Teaching Chinese involves more than teaching just a language
 
Wang Li, CEO of Mandarin Pro, a private Mandarin Chinese school founded in April 2015 in Beijing. Photo by courtesy of Wang Li
 
It was in 2009 when Wang Li, chief executive officer of Mandarin Pro, came to know what it means to be a Chinese teacher from her temporary work experience at a Chinese language school founded in 2006 in Beijing. That temporary experience left Wang what later became her dream to establish a Chinese school which can help foreigners learn not only Chinese language, but also Chinese culture. 
 
Majoring in international trade in university, Wang said she was motivated by the volunteer stories of Teach For China, a nonprofit program founded in 2008 helping to address the imbalance in educational resources between urban and rural areas in China, and encouragement and trust from her students who came to her and asked her why not set up a Chinese school herself, she said.
 
“That was when I felt that I could keep working in this field and I believed that there should be more and better education services provided to foreigners who want to learn Chinese,” she said in a recent interview with the sino-us.com. “That is a dream that I haven’t completed even today.” 
 
The worldwide trend of learning Chinese has been further pushed by famous figures like Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and US President Donald Trump’s granddaughter Arabella Kushner. According to a rough estimate by Hanban, or the Confucius Institute Headquarters, over 100 million people around the world, excluding those from mainland Chinese, Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan, are now learning Chinese. 
 
Under such a “Chinese craze”, which has something to do with China’s rising economic and social development in recent years, and the country’s ongoing efforts to improve its soft power and international image, a lot of private Chinese schools have been set up in recent years, along with diversified language learning apps on the Internet and mobile phones. 
 
While it’s unclear how many private Chinese schools there are in China, operating and maintaining one today is definitely not an easy “business” to do considering the fierce competition. 
 
“It’s not easy to operate a Chinese school these days because there are too many options for learners and teaching is not an easy thing unless you have passion,” Wang said. “But it could also be a huge opportunity, not only for us, but also for the whole industry, because there must be innovation and you have to improve yourself endlessly in order to survive.” 
 
“I still feel that there is more that I can do to create some positive influence on people around me, by keeping doing what I am doing now,” she said when asked why she was so obsessed with her current career while she could have taken another road. “I’m not only just teaching, but also learning things from my students who have various backgrounds. And that’s something that makes me feel happy.”
 
 
Wang (first row,third from the left) and her students. Photo by courtesy of Wang Li
 
Zero to one
 
Mandarin Pro was officially set up in Beijing in April 2015, with Wang Li being the CEO. While the school now has around 200 foreign students, Wang said it was a process of “from zero to one,” like many other startups. 
 
While Mandarin Pro’s courses mainly target business people and working professionals living in Beijing, there are three most important courses - Zero-to-One, which targets beginners; Business Chinese for those who have specific requirements in workplace; as well as Everyday Spoken Chinese program which helps learners to chat like a local. Beyond that, Mandarin Pro also organizes public speaking events, festival gatherings as well as various cultural events for students.  
 
“The school has a clear vision about how to teach Chinese, with focus in particular on B2B (business-to-Business) relations,” said Peter A. Bootsma, Counselor of Netherlands Embassy, one of Wang’s students since November 2015. “Evidence of this is the organization of public speaking and training events, or partnerships with internationally well-known companies including Audi, Mercedes-Benz and Merck and Embassies.”
 
“We want to, and we have to make something different from other schools. And what we do is to customize our courses in accordance with our students’ schedule and learning needs,” Wang said. 
 
She added that her students come from a lot of different professions, ranging from film industry and business persons, to journalists, professors and ambassadors. But it also means teachers have to endlessly improve their knowledge system and communication skills.
 
“Sometimes, the teachers need four hours to prepare for a one-hour class, and every minute of one class is carefully planned by the teacher beforehand,” she said. 
 
“We have strict requirements for teachers that we hire. There should be no difference in terms of teachers’ abilities between public schools and private schools,” she added. 
 
According to Wang, 80 percent of the teachers in Mandarin Pro have master’s degrees, and among them, 70 percent graduated from overseas universities. Some have worked for Confucius Institute. 
 
While “teaching in accordance with students’ need”, Wang said they have their own text books which are compiled by experienced teachers some of whom used to work for renowned Chinese educator Lv Bisong, the first president of the International Society for Chinese Language Teaching. 
 
“Lots of our students think Chinese characters are too difficult to learn, but as long as there is good methodology, it’s not that hard. What we do is to help students overcome those fears,” she said. 
 
“It really depends on the teachers. It depends on how much these teachers care about their courses and their students. Sometimes teachers need to know how to encourage students to carry on, especially when they want to give up,” she added. 
 
 
Wang (second from right) and her students. Photo by courtesy of Wang
 
Bridging cultures
 
Speaking of her students, Wang feels grateful and proud when those who can already speak Chinese fluently still join their courses. In such cases, what they really want is to know more about Chinese culture, or just making speaking Chinese a habit, according to Wang. 
 
“There is one student in our school wanting to learn Chinese I Ching, one of the oldest Chinese classics, even hard for many native Chinese to understand. And the student is really interested in Chinese culture,” she said. “Of course it’s also a challenge for the teacher.”
 
“To be a Chinese teacher, you have to know about not only the language, but also education, culture, and other knowledge. Being able to speak Chinese and teach Chinese are totally different things.” 
 
Having worked in Mandarin Chinese education area for eight years, Wang said what makes her feel happy is that more and more foreigners are learning Chinese more “actively” than a decade ago, trying to get more involved in the country.
 
“I think this is linked to China’s rapid development and getting stronger in recent years and I believe policies like the Belt and Road Initiative will encourage more Chinese learners around the globe,” she said. 
 
But Wang also said while the demand for learning Chinese will grow, there is also a challenge for the traditional mode of teaching and learning. Normally, one needs to pay more for learning in a traditional educational institution, but it takes much less to learn online. Plus there are so many language apps today. 
 
“That is why we are now considering developing more online training programs for our students not only living in China, but anywhere in the world.” 
 
In 2004, China launched the Confucius Institute concept, as a way of promoting Chinese language and culture abroad. So far, 516 Confucius Institutes have been established in 142 countries and regions, according to China Daily. But a recent report by Center for China & Globalization shows that while demand for learning Chinese around the world is increasing, supply of good Chinese language education resources are still not enough. The Xinhua News Agency reported recently that the country is now also hoping more and more private institutions could engage in Mandarin Chinese education industry. 
 
However, while there are more options for those who want to learn Chinese than ever before, the problem is that foreigners still have no idea in terms of how to find the right place or training program, Wang said, adding that this is the reason why she thinks the brand effect is so important. 
 
“I hope that more people can know Mandarin Pro in the future, and I hope that when people talk about learning Chinese, Mandarin Pro could be the first brand that comes to their mind,” she said. 
 
When asked how to create brand effect, Wang believes the only and most reliable thing is to make good language training programs, regardless of the form. “I think teaching Chinese is much more than just teaching a language. If you are interested in China’s culture and know something about the culture and society, learning language can be both fun and easy,” she said.
 
 
Students of Mandarin Pro are joining a public speech event. Photo by courtesy of Wang Li

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