Live The Language is a private Mandarin school in Beijing built on a philosophy of learning through immersion, and a commitment to community and cultural learning. You immediately sense this strength in ideology from the way founder Andreas Laimboeck speaks about the school. For five weeks in November-December last year, I called LTL home. Here are six things I have to say about the school:
- Price and value
I compared LTL to a few different schools and their rates seemed to be competitive. I have a feeling studying at a Chinese university might be cheaper but at LTL you get what you pay for: Their group classes are small (up to six, usually less), their teachers are experienced, skilful, and really knowledgeable. In hindsight, the only thing I would look closer at is the cost of accommodation.
While I hoped to make friends with locals and experience life beyond the expat bubble, I wanted a school that organised extra-curricular events. LTL seemed to fit this description, and they didn’t disappoint. On the first Monday, they had a welcome breakfast for all new students; later that week, they had a welcome dinner at a fancy Peking duck restaurant and many older students attended just of their own volition! I think that’s a real testament to the strength of the LTL community.
There are many ongoing opportunities to socialise at LTL: You are always connected through their WeChat group, have shared lunch breaks with other classes, and many people stay after class to study more, hang out, or use the internet. (Psst, there are also free beers in the fridge!). The staff, especially Hui and Alex, are always happy to have a chat or give you advice. And you never had any trouble finding people to go out drinking or sightseeing with after class.
LTL students see the school as their base, their safe haven where they build not just their knowledge but their confidence. And Andreas may be the boss, but he’s genuinely interested in knowing how everyone’s going. It made a great impact on me when he took the time to talk to me when I was having one of those ‘F. Chinese!’ days. It’s no wonder so many LTL students talk about coming back one day. In fact, Andreas’s last words to me where “Wenn du wieder nach Peking kommst, meld dich!” (Drop by next time you’re in Beijing!).
LTL offers its students two main accommodation options: homestays and rooms in shared apartments at the nearby Communications University of China. LTL prides itself on the former, and the growing network of homestay families which they have carefully cultivated – Chinese families don’t simply welcome foreigners into their homes, so most of LTL’s homestay families only take on exchange students after seeing their friends or neighbours successfully host one.
The homestay option is, of course, more expensive. It can also mean a longer commute and even a curfew at night, but those who opted for it found the extra Chinese practice challenging and rewarding. I hear they also got meals provided by their families!
LTL’s third option involves their pet project, their outpost in Chengde, Hebei province, two hours north-east of Beijing. Students “live with a Chinese homestay family, study 1-on-1 classes and are fully immersed into Chinese language and culture” (LTL). I only heard positive things about Chengde from students who went there. Something I’d definitely consider for next time, money providing.
In my research, I noticed many other schools actually only offer “assistance” finding accommodation. Whether out of laziness or inexperience, I didn’t want to have to think about where I was going to live so LTL won points with me on this one. I went for a rather budget option, a “small room” at the university, and hoped for the best.
The room turned out to be quite large, actually, and with a big bed and decent storage space. I had to share the bathroom facilities but they were cleaned twice-daily and I was only late to class a couple times because the shower was occupied. The bathroom cabinet and walls looked old and a little grimey but the sink, toilet, and shower were all clean and functional.
What is hit and miss at the student halls are the neighbours – I was the only one out of seven or so other students who made friends with their neighbours. In this way I feel I got a taste of the immersion of a homestay (though still without the homecooked food), as these particular Zhongguoren were really interested in meeting and getting to know a foreigner. They took me to see 798 Art District, on weekend mornings we’d hang out and they’d help me order breakfast, we exchanged customary gifts, and I even visited one of them in the hospital later when he fell ill! I’m excited to one day meet them in their home province of Xinjiang.
- Teaching style
LTL offers both group and one-on-one classes (or a combination of both). I chose group classes which was four hours a day with an hour for lunch (10:00-15:00). We focused mainly on conversational Chinese (口语), but also dedicated a good deal of time to learning characters (汉字). After explaining new material to us, the teacher would commonly ask us all to write our own sentences using the new grammar point or structure. One student would then read theirs aloud, the next would repeat and translate it, then read their example out, and so on.
There were only three students in my class, an American, a Brit, and an Australian (me). Even with such a small class, group dynamics was always going to be a stumbling block. I found it really difficult joining the class. Mainly because they were already halfway through the textbooks and were therefore prepped on a lot of the vocabulary while, for me, it was all new.
Besides this, we all had different levels of knowledge and experience, were learning for different reasons, and had different priorities and learning styles. The American had lived in China before and had an amazing vocabulary but frustratingly inaccurate tones, and seemed to spend a lot of her time studying rather than sightseeing or socialising. The Brit was living in Beijing as an expat and so was focused on fostering a rounded and sustainable lifestyle there – she didn’t spend much time studying outside of class. And, as I’ve touched on before, I was splitting myself up to pursue five main goals in my short time in the city. I’m also a bit of a stickler when it comes to pronunciation.
After a week or so of stress and frustration getting to grips with the textbooks, the homework, and the class’s rhythm and flow, I ended up going on the straight and narrow. When I had to produce and read out my example sentences, I tried to take the pressure off by sticking to vocabulary I was already familiar with, knowing my vocabulary was being pushed to expand in all directions anyway. I suppose I also went into my shell a bit. I stopped listening to the American’s and Brit’s examples because I didn’t want the extra stress of deciphering their pronunciation or the unknown words they used.
In the end, the stress probably pushed me to try harder and forced me to adapt. After working through my baptism of fire I had my big a-ha moment and things began falling into place. After my vocabulary had grown somewhat I began speaking up again. I also enjoyed a stroke of luck when the American had to go home and the Brit decided to drop down a level – I had one-on-one lessons for the price of group classes for the final two weeks! One-on-one lessons were excellent. I was able to ask a lot more questions that applied to me and what I wanted to learn, and improved my conversation skills a lot.
- Would I recommend LTL? Would I go back?
I had a great time in Beijing, and a huge part of that came down to LTL. I would definitely recommend them because I rate their teachers highly, and value their commitment to community. I would really like to go back to China one day and whether I went back to LTL to study would just depend on my circumstances (work, time etc). If I did ever study in LTL again I’d most likely stick to one-on-one classes, and try to go to Chengde.
Final words: I know I will never be able to convey everything I experienced in Beijing but I hope I have given you some idea of what it was like. If you missed it earlier, I encourage you to watch this video. It’s an interview with Andreas Laimboeck by Huan Cao of China Daily, who does a series called “Laowai not” (Laowai means “foreigner” in Mandarin). He speaks about his philosophy on learning Chinese and his motivations for founding LTL.
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