The PIE: How did you first start learning Mandarin?
Andreas Laimböck: I first came to Hong Kong in 1999 on an exchange while studying in the UK. I had no previous interest in the region. I wanted to learn Mandarin while I was at university there but that was not possible. Firstly, they speak Cantonese in Hong Kong, and secondly, the Mandarin classes were taught in Cantonese.
So I lived in this expat bubble, which was a lot of fun, but at the same time incredibly frustrating because I saw all these signs everywhere and people speaking and I didn’t understand. There was this one German guy who sung a song in Mandarin at karaoke and I couldn’t believe it. I thought it was just the coolest thing I’d ever seen.
“Most of my learning experiences are based on how you should not learn Chinese”
After a year, I went back to finish my degree but later ended up studying Mandarin in Beijing. China was different back then. It was much poorer and there were just three universities where you could study Mandarin in Beijing. Up until two months before I arrived, all foreigners had to live in one of about nine different foreign-designated buildings. There was a complete separation of foreigners and locals.
The university was just about the most non-immersive environment you could possibly be in. I spoke Italian, French, learnt quite a bit of Japanese, but I never spoke Chinese to anyone. We had about 23 students in a class and some of the teachers just really didn’t care about teaching. After a few months, I wasn’t making any progress and started looking for other options. In my second semester, I quit and got a tutor to teach me the way I wanted to study.
The PIE: So how did this lead to starting LTL Mandarin School?
AL: So I had my teacher, and then I lived in an apartment with two guys from Anhui [a Chinese province]. I then started helping friends to learn Mandarin, recommending schools with smaller classes and such. Most of my learning experiences are based on how you should not learn Chinese. I would never recommend anybody do it the way I did. But I really enjoyed helping them out so I started LTL Mandarin School in 2009.
The way I built LTL was to teach Chinese the way I wished I had studied it: small classes and interactive learning. The other part is immersion. We focused on homestays from the beginning and about 80% of all our students do them. Providing good homestays is probably the thing we are best at. In China it isn’t easy to find good homestay families. The hardest thing is screening out homestays that only want somebody as an English teacher. But when you find a good family, they look after the students really well.
The PIE: Tell us about the Chengde total immersion program.
AL: This is a really defining part of what we do. You can’t really do total immersion at school. We tried at the beginning with language pledges to only speak Chinese and it just doesn’t work. To enforce it you have to create a police state in the school, but even then you have people with a really horrible Mandarin level speaking to each other and picking up each other’s mistakes.
The best immersion happens in an environment where people speak good Mandarin. Most of the big cities have a foreign community and an expat bubble. There are plenty of places without foreigners but most of them are very rural and people speak with very strong accents or don’t speak Mandarin at all. After several years of searching, we found Chengde, which was the hometown of our first teacher.
Chengde is the old imperial summer capital. Pinyin [the system for Romanising Chinese characters] was codified there in 1952. They picked six schoolboys – one is still alive – and recorded them, and the way that these schoolboys spoke is what today is considered standard Mandarin.
So that’s one advantage. Secondly, it’s a beautiful place with a UNESCO World Heritage Site. And thirdly, there is no foreign community and no foreign bars.
Of course, life is culturally very challenging so we don’t recommend the program to everyone. When our first student arrived he was arrested within a day because he was living with a Chinese homestay family. The police thought it was still illegal so we had to explain the law had been repealed about 10 years earlier.
In Chengde you don’t mix with other students and only have individual classes, which means you speak Mandarin the whole time.
“The biggest hurdle when learning Mandarin and why people find it so hard is that it’s taught wrong”
The PIE: Why is Chinese considered a difficult language to learn?
AL: Anyone who speaks fluent Mandarin will tell you Chinese is learnable like any other language. It just takes more time. The biggest hurdle when learning Mandarin and why people find it so hard is that it’s taught wrong.
There are a lot of myths. People say that you don’t need to learn tones and nonsense like that. But Chinese without tones is a useless language. There also isn’t enough focus on radicals [the components that make up Chinese characters] or tones in the beginning and people don’t immerse themselves in Chinese culture.
Some people also say Chinese has no grammar. This is obviously not true. But actually it’s one way to make Chinese attractive. What do you hate about learning French? Conjugations? Tenses? The subjunctive? These things gave me nightmares. In Chinese there are no tenses, there are no irregular verbs, there are no genders. That doesn’t mean there’s no grammar, but on the whole, it will give you less of a headache than European languages.
The PIE: Do you offer classes in any other Chinese dialects?
AL: We also teach Shanghainese in Shanghai, Hokkien in Taiwan and Cantonese in Beihai. They’re often called dialects, but linguistically I think they are separate Chinese languages. Taiwanese Hokkien is an official language in Taiwan and Cantonese is spoken in Hong Kong but Shanghainese is in a little bit of distress. It’s estimated 400 million people in China can’t speak Mandarin, and Cantonese alone is spoken by 100 million, which is more than the number of German speakers.
The PIE: How has teaching Chinese changed since you were learning it?
AL: The universities are doing it the exact same way. That said, they are cheap so that’s good if you don’t have much money. Today I would say there are about five high quality private Chinese language schools in the country. Part of that is because it’s difficult organising all this in China.
The PIE: Are taking HSK exams [for Mandarin language proficiency] popular with your students?
AL: I’m a HSK examiner today and find that Europeans tend not to be very interested compared to Korean and Japanese students. It depends on how much the qualification is recognised by employers back home.
Sometimes it’s hard for employers to judge your abilities. I once applied for a position and they wanted to test my Chinese level so they called in the Chinese secretary and told me to speak Chinese. She says “你好 (hello)”, I say “你好”, she says “怎么样？ (how’s it going?)”, I say “我很好 (I’m good)”. Then she turned to the boss and said “he speaks good Chinese”.
The HSK was designed to be the same as A1 to C2 on the CEFR but it doesn’t match. You can use it as an estimate but HSK 3 is not a B1. The HSK overestimates abilities.
The PIE: Do you think more schools abroad should teach Mandarin?
“There is an enormous need for Mandarin but few people study it”
AL: Chinese is being taught in high schools, but the scale is tiny compared to other languages. If you’re in a European country it makes sense to study the language of your neighbours. But Chinese is definitely not being taught enough.
There is an enormous need for Mandarin but few people study it. If you are 18 years old and you want to build a successful career, learning Mandarin is really the one thing you can do to stand out.