and, she says, “More parents want their kids to learn Chinese”. The demand for intensive study is also growing, according to Kevin at Capital Mandarin, a demand that XJTLU has sought to meet through introducing a series of summer language programmes to provide an opportunity for intensive Mandarin study for students enrolled in full-time education. In addition, “We are seeing more students who have studied some Chinese before,” points out Kirsty at the university.

Xplore - The World! has recently launched its first summer camp in China due to demand from students worldwide as well as in China. “We do a lot of work with local partners, schools and universities in the country and as a result we were invited to set up a camp not only for Chinese students but to bring over international students for them to integrate with,” says Emma. “We have a balanced group this year made up of English, German, Spanish and US students. We hope for 2016 to also welcome students from other parts of the world such as South Africa, Korea and Japan, where Mandarin is a very popular language to learn.”

Emma adds that they hope to expand their provision in China next year. “We are looking to open up at least one more camp in 2016 and we are looking to attract more of the domestic market. At the present point we are also considering including a one-week camp in Taiwan to add a different dimension to participants that travel with us,” she says.

Julie at Mandarin Spring, meanwhile, notes that, “More and more young people choose to come to China for further study… Some of the students can easily get a full scholarship issued by the Confucius Institute. Most of the learners will be able to get more job opportunities after learning the language.”

For those students seeking a formal qualification in the language, the Chinese Proficiency Test, known as HSK, is available. This has now been brought in line with the Common European Framework, according to Julie, as has the curriculum at Mandarin Spring, thus allowing students to compare and refer more easily. She adds that the school has designed a new HSK curriculum to enable students to learn the language faster. Intensive, semi-intensive and part-time programmes are all available. With more and more business people in Shanghai taking the test, the school has also designed ‘early-bird’ evening and weekend classes.

In addition, Kirsty foresees a growing demand for pre-university courses focussed around this exam, as more students – from Africa in particular – choose to pursue their higher education in China.

As the market matures, flexibility is increasingly in evidence, and That’s Mandarin has witnessed a growing desire for part-time courses during the week. “In order to cater to those needs,” Libby explains, “we have created a new course package at a cheaper price.” She adds, “The nature of our curriculum makes That’s Mandarin incredibly flexible.”

The school is also prepared for a growth in online study at the expense of study abroad. With the growing cost of living in China – especially in Beijing and Shanghai – Libby maintains that it is now expanding its provision into this area. At the other end of the spectrum, she also notes that more people are interested in immersive experiences. “Not simply cultural events, which all schools provide, but chances to do more than scratch the surface,” she concludes.

In this context, providers are generally optimistic about the outlook. However, there are some warning signs. As Margherita observes, the market is currently developing very quickly, and, “it is easy to start a school in China, but hard to survive for a number of years.” She believes that competition between schools will intensify, and that only high quality schools will last the course.

This, on the other hand, is good news for students, with, as Romain points out, the quality of classes gradually increasing.

Visa focus

According to Kirsty Mattinson, Head of International Recruitment and Support at Xian Jiaotong-Liverpool University in Suzhou, “Visas for studying in China are certainly becoming more rigorous, as China matures as a student destination.” At the same time, “There are now additional visa categories to suit different student types and durations of stay. We rarely have visa rejections, but,” she warns, “some nationals may require a longer application period.”

One point highlighted by Margherita Liu of Mandarin Zone in Beijing, is that only official universities can issue student visa forms (JW202). Meanwhile, Julie Kong, Program Coordinator at Mandarin Spring, Shanghai, observes that the Chinese government is restricting Tourist (L) visas and Business (M) visas. Each applicant, she explains, has only one-to-two months’ validity, with a maximum of one month’s extension allowed, and she underlines, “Students will be fined if they violate the rules.” She adds that long-term visas are becoming more and more difficult to obtain, and the government has strict policies regarding general visa issuance in a few countries, such as Pakistan, Nigeria, Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq and some other African states.

Other categories of client to pay particular attention to include those looking for internships. Romain Tournier, General Manager and Co-Founder at Tailor-Made Chinese Center, based in Beijing and Shanghai, notes that internship visas are also becoming more and more difficult to obtain.

“Many of our younger students want to come to China and intern while they study with us,” comments That’s Mandarin’s Libby Chick. “But it isn’t an option for them to intern on a tourist visa, and we can only offer student visas to students who [are] studying with us for at least six months or study every day. Many of the students also looking to intern don’t have the time to have that many lessons per week.”

Useful tips

Form JW202 is needed by students attending university in China in order to obtain their student visa. Obtained from university upon acceptance.

The busiest months for Chinese language schools are June and August, so booking in advance is advised.

The main Chinese language proficiency test is the HSK.
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