This is a blog post written by Max Hobbs, an English native who recently made the big leap to China to take part in the Intensive Immersion program at LTL Mandarin School in Beijing and Chengde. LTL are strong believers in immersing their students into Chinese culture, which fits in well with their slogan, to learn the language you have to live the language. Max travelled to China with zero knowledge of Mandarin. Below he talks us through his story, and how Hello Chinese is helping him with everyday life.
Make no mistake, the culture shock really does exist. Making the leap from the West to China is one that you’ll never forget. Foreigners all over the world who have made the same leap have stories a plenty to tell about this unique country.
First and foremost, Chinese and English have zero similarities, as you’d expect. Therefore, when you start to learn Mandarin, you start from scratch and that applies to most languages that are spoken. Everything is new and things can be difficult at the start when you don’t have the help of a local. That in itself is a challenge to relish and enjoy. It makes it all the more rewarding when you start to crack the language and HelloChinese has played a big part in my personal journey with China and the language.
The Program and the School
LTL’s Immersion program really struck a chord with me. I’m all for learning languages but the ability to be thrown into an unfamiliar environment was really appealing. Sure, on the face of it this sounds tough but I was really sold by the timeframe in which I could achieve my goals. Let’s be honest I could take Chinese lessons anywhere in the World but you can’t replicate the experience of immersion in anywhere but China.
The Immersion Program allows me to live with a Chinese family also, so whether I’m in the classroom, or at home I’m speaking Chinese. I was based in Beijing originally and then moved onto Chengde. The latter is where the challenges really came thick and fast. No English, no foreigners, just “proper China”. You always had to find a way of breaking down the language barrier, and you do every time, it just takes persistence.
The App itself – HelloChinese
Hello Chinese was the first Chinese Learning App I downloaded just before I came to China. I wanted to try and give myself some sort of head start. This was useful for me and the app was easy to navigate, simple to use and incredibly resourceful.
What I’ve found so useful about HelloChinese is its flexibility. Whereas some apps I see focus on just pinyin, others writing, others reading, HelloChinese covers it all. One minute you are recognising characters, the next you are tasked with a multiple choice pinyin question, and the next you are writing out characters yourself.
HelloChinese challenges you on a number of factors which include the following:
- Fill in the blanks
- Multiple choice picture questions
- Multiple choice pinyin questions
- Arrange the Sentence
- Stroke order
- Audio Questions
All these combined do a fine job in building up your knowledge of Chinese. Sentence structure, for me, is something that I’d found difficult in my earlier days studying Mandarin. The order, at times, was the complete opposite to English, HelloChinese offers plenty of opportunities to get it right and the way the App works means it drills it into your head, but not in a tedious and dull way. In a way that actually makes learning the language fun, anything but a chore.
A feature I’ve really started to warm to of late is the audio questions. You are told to speak for a various number of questions and this really helps you keep your tones in check. It’s very easy to ignore the tones and just focus on the vocabulary. Do not do this. Tones are absolutely essential and one of the first things you should crack. You might not be anywhere near perfect early on, but stick at it. They are genuinely defining when learning the language and you should aim to get them nailed down right from the beginning. It takes time, but they simply cannot be ignored.
General life in China
Life in China is very different to back home. I come from a small town called Cheltenham which inhabits not far over 120,000 people. Chengde is considered small by Chinese standards and hosts over 4 times that number. Beijing, of course isn’t remotely comparable to even Chengde let alone Cheltenham!
I find life very busy here. There are always activities going on, always something to do or something to learn. Time is valuable over here. I see exactly why people are so connected to their Mobile Devices in China. Spare time is minimal so any “alone time” is precious. A lot of this for me tends to be when on the move, travelling in a taxi or most commonly the Metro.
The Metro is where I predominantly used Hello Chinese in Beijing. The commute allows for valuable “free time” which cannot be bought. It’s valuable and I use every second I can to drill home as much of the Chinese Language as possible. It works a treat and I’d advise the same to anyone else. If you have a commute, use it wisely. Likewise, set your alarm 30 minutes earlier and start the day, whilst your mind is clear and fresh, on the app. Little windows of time that aren’t so crucial in England, are hugely important here in my experience. Even more so when you want to learn the language as quickly as possible.
Learning Chinese at the school is all good and well, but in Beijing especially, it’d be so easy to take your foot off the gas. I see it with other students. Speak 4 hours in lessons then revert to the native language for the rest of the day. This isn’t immersion for me. Immersion is 24/7 communication (or near enough that). Push yourself to the limit. Use the lesson time, then use your commute, meet people, talk to taxi drivers, join a basketball game, drink with the locals. It might sound bizarre but they welcome you with open arms. In the West perhaps this wouldn’t be so easy but they are so welcoming of foreigners who take an interest in their culture and language.
Obviously it depends on you as a person, doing all of the above isn’t something that appeals to all, but squeezing as much into a busy life as possible will mean you bare great results when the experience is over.
Making the Move
In terms of making a similar move to China, don’t have any fear. Make the leap. This is a very unique country. I’ve been lucky enough to travel to many parts of the world but China offers something completely different. The place is so diverse, so different, yet so fascinating. If you have any doubts do not let them strike fear into you. It’s a big decision to make for sure, but come out the other side and you’ll look back on it with such fond memories. It’s by no means a bed of roses here. Some days can be awkward and frustrating but you have to be open minded with the culture. Things will be busy, food will be different, people will spit on the street a few metres from you. Take it in your stride and embrace the positive aspects of the nation. The rich history, the incredible scenery and the friendly locals.
There is absolutely no doubt you will enjoy life more here by pushing yourself out your comfort zone and striving to learn the language in every situation possible. It’ll feel so incredibly rewarding when everything just clicks, and you can say to yourself, “I did it”.