An German-Austrian's Journey of Learning Mandarin

2017-04-19 08:26:40 China Today

Chinese is not an impossible language to learn, but the process certainly has its hurdles. German-Austrian Andreas Laimboeck is one person with plenty of stories to share about it.

“Sometimes it is really humiliating,” he said. Once, after four months of full-time Chinese study, Laimboeck tried to ask for the toilet in a Beijing restaurant. Instead of a helpful gesture, the waitress merely shrugged her shoulders. “Experiences like this can be really frustrating.” But giving up? Curling up within the expat community? Laimboeck didn’t consider this an option.

He kept at it and finally found his own way to master the Chinese language, beyond old-fashioned teacher-centered classes and learning characters by rote. That’s when everything clicked into place.

Today, 35-year-old Laimboeck runs his own language school in Beijing, where he shares his experiences with students from all over the world. He calls it LTL – live the language, a name that speaks for itself. Founded in 2008 as a two-man business, he now has 25 employees, including 18 language teachers.

Andreas Laimboeck runs a language school in Beijing to share his LTL method with other Chinese learners.

Laimboeck knows how to cut through the dense forest of Chinese characters and how it feels to smash one’s head into the language barrier before finally being understood.

“For Europeans, the biggest problem with learning Chinese is that we are often unable to reproduce what we have learned in class,” Laimboeck said. One of the main reasons for this is Chinese pronunciation. “Most of the embarrassment for Mandarin learners comes from mispronouncing Chinese tones. You say something you think you’ve already learned, but no one can understand you.”

Chinese syllables are pronounced with one of four tones (five if you count the light tone). Since most Chinese words have two syllables, there are 20 possible tone-combinations. And some of these combinations sound confusingly similar to Western ears.

“That’s why we emphasize correct pronunciation right from the beginning,” Laimboeck said.

However, it’s not just tones that foreigners struggle with. Anyone trying to master Mandarin has to fully immerse themselves in the language and culture. The idea is to acquire the language in an environment as natural as possible. Of course, the best way to do this is to live in a foreign country for a long time. At home, immersion can be achieved through bilingual classes.

“If you want to be fully immersed in the Chinese language, you have to be in contact with locals, make Chinese friends and speak Chinese outside the classroom,” Laimboeck said. “That is what separates the wheat from the chaff.”

But many foreigners in China have difficulty integrating into Chinese society and everyday life. “Here in China new acquaintances are made differently than we are used to,” Laimboeck explained. “In Europe it is sometimes easier to meet new people. You can just go to a bar and talk to strangers. In China it’s rather unusual to make friends this way. If you don’t work or study together, you normally have to be introduced by someone at some point. The contact has to be organized by someone. So an important aim of our school is to bring people in touch.”

Laimboeck’s school not only introduces one language partner to every student, but also provides a so-called “Beijing ambassador.” “Our ambassadors are Chinese students here in Beijing who want to get in touch with foreigners to learn more about foreign culture and different ways of living,” Laimboeck said.

“Our aim is to bring young foreigners in contact with young Chinese. Many young Chinese are also very interested in foreign culture, but they don’t really know how to get in touch with people from other countries.” LTL introduces students to young Chinese people with similar interests and hobbies and organizes occasions for them to meet.

“If someone likes to play football, for example, we will find a Chinese football team for him,” Laimboeck said. “Ideally the student and his Chinese counterpart become friends and keep on meeting each other.”

From his own experiences Laimboeck knows: Only those willing to jump in at the deep end can make progress. “Therefore, we want to confront our students with situations in which they can’t switch to English, and have no choice but to keep on trying to communicate in Chinese.”

One of these deep plunges is LTL’s home stay program. The school cooperates with about 100 families in Beijing.

One young Chinese learner, who decided to stay with a local family instead of renting a room in a student dormitory or in an apartment shared with other foreigners, is Yannick Aregger from Luzern, Switzerland. For eight weeks the 19-year-old high school graduate lived with his host mother Zhang Jingrong, 52, and her husband in their flat in Beijing’s Chaoyang District.

While their own son studies in England, the couple has brought some European flair into their home through Yannick’s accommodation. Besides Yannick Zhang and her husband have hosted exchange students from Germany, Canada, Australia, England and the United States.

“At the beginning it was really not easy to orientate oneself in China, because English is still not widely understood,” Yannick said. “And I had to overcome my shyness to speak Chinese to my host parents in the first days. But as I had no other choice, I made huge progress only after a short time.”

Ordering food, taking a cab or asking for directions – errands like these are no longer a problem for the 19-year-old Swiss. What he still lacks is sufficient vocabulary.

“It’s important to create experiences of success to keep the students continuing with their studies,” Laimboecks said. “For me Mandarin is a means to an end. Sometimes the language learning process seems like an Advent calendar. With every new lesson you can cope with a new situation in China’s daily life. You can do things, which you weren’t able to do before. This is a big motivation.”

To create more motivating moments like this Laimboeck and his team created the “Beijing safari,” a kind of language rally, during which the students have to master certain tasks of everyday life in Chinese. “This can be things like asking for the price of a pair of trousers in a shop or asking a passer-by which province he comes from. After a short instruction the students go outside the classroom accompanied by their teacher to solve small tasks like these. The teacher stays nearby during the whole tour and is ready to step in if problems occur.”

Whoever masters the safari in the capital and is willing to go a step further can enroll in LTL’s homestay program in Chengde. “This is kind of our survival training version of language immersion,” Laimboeck said.

Chengde is a small city northeast of Beijing, with an urban center of about half a million people. Most know it only for its famous summer palace of the Qing emperors. Only a few foreigners find their way to the city. Those who do visit only stay for a day trip. Coffee shops? Bars? An expat community? No way! “Whoever decides to stay in Chengde will only speak Chinese,” Laimboeck said. “However, we won’t send anyone to Chengde who hasn’t lived in China before for at least a couple of weeks.”

But mastering the language is only half the battle. “The biggest difficulties in communication between Chinese and Europeans result from cultural differences. Language is only a small problem, culture the much bigger one,” Laimboeck explained. Therefore, Laimboeck and his team also see themselves as cultural educators.

“In one case, for instance, a host mother called our school because she wanted their host daughter to wash her own dishes after eating. She asked us to pass this message on to our student, because she felt uncomfortable telling her directly. If we had done that, the girl surely would have felt hurt or even upset about this way of communication. So I talked to the host daughter in private and explained this cultural difference to her.”

Advice like that can’t be found in grammar books. And after all, strong language skills are only half the struggle for a smooth integration into Chinese society. “But Mandarin is the entrance ticket to Chinese culture,” Laimboeck said. In the end, everyone has to find out for himself or herself where the journey leads.



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