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A foreigner’s passion for teaching Chinese language

Andreas Laimboeck Photo: Billie Feng

“I don’t earn as much money as I did in my previous job, but I enjoy what I’m doing now.” This is what Andreas Laimboeck said of his current work. He is the general manager of the LTL Mandarin School, where LTL stands for “Live the Language”. As he pointedly tells his foreign students, “If you want to master the Chinese language, don’t learn it, but just live with it.”

Born in Austria in 1979, Andreas attended university in English majoring in finance. In 1999, he went to Hong Kong as an exchange student and studied at the City University of Hong Kong for one year. Before studying in Hong Kong, he knew nothing about China or Chinese culture. “It was very accidental that I came to Hong Kong. I wanted go to the US. Our lecturer told us about an exchange program in Hong Kong and asked who would like to go to Hong Kong. I just raised my hand without even knowing where Hong Kong was!”

Looking for something different

Exploring the unknown is a characteristic of brave people. However, it was not in Hong Kong that Andreas started to learn Chinese. In Hong Kong, everybody spoke Cantonese and there were no Mandarin classes. “I met some foreigners who could speak Mandarin. I thought it was cool. How could they understand this? I wanted to do that as well. If you don’t speak Mandarin in China, you don’t understand anything.” So he began to wonder where he should go to study Mandarin.

After spending one year in Hong Kong, Andreas went back to England and finished his university degree in 2001. Then he found a job in England, but didn’t forget about his dream of learning Chinese. After working for one year, he decided to come to Beijing, a decision that changed the course of his life. “If you’ve been to America, you think you are an international person; but in fact you are not if you’ve never been to China. America and Europe are almost the same, but China is completely different and much more exciting. I was looking for adventure.”

Learning Chinese language

With his growing enthusiasm for China and Chinese culture, Andreas attended the Beijing Language and Culture University (BLCU). A lot of foreigners think the four tones are the most difficult thing in learning Chinese, and so does Andreas. “The longer the wrong tone stays in your mind, the more difficult it would be to change it later.” He said he didn’t learn much at the university, because “it was big classes and everybody spoke English all the time.” So he found a Chinese teacher outside school to correct his tones. He also got help from his two Chinese flat mates.

Motto of the school Photo: Billie Feng

In fact, the language is not the biggest barrier between people from different countries; the main problem is cultural difference. During his first three months in Hong Kong, Andreas would throw the question “Anybody would like to go for a drink after school?” at his Chinese classmates four or five times, but the response would always be the same - “No, sorry.” Later somebody told him he was asking the wrong question. Realizing this, he rephrased his question and asked, “Anybody would like to go for dinner after school?” Then he got the answer he wanted, “Sure, let’s go for dinner.” “For three months nobody did anything with me because I asked the wrong question! I don’t care if it’s a bar or a restaurant, but Hong Kong people care about that. That’s a huge difference.”

After graduation from the BLCU in 2003, he found a job as a salesman in the Beijing office of a German company dealing in medical equipment. He worked for the company for six years. All his colleagues and customers were Chinese so the job improved his practical use of Chinese and gave him a chance to learn to deal with the Chinese people. “I had to speak Mandarin all day long, and that’s why I became fluent in Chinese.”

Andreas was promoted to the position of sales director in the company and his salary kept rising. This could have guaranteed him a good living in Beijing. However, he didn’t think about it this way. “Living a good life and making a lot of money are two different things. Money is not the most important thing to me. I enjoy taking challenges.” So when he didn’t find the job exciting anymore, he quit in 2008.

From student to teacher

Being aware of the fact that a lot of foreigners couldn’t learn to speak and write Chinese correctly and efficiently in their universities, Andreas started his Chinese school in 2008. “You need to get your tones right and then speak faster. But it is big classes in universities and the teachers don’t have the time to correct each student’s mistakes.” However, Andreas’ school features small classes of six students at the most, with the option of one-on-one classes as well. He said only in this way can the students improve their Chinese in a relatively short time.

Michigan State University students taking a Chinese course Photo: courtesy of Andreas Laimboeck

When anybody wants to learn Chinese in his school, Andreas always asks them what they want to learn specifically. “Do you want to learn to speak fluent Chinese or do you want to be able to write? And then based on this we teach differently. If you only want to speak Chinese, learning to write characters would be a waste of time.” He will group students according to their needs and his staff will customize a learning plan for each study group.

The quality of teaching has always been the main focus of Andreas. He has 20 teachers and all hold certificates of “Teaching Chinese as a Foreign Language” (对外汉语). They have to be professional Chinese language teachers. “We have at least three interviews with each candidate. They have to show us how to teach before we hire them.” He also evaluates his teachers through the performance of the students.

Mingling with locals

Apart from school teaching, Andreas wants his students to really fit into the Chinese society. Therefore, he has 10 other staff in charge of organizing homestays, immersion trips and activities. Some of their students live with a Chinese family. When choosing a family, Andreas needs to make sure that none of the family members speaks English, so their students can be “pushed” into a Chinese-only environment. Just as one of his students, Amelie Schaf, said, “I have to speak Chinese in my homestay family, and that’s why I can speak fluently after staying in Beijing for nine months. I knew nothing about the language nine months ago.”

Kai (Right) from Germany with his homestay family Photo: courtesty of Andreas Laimboeck

Sometimes it’s hard to find homestay families because Chinese people are not used to having a stranger live with them. “You really need to get to know them and treat them as your friends, and then it’s easier to persuade them to live with a foreigner.”

The school also has a program in Chengde, a beautiful city near Beijing. Andreas said, “In Beijing, there are still many people who can speak English. How can we stop our students from speaking English? We needed to find somewhere else. My first teacher suggested Chengde where she came from. People in Chengde only speak Mandarin. Nobody speaks English there. It’s a real immersion program.”

Persistence pays

Andreas is still trying hard to come up with new ideas about teaching Chinese.

A corner for memories Photo: Billie Feng

He has never put up any advertisements anywhere. His business is expanding by word of mouth. Many students who have studied in his school are recommending the school to their friends. “Word of mouth is the most

important. It was difficult at the beginning, because we didn’t have many students. Now we have a lot of students and they are our walking advertisements.”

In a sense, Andreas has a “Chinese dream”. Although he is a foreigner, he is making efforts to spread the Chinese language and culture. When asked how long he could stick with what he’s doing, he answered with a smile, “Until retirement.”

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