“Learning Mandarin Can Be Humbling”

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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